Manchester United’s struggles against weaker opposition
United’s glaring weakness last season was supposedly their inability to see off opposition who really should not have left Old Trafford with anything other than a hiding, though their record against the rest of the top six was hardly anything to brag about either, with Jose Mourinho’s team taking only 12 points from 36 available against the other top-four contenders.
But you could understand Mourinho being cagey against that type of opposition, especially away from home. Their ten home draws, half of which came against bottom-half finishers, were rather more baffling. Burnley, Bournemouth, Hull, Swansea, Stoke, West Brom and West Ham all left Old Trafford with a point they all viewed as a bonus. Almost all of those games followed the same pattern: wave after wave of United attacks; wasteful finishing; and at least five keepers who enjoyed the game of their lives. United missed more big chances (50) than anyone else in the Premier League, with only the three relegated teams and Southampton ‘boasting’ a worse shot conversion rate than the Red Devils’ 12 per cent.
This season, with Romelu Lukaku leading from the front and others chipping in around him, it’s already very different. United have the highest shot conversion rate (24 per cent) in the Premier League. They are already 30 per cent of the way to matching last season’s goals output. Their new-found ruthlessness has seen West Ham and Everton leave Old Trafford in a very different mood compared to their last visit, while Leicester and Swansea have also seen at first hand the difference between this season and last. Even during the draw at Stoke, it was their usually solid defence that let them down, not the profligacy that become their hallmark last year.
Manchester City’s full-backs
Manchester City threw plenty of money at the problem, but £130million has certainly fixed it. The performances of Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy have highlighted just how much Pep Guardiola was hampered by the full-backs available to him last season.
Pablo Zabeleta, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Aleksandar Kolarov all represented City with distinction over recent years but Guardiola’s intent was clear from the start of the close season, when all four 30-somethings were shown the door. In their place came Walker and Mendy for around £50million apiece and Danilo for just over half that amount.
Unsurprisingly, the energy and pace offered down the flanks has given City a new dimension that the veteran quartet simply could not provide. Guardiola explained his thinking after the 6-0 demolition of Watford on Saturday: “They have huge energy to go up and it stretches our play and means we can have more players in the middle to do the short passes. I like our passes to be three, four, five or six metres, no more than that. It gives us continuity. We create spaces in behind and you need players in those positions. Without these signings it would have been more complicated.”
Of course, the full-backs may have a different role to play against their title rivals and deeper into the Champions League, where it may not be quite so wise to leave centre-halves so exposed, especially when one of them is Nicolas Otamendi. But Walker and Mendy certainly offer City far greater flexibility than Guardiola enjoyed in his first season in charge.
Stoke’s resilience against the big hitters
This is the Potters’ 10th consecutive season in the top flight, during which time they forged a reputation for not caring about reputations. The bigger the club, the harder they fell, especially in the bearpit at the Britannia.
That fear factor disappeared almost completely last season. Under Mark Hughes, they finished in the bottom half after three seasons in ninth place, failing to beat any of the top sides. Were it not for a final-day 1-0 win at Southampton, they would have failed to win against any of the teams in the top half.
Against the top six, they took three points from 36, thanks to a couple of draws against Man Utd and a 0-0 at City. In half of those dozen games, they shipped four goals, leading to a total of 33 goals conceded. As a minimum, Stoke are usually hard to beat. For the big hitters last season, they were a pushover.
The preliminary evidence suggests Hughes has taken steps to rectify that. Five games in, they remain where they finished last season – 13th – but most encouragingly, they shut out Arsenal while taking three points off the Gunners – a meeting they used to relish. They also continued their hoodoo over Manchester United, being the only team to take points off Mourinho’s men, who pose a much greater threat than last year. Hughes and Stoke still have numerous issues to resolve but making the Potters a persistent pain for the top clubs once again would certainly earn the manager some respite.
Having shut-out Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday evening, Paul Clement and his defence were Daniel Storey’s early winner this weekend. Spurs had 75 per cent possession but the Swans frustrated their hosts to earn their third clean sheet in five games.
“We only had a bad spell defending against Man United in the last 10 minutes. Other than that, we have looked pretty solid,” said keeper Lukasz Fabianski after keeping out Tottenham. “You can clearly see that defensively we are okay.”
Clement has made good on a promise he made when he was appointed to make Swansea more defensively organised. Prior to his arrival, they conceded 44 goals in the first half of last season – an average of 2.3 goals per game. That fell to 1.36 per game during the second half of the campaign, and this year, aside from a daft final 10 minutes against Man Utd, they have appeared even more solid.
The Swans boss hasn’t thrown vast sums at the problem. Indeed, Clement has invested most heavily in his attack and the defence he fielded at Wembley was made up of players he inherited. “With the players that I’ve currently got, I think I can get them more organised,” he said upon taking over. The fact Swansea haven’t conceded an away goal in the Premier League since the end of April further enhances Clement’s reputation as one of the best coaches around.
Watford goalscoring concerns
The Hornets could have moved to the top-flight summit for only the second time in their history on Saturday. Unfortunately for Marco Silva, they came up against a ruthless Manchester City side who fancied the top spot themselves. But despite the manager claiming their start has been “nothing special”, Silva’s Watford have certainly made a positive early impression.
Their success has been built upon an improvement at both ends. Prior to the weekend thrashing, they had kept three consecutive clean sheets, combining that with greater ruthlessness at the other end.
At the end of last season, a failure to score in all but one of their last six matches – their goals came in a 4-3 defeat to an under-strength, perhaps hungover Chelsea side – led to a slide that saw Watford finish just above the drop zone. They were shut out in 15 matches altogether, with only three players (Troy Deeney 10, Etienne Capoue 6, Stefano Okaka 3) scoring more than two goals.
Deeney and record-signing Andre Gray have yet to net this term, but others are stepping up. The Hornets also appear to have been working on their finishing in pre-season. They rank 13th for the number of shots attempted so far, which is a marginal improvement on last season when they were 14th, but where they were 15th for shot conversion rate, now only the two Manchester clubs and Leicester have been more efficient.
Well done, Marco.