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Second place and a cup final, but are United progressing?

 • by Ryan Baldi
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José Mourinho will head off for his summer holiday with the contentment of a job fairly well done this season, having guided Manchester United to their highest league finish in five years, falling just short of placing a cherry on top in the form of the FA Cup, narrowly defeated by Chelsea at Wembley.

The former Real Madrid and Inter Milan boss will perhaps allow himself to switch off for a few weeks, taking in the World Cup with his feet up, allowing the money men to do his bidding, undoubtedly having furnished United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward with his list of preferred transfer targets.

An FA Cup final and a four-place leap up the table from last term’s sixth-position finish certainly points toward the kind of progress Mourinho promised upon taking the reins at Old Trafford in June 2016, and represents an acceptable return of United’s significant transfer market investment of the last 24 months – just.

Everything seems to be moving in the right direction for United. But everything isn’t always as it seems.

There have certainly been triumphs worth celebrating for the Red Devils this season, on many levels. Of course, FA Cup runners-up and being the best of the rest behind runaway Premier League champions Manchester City is a relatively credit-worthy end to the campaign.

There is also the case of United’s renewed resolve; producing come-from-behind victories against Crystal Palace and City which showed the kind of undying fight that was once their trademark, yet seemed to have diminished irrevocably in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

On an individual level, there have been resurgent, consistent performances from Ashley Young, reimagined as a left-back; Nemanja Matić, a £40million signing from Chelsea, settled well; Romelu Lukaku met expectations and lived up to his £75million price tag with 27 goals; Jesse Lingard continued to emerge as a key figure, and fellow academy graduate Scott McTominay impressed with his tactical maturity at 21.

United’s 81-point haul, despite leaving them a distant second to City’s Centurions, matches Leicester City‘s title-winning return of two seasons ago, and betters five previous Premier League champions – including the Old Trafford Treble winners of 1998/99.

But for every positive United can glean from their 2017/18 campaign, there is at least one negative to temper thoughts of an imminent return to the glory days of the increasingly distant past.

For all the players currently thriving, there are those who are struggling to convince under Mourinho: left-back Luke Shaw remains marginalised and likely to depart; Paul Pogba‘s role continues to lack definition; Anthony Martial seems to be reeling from having to make way for January signing Alexis Sánchez, despite his fine form up to that point; and, although Mourinho will point to the number of appearances he has made, Marcus Rashford’s minutes per Premier League outing this season (51.7) is down from last term (53.21).

There is a dichotomous split between those trusted and performing under Mourinho and the players yet to find their rhythm, too. United’s consistent deliverers tend to be those who operate best with a conservative remit, while the flair players, the ones capable of the moments of magic traditionally valued highly at Old Trafford, have struggled or been marginalised – Lingard, in fairness, straddles both categories.

A connected point that has been a bone of contention for many United supporters is the uninspiring style of play currently espoused at the Theatre of Dreams. Renowned as the ultimate pragmatist, no one was under any illusions that Mourinho would bring with him swashbuckling, expansive play when he took over from Louis van Gaal, who himself had the Manchester side playing drab, toothless football.

But there was a hope, considering the investment in attacking talent, that the path to results of least resistance – which is what Mourinho, as a pragmatist, seeks – would be one of a more offensive style. Aside from a smattering of four-goal hauls earlier in the season, that has not been the case.

Conservatism will be tolerated as long as results are strong and trophies captured, which, with a Europa League and League Cup, has certainly been the case for United under Mourinho. And winning silverware, for many, is the essence of football – it’s about achievement and glory – and every triumph must be celebrated.

When analysing progress, though, and whether this season points towards positive future prospects for United, the process of how those results have been achieved must be studied; where stand does not necessarily tell you much about the direction you are moving in.

Last season, United finished sixth in the Premier League, scoring 54 goals and conceding 29. This term, they came second, scored 68 and conceded 28. Positive increases, but these facts tell us only about the ‘what’, rather than the ‘how’.

Looking at the underlying numbers tells a different story. The expected goals (xG) metric is mistrusted by many, but there is no better measure of general chance quality obtained and allowed by a team over the course of a season.

This season, United mustered a total xG of 60.62; last term’s was 60.21. So, they have created more as less as many chances/as high a quality of chance, only this term they have scored more efficiently.

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Defensively, the chance quality United have given up this season is worrying. They have conceded chances worth a total xG of 44.4, against last season’s total of just 25.51. For a team built on defensive foundations, conservative in their approach, they appear to have regressed in their area of perceived strength.

United have improved with the ball this season, averaging longer spells of possession, and progressing the ball further up the pitch when they have it, yet they have stagnated creatively and have taken fewer shots this term compared to last.

Of course, these figures alone, without context, can be misleading. But anyone who has witnessed United this season will be able to contextualise them. Regular observers will have noted that they are finishing more ruthlessly now, with Lukaku leading the line as opposed to Zlatan Ibrahimović, who led the Premier League for big chances missed in 2016/17.

They will also notice that David de Gea has further cemented his reputation as the best shot-stopping goalkeeper in the world this season, owing largely to the increased opportunity he has had to showcase his skills thanks to the proliferation of shots he has faced and saved, hence the statistical defensive drop-off.

Some have suggested United are “lucky” to have finished second in the league this season in light of their general performance levels and statistical under-perfromance, but all their points have been earned, their chances taken.

When it comes to assessing whether they are making genuine progress, however, we must ask whether their current level of achievement is repeatable given the methods employed. To that end, the jury is still out.

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