In the previous Data Rant column, midfield was identified as key area for Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. It is not simply about strengthening a weak area in United’s squad – the analysis suggest that improving the Reds’ midfield will improve the team’s goalscoring too.
First we look at the four teams that finished above United last season; Leicester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. The attacking attributes – goals, shots, assists, chances created and runs – of midfielders who played more than 25 games have been amalgamated into a per game, per player figure.
In this analysis United’s group of midfielders – Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera – significantly lag behind the leaders. Yet, instead of a Moneyball approach of simply buying statistics, United has to bring in top players to replace the mediocre ones. Mourinho could do with at least two world class players to bring figures up to scratch.
It is interesting that Nemanja Matic continues to be linked to an Old Trafford move. Schneiderlin recorded no assist last season and contributed little offensively. The Serbian midfielder, on the other hand, offers a more comprehensive package, despite seemingly doing little but looking after Cesc Fabregas.
Leicester’s N’Golo Kante is king when it comes to attacking statistics from a defensive midfielder. Of defensive midfielders that make at least as many tackles and defensive actions per game as Schneiderlin, (limiting the list to “obtainable” players – Sergio Busquets probably don’t want to leave Barcelona) Kante offers the most complete package.
Turning to targetable creative central midfielders and wingers, Napoli’s Marek Hamsik and Riyad Mahrez at Leiceister rank highly in the data, together with Everton’s Ross Barkley. Hamsik and Barkley, in particular, would fit well in Mourinho’s 4-3-3 system, much as Frank Lampard succeeded under the Portuguese manager.
Out wide, Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be an ideal purchase in terms of numbers, which is interesting given that United is brazenly pursuing the Borussia Dortmund midfielder. Mkhitaryan’s 11 goals, 82 chances created and 15 assists last season would go a lot towards curing United’s midfield blues.
While the data suggests a recruitment strategy, there is never a guarantee that players from foreign leagues settle in perfectly. Still, just two players would make United’s midfield above average and ‘top-four’ in terms of theoretical quality.
Where it leaves the current crop is another question. Mata is by far United’s best midfielder when it comes to the date – the Spaniard fares favourably with top midfielders in the Premier League. The history between the Spaniard and the Portuguese manager notwithstanding, it would surprise few should Mata remain at Old Trafford and lock down a regular role.
With that said, Mkhitaryan mainly plays on the right and Chelsea’s Willian, though his numbers are lower than the Armenian winger’s. continues to be the subject of speculation. Should either arrive it is hard to see a role for Mata on the right.
Mourinho is a far more flexible as a manager than many give him credit for, but Ander Herrera or even Maroune Fellaini might be a better fit tactically than Mata. If a more complete defensive midfielder is not truly necessary, Mourinho probably has the funds to push for Mata’s replacement.
It is also true that Mourinho is not opposed to the idea of using a number 10. Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Ozil blossomed under the new United manager’s guidance, and while Mata was forced out during Mourinho’s second reign at Chelsea, Cesc Fabregas is hardly known for his tactical discipline. Arsene Wenger used him in the hole, Barcelona couldn’t use the Spaniard in central midfield, and Spain turned him into a forward. Mata may very well survive and be given a central role.