Manchester United are not in an overall crisis, not just yet. True, this year represents quite likely the third consecutive season without a title and the team are currently involved in a three way tussle for the final Champions league spot. However, there is a crisis of narrower focus but with major implications. There is a crisis of creativity and creation. What always loomed as something we noticed but never got around to caring enough about during the season of Moyes can no longer be ignored.

One matter to consider – Different Philosophy

It is true that Louis van Gaal has imprinted his own philosophy on the club, successful or not. The more methodical build-up with more of a focus on ball retention than United’s usual frantic, wing heavy play has received its fair share of criticism. With the right personnel it could work. However, one massive area of weakness is what United do once the play reaches the 18 yard box. Often players look devoid of ideas as to how to create anything meaningful. This mostly leads to rotating possession amongst the main attacking options followed eventually by a hopeful and often wasteful pass or a recycling of possession to restart the attack through a succession of backward passes. The team as a whole does not play more back passes than any other at 1.64 forward passes to each back pass.  Let’s compare a few teams of note to this Manchester United team.   

Green – most favourable, Red – least favourable                                                                                                                                                                                                  All statistics courtesy of Squawka.

The tendency of Man United to play comparatively high number of back passes is evident. This by itself is not a bad thing. Two clear patterns emerge from this data: top Premier league teams are much more direct and top European teams recycle possession through back passes more. This is the pattern emerging with this van Gaal team. Does it work in this league? It can with more quality to take advantage of possession. Also paramount is the efficiency with which possession translates to chances created, shots, and eventually goals. This is where Man United lags behind and where Juan Mata’s and other creative players’ under-performance comes to the fore.

Green – most favourable, Red – least favourable                                                                                                                                                                                                                   While his stats under David Moyes are not represented here, they were not far behind his numbers at Chelsea and streets ahead of his two years as a van Gaal player. They are as follows: almost 2.5 shots per game, 0.85 goals + assists per 90, 2.83 chances created per 90, 63.88 successful passes, 22.57 successful passes to every chance created, and 1.21 forward passes to every back pass.

This Man United season ranks last from our eleven teams in chances created, coming once every successful pass. Only PSG make more passes for a created chance. However, their complete domestic dominance will skew this as a lot of these passes don’t need to be particularly decisive. Only Barcelona come somewhat close and they also dominate their opponents to an extent that this doesn’t indict them. Just compare to the other English teams, Leicester City, Man City, and Arsenal create chances far more efficiently which is strong indictment on this Man United team although not yet fully evident. Of note, this ratio has significantly worsened in the three years compared here for Man United.

Telling again is the amount of shots Man United attempt. Again, they rank last and below the counterattacking Leicester who have a far lower share of possession than other high performing teams listed. This number has declined in each year compared for Man United. This is certainly something highlighted in many circles and the data proves just how bad it is. The next dagger in van Gaal’s United’s heart is goals scored which ranks last at just over 1.3 per game. This is pedestrian – and quite frankly – embarrassing for such an expensively assembled team. The two goals per game team is gone. Shots-per-goal has also worsened in every year, although Man City, Arsenal, and Juventus have been more inefficient in this regard. Man City’s main culprits have been Yaya Touré, David Silva, and Wilfred Bony. Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio stand out for Juventus and for Arsenal, unsurprisingly, Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have the worst shots-to-goals ratios.

Finally, the last and most encompassing stat shows Man United scoring a goal for every 324.3 passes. Even the high-volume passing teams, PSG, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich, far outstrip Man United here. Leicester City score a goal every 136.4 passes. Sir Alex’s 2012/13 team scored a goal for every 192.9 passes.

One overriding theme is that Man United have regressed in all these crucial attacking metrics over van Gaal’s tenure and in comparison to the last Sir Alex Man United. That team was not particularly creative or dominant. This is where we finally come to the little Spaniard.

