So another international break is upon us, and despite some dissatisfaction in many quarters with the style of football we are playing, Louis van Gaal and his pragmatic, possession-based style have the club in fourth place – and a mere two points off the top.
United have a league-best eight clean sheets and the lowest goals against record. We’ve also scored the fewest goals of the top five teams chasing the Premier League title, which has been a bone of contention during the last handful of matches.
What’s also interesting about our season record so far is that it seems to have been broken into three distinct sections.
- The opening three matches where we kept clean sheets, but struggled to score.
- A middle section of five matches where we scored ten, but lost twice – including the spanking we received at the Emirates.
- The last four league matches have also been all clean sheets, but aside from the Everton result goals have been hard to come by again.
While I believe a title challenge is obviously within our grasp in what can only be classed as an ‘unusual’ top flight season, the new focus on keeping goals out is something not seen in these parts for some time. United have usually been the sexy, gallivanting team in years past – not the one who puts steely defence above all.
Is this a case of a manager cutting his coat to fit the cloth? Is it easier to build from the back when you have a world-class goalkeeper on the books and not much in the way of attacking talent? Van Gaal has complained more than once that he does not have the type of attackers he wants, so perhaps he feels he has no choice but to focus on the back line in order to deliver the results he has promised.
One thing is for sure, this team looks like scoring fewer goals than the year before for the third season in a row while at the same time driving the goals against number lower. Let’s take a look at the last few seasons to see the evolution of United’s tactical focus.
- 2012/13 – United’s last title-winning season, managed by Sir Alex. We score 86, 11 more than third-placed Chelsea – but our 43 conceded is the worst in the top 4.
- 2013/14 – The Moyes/Giggs season saw the Red Devils finish seventh. We scored 64 in a season that saw #1 Man City and #2 Liverpool both score more than 100. We were sixth in goal difference.
- 2014/15 – Season one of the LVG era saw us finish fourth in the table, fourth in offence and fourth in goals for. Nothing like consistency.
- 2015/16 – I’ve projected the 12-game numbers to a full 38-game season. At this pace, MUFC will only score 54 goals, and given some of our lacklustre attacking play this is not out of the realm of possibility if we don’t reinforce. Meanwhile, the projected 25 goals against would be a remarkable achievement. The lowest of the past three complete seasons, in fact.
Regardless the reason, having the best defence in the Premier League is no guarantee of lifting the trophy.
In the last three complete campaigns, the advantage belongs to the free-scoring sides – with United in 12/13 and City in 13/14 top scoring and winning the title. Last season’s Chelsea squad are the last team to have the best defence and win it all – and they allowed 32 goals.
Now, imagine what happens if we can keep up the rock steady ‘D’ and add some more goals! Louis may have the last laugh after all…