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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Confidence Ratings: Manchester United’s Best XI and impact players

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Football never ends! There is always football! Time is not real! Manchester United are back!

That’s right, the World Cup is over and it’s time to play Burnley.

Before that happens, we evaluated where we’re at with the current team going forward into the rest of the season. There’s been a little bit of time to rest for some, and very little for others, but United have positioned themselves well for a top 4 run despite their shortcomings.

Here are our confidence ratings for the starting XI and impact players in rotation.

Starters

David de Gea

PK – 2

David de Gea is not Manchester United’s goalkeeper of the future but his massive contract ensures he will be United’s goalkeeper of the present and probably near future. De Gea got off to a torrid start this season but has since gotten a little better.

Over the past few months he’s started to come off his line a bit more and display the things you’d like to see in a modern keeper. However the fact that every time he comes off his line we all not only notice it but celebrate it speaks to how infrequently it happens.

The most unfortunate part is De Gea’s shop-stopping – which is the reason he got that big contract – has completely disappeared. He currently ranks 19th in PSxG-G per 90. That’s not below average, that’s just bad. If United are going to succeed in the second half of the season they’re going to have to rely on their defense to continue to not give up shots.

CD – 6

David de Gea is likely not the sort of keeper Erik ten Hag wants going forward, but for now he’s done well when the team adjusts to his strengths. Varane and Martinez play well close to goal, and the addition of Casemiro adds another strong presence in the box. However his game remains what it’s always been. He’s a terrific shot stopper who is limited in build up and isn’t a particularly strong or commanding presence at the back. He’s shown some signs of trying to add to his game, but United were testing the market in the summer for a reason. Barring a dramatic change to his game, the club will need to upgrade beyond this year. For now, he’s fine.

Diogo Dalot

CD – 9

I’ve been won over by Dalot. He still has some shaky defensive moments, but he’s come a long way from a year ago. Some of that of course is the stability and planning of the manager, but a lot is still on the player to make the position his own, and he’s done just that. His ability to drive forward and contribute is of course what set him apart from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but his play has given him confidence evident for Portugal as well, and he’s no longer the liability he once was in defense. A surprising but welcome development for a player some fans might have forgotten about after his arrival.

Raphael Varane

PK – 6.5/9.5

The question with Raphael Varane boils down to the age old question of ‘what do you want your center back to do?’ There’s the old school view of defenders are supposed to defend. That’s the priority, that’s the bottom line. If that’s what United are asking their center backs to do then 9.5 might not even be high enough for Varane. He’s probably a perfect 10 as there legitimately might not be a better pure defender in the world than him.

It’s when you start looking at the more modern approach – that buildup play starts with center backs who need to be good on the ball and be strong passers – that the flaws in Varane’s game start to come out. Varane has never looked comfortable on the ball and far more often then not opts for the same pass to Lisandro Martinez, Diogo Dalot, or David de Gea, rather than moving the ball up the pitch.

This has never been an issue for Varane before as he’s spent most of his career playing in Real Madrid and France teams that like to counter attack and play more direct football. He’s now playing for a manager who wants to play a high possession game with a high defensive line.

People often assumed Varane would be good in a high defensive line because Varane has good pace, but pace is probably the least important characteristic for a center back playing in a high line. The reality is Varane hasn’t spent much time playing in high lines and a lot of that is because of him, as he’s often the deepest of the four defenders. Last season United played with their deepest line in the last four years. That line dropped even deeper when Varane played compared to when he didn’t (39.02 with him vs 42.2 without). That gap in numbers still present this season, with United’s line height coming in at 38.8 when Varane plays with Lisandro Martinez and 43.37 when Victor Lindelof is paired with the Argentine. Those numbers are consistent with France as well.

Varane is a reactive defender – possibly the best in the world in that area – but playing in a high line is more about being a proactive defender. Stepping up beyond the halfway line to make interceptions or to recover the ball and keeping the attack alive by making making a quick incisive pass. That’s just not Varane’s game.

To make sure my brain wasn’t malfunctioning about this, I went to the man who knows more about Raphael Varane and far more about Erik Ten Hag than I do, The Busby Babe’s own Suwaid Fazal, and posed the following question:

Now that’s a hypothetical situation when in reality, Erik Ten Hag does not have all of his ideal players in the squad. Obviously that changes things but the question remains going forward what does Ten Hag want to do. As Suwaid would later say, Varane is just ridiculously good at the defensive stuff. The tradeoff is big but I can’t think of many other defenders who are worth that sort of compromise.

That’s going to be the question going forward. If United are going to play a more reactive style off the ball and direct style on it, Varane is a perfect fit. But if United are going to keep morphing into a Ten Hag team and start playing with more possession and pushing their line higher, Victor Lindelof might be the better fit here.

Lisandro Martínez

SF – 9

He plays with Gabriel Heinze’s aggression and Gary Neville’s heart; he has the first touch of Paul Scholes and breaks lines like Michael Carrick. What’s not to like? The thing with Lisandro Martinez is that the criticism before his arrival was never really going to affect him.

“Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour, and it can never be used to hurt you,” Tyrion Lannister declares to Jon Snow in the first episode of the hit HBO drama Game of Thrones. I believe this is how Lisandro Martinez has worked around his perceived limitations.

We’ll come back to this with Antony later, but I don’t think that some bad-faith critics realize that certain players are long past the days when they could’ve been affected by little jabs at their personality or physicality.

Lisandro Martinez has been Manchester United’s standout player this season, and it was never in doubt that fans would take to him. Now, everyone else has as well. He’s an embodiment of the unwritten Fergie-isms and Busby-isms that United fans have identified with for decades. Long may that continue.

Luke Shaw –

PK – 9

I don’t understand why United fans always seem to want to see Luke Shaw fail. His biggest flaw is he’s injury prone, but since Jose Mourinho left when Shaw’s been fit he’s spent most of that time ranging from “really good” to “one of the top five left backs in the world.”

Shaw has hardly put a wrong foot in this season. He wasn’t great in the first two games of the season but neither was anyone else. Given how those first two games went there was no problem with Erik Ten Hag switching things up, and since Tyrell Malacia had a great preseason it was natural to give him a look.

At first, Malacia didn’t give Ten Hag any reason to drop him, therefore he kept his place. Over time the performances started to wain just enough that it was justifiable to give Shaw another run out. That was an opportunity that Shaw immediately grabbed and he’s been the first choice left back ever since.

Shaw’s good form carried right on into the World Cup where he proved to be one of the most effective ball progressers in the entire tournament. The only question going forward is the same one for all but one of United’s returning World Cup players, how will they each handle the mental aspect of coming up short in the World Cup and having to jump right back into club football.

Casemiro

CD – 8

Casemiro had his struggles over about the first month of his time at the club, but since then he’s been invaluable to their success. He’s not the sort of deep midfielder who can pick a team apart with his passing, but his defensive awareness and importance in regaining possession has dramatically raised the floor of the midfield. It’s a position the club have tried to address with duct tape for years now, so the difference he’s made has really stuck out.

After a really good showing at the World Cup, the expectation is Casemiro returns with confidence and picks up where he left off, which is exactly what United need.

Christian Eriksen

SF – 10

It’s still a bit remarkable that I’m writing this. As long as you live, death remains an abstract concept. So does writing about the five minutes when Christian Eriksen’s heart gave out on the field a little over a year ago. A game of football feels like this event where time is suspended — this state of limbo where the rules of life don’t really apply.

Most of us were familiar with Christian Eriksen as a good player who’d played for top European sides and the Danish national team. He belonged to someone else. For the minutes following his collapse, he was a reflection of our own mortality — he belonged to no one. Time was already suspended, but now the space had also morphed.

And now he’s ours, or is he? Is anyone? I don’t know. What I do know is that football matters to Christian Eriksen, and if it matters to him despite going through it all — going through nothing — then it sure as hell is fine if it matters to us.

Christian Eriksen is still a good player. He is still a great passer. His football brain is as sharp as it has always been. He needs help defensively, and he has got Casemiro for that. He was arguably our best player in the first month of the season, and has ended this period before the World Cup even stronger by joining attacks more frequently. He has Erik ten Hag’s trust, and is now the beating heart of the Manchester United midfield.

PK – 7

There was never a question about Christian Eriksen’s ability. We knew exactly what we were getting when United signed him last summer.

The concern was that while United very badly needed a player that can do the things Christian Eriksen does, would the 31 year old with a heart condition be able to hold up for an entire season when United don’t have anyone else that can do those things?

It was no surprise that over the first month of the season Eriksen emerged as United’s most important player – the team very badly needs someone who does the things he does! But Erik Ten Hag is not a manager who rotates the team much, and as the season wore on Eriksen began to tire and the amount of games where he just didn’t ‘have it’ began to increase. When Eriksen isn’t ‘on’ United’s performances as a whole suffer.

Eriksen did score his first goal of the campaign in United’s final match before the World Cup but don’t let that fool you. Despite the emergence of Casemiro, Eriksen stopped getting as far forward over the last month. After having at least one shot in each of his first eight Premier League matches, Eriksen has taken just three over his last 341 minutes (2.05 per 90 dropping to 0.79). His touches in the box have dropped from 1.67 per 90 over the same time frame to 0.79.

As expected, Eriksen played every minute for Denmark at the World Cup in Qatar. Eriksen’s fatigue was obvious as he never got going for Denmark (though let’s be clear, no one on Denmark ever got going).

Denmark’s earlier than expected departure means Eriksen will receive a much needed three and a half week break before United’s schedule resumes. That break will allow Eriksen to rejuvenate himself a bit but for how long? The second half of the season is even more grueling than the first and United still have two postponed matches to jam in. If Ten Hag continues not rotating his side, Eriksen could burn very quickly for the business end of the season, and where does that leave United?