Not Wonderful

Now we draw attention to the chief creators for the Champions League contending English teams. Mata’s figures are glaring, one for the how poorly they stack up against the rest and two for how poorly it reads against his previous years. One contextualiser to note for Man United is that Wayne Rooney has played in what can be considered the playmaker’s position in roughly a quarter of his matches – although much of the creative burden is often his regardless and Ander Herrera has played there roughly 40% of the time and has run the gamut from there to defensive midfield.

Still, a few things are illuminant. Man United’s back pass syndrome extends to Rooney. Mata is overall the next worst offender and he has played more back passes than forward the last two seasons. This is in stark contrast to his last proper season at Chelsea where he ranked amongst the best in our comparison. The progression of his Man United career is beginning to resemble his Chelsea career, and this is the worst bit. The worst bit being cast aside by Jose Mourinho for the more defensively inclined Oscar. That was a low point. The trajectory of his performances suggests that had he had fierce competition at Man United he would have fought the going equally as difficult. He hasn’t been terrible, but he could be much, much better. Overall, the sheer weight of his passing is expected which is less than the architects, Özil and Silva, but more than Eriksen and the rest. Again, making more back passes than forward is nothing on its own. It’s the resultant translation to chances created and ultimately to goals (for Man United) which is lacking.

Green - Most favourable, Red - Least favourable
Green – most favourable, Red – least favourable

Chance creation is where the main grouse lies with Mata. Some must be the more patient game and the system not seeming to suit him as was initially expected. On the right side he now does more defensive work as is evident in his defensive stats such as tackles but his chance creation is limited. He does have a free role on that right side but what cannot be overlooked is the added defensive responsibility on the right which was the major sticking point in his final Chelsea days and what ultimately meant that Jose Mourinho would prefer the Brazilian, Oscar. He does not possess the ability to directly take on a player and beat him for pace, and often accedes to the van Gaal method of recycling with a back pass from way out wide. His dynamism comes into question but even so, from right or central, the low chance creation is worrying. It’s both a player problem and a team problem.

More detailed analysis on where his chance creation originates from shows that 23.7% come from in the 18 yard box, 39.5% comes from the central third outside the 18 yard box, 10.5% from the centre third portion even further away from the goal, and most interesting 10.6% combined along the right side of the pitch. This means that 23.7% comes from the box, 50% from central positions not in the box, and just 10% from the right side. Whenever he does create is when he moves inside from the right and he is little of a threat from the wider position itself. Why not have Mata begin where he is most effectual in the first place? Only experts know.

Has Mata justified his price tag thus far? We can’t say so based on his output and for what he was expected to bring to the club. He creates just about a half of what he did in 2012/13 at Chelsea. That’s what Man United bought. Eriksen, Silva, Özil, and Payet more than double his paltry tally which is disconcerting. Mahrez, playing on a team with considerably less possession also from the right side, has created marginally more than Mata. His 16 goals and 11 assists are nothing to scoff at either. Finally, in terms of successful passes to chances created, Mata is only ahead of Herrera. At least his failings can be rationalized. Mata’s failings cannot be. His numbers are dwarfed by all others on display, particularly the impressive Payet and Mahrez, Eriksen, and the supreme Özil.

Of course, there are more than one underlying factors which make for these damning stats for both Man United and Juan Mata. The far less than ideal execution of a flawed and out-of-place philosophy by a team, the overly lax chance creation, overall lack of quality in key attacking positions, injury, and team selection come to mind. However, it matters not at the end of the day once we factor in Mata’s price tag and what others have done, sometimes with fewer resources in the form of personnel in support. It matters not when Mata is in the team as Man United’s answer to Silva and Özil. That his decline in productivity somewhat mirrors Man United’s own decline in these same areas shows his importance to the United machinery and just how poorly van Gaal’s United measures up offensively to England’s best, Europe’s elite, and to previous Man United teams.

Juan Mata wordplay temptation avoided.