Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Manchester United vs. Fulham, a Statistical Review

Darren Bent’s last gasp equaliser was enough to earn Fulham a share of the spoils at Old Trafford on Sunday. It was one of the strangest encounters I’ve ever witnessed, Fulham set out almost exclusively to defend and scored two goals on the counter-attack. Despite having the lion share of possession and attempts, United did little to dispel the feelings of angst which are circulating more and more rapidly as the weeks go on.

On paper it was a game that United should have won, Fulham sitting bottom of the table, winless in four, whilst Juan Mata’s arrival seemed to have breathed belief back into United.

Much has been made of United’s ineptitude to break down a solid Fulham defence, Fulham deserve praise for the way they played, they carried out their game plan to perfection. Although, that wouldn’t have been the case had United been able to defend anywhere near as resolutely.

Fulham had 6 shots, 3 on target and scored 2 goals, Manchester United had 31 shots, 9 on target and also scored 2 goals. That says a lot about United going forward, they lacked the clinical edge we’ve come to associate with them, especially with Rooney and van Persie in the team. Fulham restricted them to half chances really. Whilst on the rare occasion Fulham did attack they looked like they were capable of scoring.

Much has been made of the 81 crosses United put in to the Fulham area and how well they dealt with it. Meulensteen described United’s tactics as ‘simple’, whilst 6ft 7in defender Dan Burn, who made 22 clearances, likened them to those used in the Conference. Fulham congested the centre of the pitch forcing United out wide where when the ball was put in to the box Fulham had the players to deal with it, with just 18 crosses reaching a teammate.

Kieran Richardson was deployed on the left ahead of Riise, limiting the room for Mata, who was mainly deployed on the right. Mata then had to come inside but he failed to provide the killer pass, although his shot fell to van Persie for the first.

Figure 1: Average Player Positions (United: blue, Fulham: orange)

That’s shown from Figure 1, Mata (number 8)’s average position is more alike to that of Rooney(10) than a winger. The average position plot shows Fulham’s compact shape, all 11 players are packed into the centre of the pitch, and they all occupy their own half. Showing Fulham’s counter attack based game plan.

United looked predictable and that’s why Fulham’s game plan worked. Despite the obvious attacking talent available to them, there was still a distinct lack of creativity. The deployment of Mata on the right is perhaps a little worrying, his best position is undoubtedly through the middle, but that was being occupied by Rooney. Moyes could have reshuffled earlier, bringing on Valencia for Fletcher and pushing Mata through the middle and Rooney alongside van Persie. That would have given them more dimensions going forward and given the Fulham defenders more to think about. 

United’s play came predominantly down the left, with Ashley Young and Patrice Evra providing 15 and 14 crosses respectively. This is shown in Figure 2, with 42% of the play coming down the left, 35% down the right and just 23% through the middle. Similarly, Fulham’s game plan can be seen from these statistics, with 44% of their play coming through the centre of the pitch, overrunning the middle of the park but leaving space out wide for United.

Figure 2: Attack sides (United: blue, Fulham: orange)

Interestingly, United normally play more down the right hand side, with 42% of their play on average coming down that side. The introduction of Juan Mata has changed that though, in the 3 games he has played for United they have played 31.6% down the right where Mata has been stationed and an average of 47.3% down the left. You would have expected Mata and the side he plays to receive more of the ball, the reason this isn’t the case is due to Mata drifting infield.

In deploying Mata out wide Moyes is making the same mistake Ferguson did with Kagawa. He is not playing him in his best position, which in turn is hindering the performance and natural flow of the team. Instead of adding creativity, against Fulham, Mata added to the predictability of the Manchester United team. The Mata signing is a classic case of buying a player because they are good, not because they fit in to the system; it’s the same as with Kagawa.

It’s worrying that Fulham, despite playing gallantly, managed to come away from Old Trafford with a point. If results don’t pick up soon, the pressure is only going to mount on David Moyes, whilst Rene Meulensteen must use this performance to kick on Fulham’s push for survival.

Statistics and infographics courtesy of

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