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Are Manchester United back to their jammy title-winning best?

Leaky defence? Check. Clinical from few chances? Check. Here's why Louis van Gaal's Red Devils are bothering the title-chasers again...

by Amy Eustace | December 23, 2014

Manchester United have begun to eke out wins despite some sub-par performances, but don’t call it a comeback – they’ve been doing it for years. Despite a blip at Villa Park, their climb up the table harks back to the lucky United of old.

I’m a sceptic when it comes to fortune’s role in football. But, if we accept the hypothesis that you make your own luck, whether through persistence or overly optimistic through-balls, it seems that Manchester United have remembered how to make theirs.

Louis van Gaal’s first few months in the Old Trafford hot seat were no fairy tale. His first away win came at the Emirates in early December. Before the six match winning streak his United side embarked on following a defeat to Manchester City, they lagged in lowly 10th – 13 points off title favourites Chelsea.

Fast forward a few games and United look back to their old self. They have been a reincarnation of Ferguson’s later years – a flawed side capable of winning without always dominating.

United clinically efficient

The Arsenal game exemplified that. The home side had nine shots on target and scored one; United had two shots on target and despatched both. Although not usually so clinical, they are now 10 points behind Chelsea, and level on games heading into the key Christmas period.

If the mark of a great side is playing badly and still securing the three points, United’s winning streak restored hope that they might still have that all-important knack. Saturday’s draw with Aston Villa dampened the mood, but there were reasons to be hopeful. United dominated possession. They created almost double the chances they notched in the Liverpool game.

The goal that robbed them of two points was sublime. Even David De Gea, hero of United’s purple patch, could only look on as Christian Benteke’s strike curled by. The Arsenal result, on the other hand, was laughable. That kind of match reminds you that there is little discernable logic in football. It also proved that statistics don’t tell the whole story.

In fact, the stats suggest that not a whole lot has changed since United won the league. In three seasons, under three different managers, there has been little variation in United’s pass completion and possession. They have stabilised at 86% passing accuracy since Fergie’s last year in charge. They have also maintained an average possession of between 54 and 55%.

Same old difference at the back

They were no better in defence in that title-winning year than they were under Moyes or than they are now. United conceded 43 goals in 2012/13 and the same number again in 2013/14, averaging 1.13 per game. They have conceded 18 in 17 games this season to date, averaging 1.06.

What they are doing with the ball has changed, a point underlined by declining chance creation stats over the three years. In 2012/13, United created 11.5 chances per game. Under Moyes, this dropped to 10.2; an average Van Gaal has just managed to match.

As a result, they score fewer goals. From 2.26 goals per game in 2012/13, they fell to 1.68 the following season and now have an average of 1.76. Their shot accuracy, meanwhile, has stayed between 46 and 49%.

My point? United are not a great deal worse off than they were the last time they won the title. Under Ferguson, they were adept at grinding out wins in conspiracy-theory-inducing fashion. Since their turnaround in fortune this season they have largely done exactly that. The score line against Liverpool flattered to deceive. As it did against Arsenal. And Southampton.

Few of those wins would have been possible without the shot-stopping antics of the once-derided David De Gea.  But the Spaniard owes his sudden spike in popularity to a leaky defence. He makes an average of 2.47 saves per game. Compare that to Thibault Courtois, who makes just 1.67 per game, and Joe Hart, who averages at 1.81.

Van Gaal’s a lucky bloke

Obviously United would prefer a solid defence to a busy goalkeeper. Defensive errors force De Gea into action more often. He concedes more and racks up fewer clean sheets on average than his peers. But as a last line of defence goes, he’s proven himself to be one of the best there is. Another stroke of luck for the Dutch manager, perhaps.

There is still plenty of work to be done. But the suggestion that United can’t win the title because their winning run was down to luck is ludicrous. They’ve won countless titles that way before. In fact, it seems to be a key ingredient of most  league-winning campaigns. The return of old-fashioned jamminess to United’s arsenal makes them more of a contender, if anything.

And it’s not the only thing United are welcoming back. Most of their injured players are expected to return to action early in the new year. Michael Carrick’s presence deputising at centre-back since his return from an ankle injury has been a huge factor in United’s upswing in form. Plus, against Villa, in his first start since October Radamel Falcao netted the equaliser.

They also have a manageable fixture list over the Christmas period. They will not face Chelsea or City until April, when they play both in two weeks. The two face each other at the end of January, guaranteeing dropped points somewhere. United have the added benefit of not being in European competition or the League Cup – competitions which could prove to be distractions for their rivals.

No doubt Van Gaal will be busy plugging the gaping holes in his squad in January. If he pulls it off, United won’t have to ride their luck to the finish line. They have won the league without holding a Christmas advantage eight times.

If they re-sign Own Goal and a couple of referees, they’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

 

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