Manchester United have started the season as though they’re looking to prove a point. José Mourinho’s men sit top of the Premier League having won four of their five matches, scoring 16 goals in the process.
Granted, they haven’t played the toughest of opposition just yet – West Ham United, Swansea City, Leicester City, Stoke City and an underwhelming Everton side – but you can only beat what’s put in front of you. And United have swept them all aside with relative ease.
It’s a far cry from the team who scored just four more goals than Crystal Palace and one fewer than Bournemouth last season.
They finished 32 goals behind Spurs, the top scorers in the Premier League last term with 86, despite the fact Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 17 in his debut league campaign with the club – the seventh highest return in the league.
Mourinho started his rebuild at Old Trafford with the defence. After all, it’s easier to build on solid foundations. They conceded just 29 goals last term, the second lowest in the league behind only Spurs.
The manager was vocal in the press about wanting to bring in more players this summer having missed out on long-term transfer target Ivan Perisic. However, the majority of those who did arrive have found their feet immediately.
Romelu Lukaku looks as though he’s been leading the United line for a number of years and Nemanja Matic has struck up an understanding in midfield with Paul Pogba that has left many looking on enviously.
Victor Lindelof needs more time but fortunately for the Red Devils Phil Jones has stepped up alongside Eric Bailly at the heart of the defence. Gareth Southgate, who knows a thing or two about defending, has claimed that Jones is the best English defender. That shows how much he’s come on over recent months after a disappointing 2016/17 campaign.
Can two players have that much of a positive impact on the starting XI? And, more importantly, is this sort of form sustainable in the long-term?
Comparing 2016/17 to 2017/18
The sample size for 2017/18 is limited but the difference between the two seasons is noticeable. For example, the team are creating 3.9 more chances per game than they were last season (15.6 to 11.9).
The Red Devils ranked fourth in the Premier league for chances created last season with 447, behind only Tottenham Hotspur (504), Liverpool (496) and Manchester City (482), although they are eighth when it came to goals scored (54).
An even more damning statistic is that United’s conversion rate of 13 per cent ranked them 17th in the English top fight, ahead of only Sunderland (11.6 per cent), Middlesbrough (11.3 per cent) and Southampton (10.7 per cent).
By way of comparison, league leaders Chelsea scored 20.9 per cent of their shots last season, and the divisional average conversion rate was 15.6 per cent
This season they’ve scored 16 of their 36 shots on target giving them a conversion rate of close to 45 per cent. It’s not sustainable but it doesn’t have to be for United to keep on winning.
Lukaku’s conversion rate of 30 per cent is up from 22.72 per cent, meaning he requires fewer attempts to score than Ibrahimovic who finished last season with a rate of 20 per cent.
Another interesting observation, which shows Mourinho’s men grow into games, is that 75 per cent of their goals this season have come in the second half compared to the 50 per cent of last season.
The Red Devils are also more of a set piece threat this term having already scored three goals via this route. Last term they scored ten in the Premier League throughout the whole campaign. Mourinho, in one summer, has managed to give his team more of a skeleton key identity. They’re able to score a variety of ways and are no longer reliant on just the one player.
It’s quite a frightening prospect on paper. They can outplay you, soak up pressure and hit you on the counter, play a more direct style or do damage with set pieces. They’ve been scarily efficient and in theory may only get better as the season progresses.
And while their conversion rate definitely isn’t sustainable over a 38-game season, in the three games so far this season the quality of chances they’ve created matches up with their goal return. Their expected goals (xG) across the three games in total is 14.56 and United have found the back of the net on 16 occasions.
At the rate they’re currently scoring they’re on course to score over 120 goals in the league. It will almost certainly not happen but if they continue playing the way they are, they will almost certainly be in the title mix.
It’s the perfect storm for Mourinho and his players. Matic’s arrival frees up Pogba, who is seemingly relishing the opportunity to have more of an influence in the final third, with two goals so far. The Serbian himself is making more interceptions this season in the oppositions half which automatically gives United the chance to counter.
Lukaku’s pace and intelligent movement is the spark the forward line needed. Last season it often felt like Ibrahimovic FC whereas the Belgian is bringing others into the game while doing everything the Swede could do, too.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s start to the season has a gone a little under the radar. In the five games so far he’s already created three quarters of the amount of chances he created throughout the entire 2016/17 season.
Then on the left there’s been Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, who has a point to prove and has made a real impact when he has been on the pitch this term. Martial’s two goals were superbly taken and with the bit between his teeth he’s one to watch as he challenges Rashford for a starting berth.
It will be interesting to watch events unfold as the season progresses but this United squad may well turn out to be Mourinho’s most balanced team yet.