Bruno Fernandes

PK – 9

Bruno Fernandes in the 2021-22 Premier League:

With Cristiano Ronaldo – 2180 minutes, 0.33 npG+A per 90

Without Cristiano Ronaldo – 931 minutes, 0.77 npG+A per 90

Bruno Fernandes in the 2022-23 Premier League: *Small sample size

With Cristiano Ronaldo – 449 minutes, 0 npG+A per 90

Without Cristiano Ronaldo – 0.38 npG+A per 90

I feel pretty confident saying we’re in for a Bruno Fernandes resurgence. Bruno’s at his best being a central creator but also as a player playing off of a central striker and making runs beyond him into the box. Cristiano Ronaldo is not the type of striker that brings others into the match or links well with them. He is the type of striker who just drops deep in search of the ball, which often found him dropping into Bruno’s space. This had the double result of both crowding Bruno and bringing an extra defender near him while also taking away a passing option further up the pitch.

With Ronaldo gone, this won’t be a problem anymore. Furthermore, the return of Anthony Martial and Antony means United have enough depth on the wings that Bruno won’t have to play as a makeshift right winger anymore. All of which should allow Bruno to revert to playing in the role he’s best at.

Bruno is coming off a scintillating World Cup and nobody would like him to carry that form over to his club more than Bruno himself.

And if that’s not enough, here’s the Bruno and Martial combination since Bruno arrived at Old Trafford:

Bruno Fernandes in the Premier League:

With Anthony Martial – 2912 minutes, 0.71 npG+A per 90

Without Anthony Martial – 3921 minutes,

Antony

SF – 7

He hails from Inferinho, which translates to little hell, and has been thrust into Old Trafford — the devil’s dream. Sometimes, matches made in hell are just what a club needs.

One of the undervalued Fergiesms, and one I most subscribe to is that Manchester United should always have a player who puts bums on seats and get people off them, too. Antony does that and some. The only trouble is that we’ve not seen enough of him. He joined the club towards the end of the window, and has missed the last few weeks through injury.

He hasn’t seen death like Christian Eriksen, but he tells us that he has stepped over it many a time in his youth. Like many of the players who have joined the club this season in Erik ten Hag’s first window, the stories behind these gifted individuals make them just as compelling as their football.

On the pitch, the ball sticks to him — he uses this ability to pull players in before releasing an open teammate. When he lets one rip with his left foot, it stays hit. He has an understated pace, but a real grit to his game that makes up for any lack of physicality. The right-wing slot that has been vacant for years has finally got an owner.

Marcus Rashford

CD – 8

That’s my Prime Minister.

Really good start for Rashford, and seeing a little bit of change in his game too. He’s making good runs into the area, especially off the left, and the result is he’s a goal threat again. It’s important that ten Hag has embraced the challenge of working with the players rather than slagging them off to the media, and Rashford is one who has really benefitted from his role and instruction in the side.

On top of his own form, Rashford will soon be playing next to Anthony Martial once again. Having a center forward to work with rather than in spite of should be a positive change for the entire team, but particularly for Rashford and the other wingers. Their partnership appeared to be at its end when Martial was loaned out and supposedly looking for a move, but suddenly both are critical players again.

Rashford has lived up to that demand so far this year, and has stayed in good form over the World Cup after scoring 3 goals for England. For the rest of this season, United will need his confidence, and most importantly his goals, as they push for top four and possibly even some silverware.

Anthony Martial

CD – 5

This grade is almost purely down to one thing: availability. Martial has spent so much time on the sideline due to injury for us to really evaluate what his contributions will be going forward, even if he’s looked the best center forward option when healthy. It’s a really worrying sign that every time he returned to action something happened, let’s hope that doesn’t continue because he’ll be one of just a few first teamers who will be rested and ready for the post-World Cup restart.

PK – 7

Anthony Martial has played 292 minutes in all competitions this season and has already scored three non-penalty goals, a 0.92 npG per 90 rate. That rate is obviously going to come down but as the person who back in July wrote that Martial was going to be one of the most important players for Ten Hag’s United this season, I’m saying it’s safe to be getting excited about Martial again. The only question going forward is his fitness. At this point it’s unfortunately safe to say he’s going to get injured again, what will make or break United’s season is simply how long will that injury be?

Impact rotation players

Scott McTominay

PK – 7

Over the past few games Erik Ten Hag has played McTominay as a number 6, non-ball progresser number 8, number 10, and number 9. That tells me that Ten Hag has no idea what McTominay’s best position is and frankly, neither do any of us. He has however figured out his best role. Coming on for 15-30 minutes in the second half to provide energy and help shore up a victory. Add him to the list of academy graduates who filled this very important role for United.

Harry Maguire

PK – 6

What Erik Ten Hag has made crystal clear is if Harry Maguire is back in the United team this season it’s going to be because he’s earned it. Ten Hag named Maguire captain this season but dropped him two games in, showing there was both a reason Maguire got the armband, but also status means nothing when it comes to playing time.

Maguire was bad last year but took the brunt of the blame for a completely dysfunctional United team. Maguire hasn’t played much this year but when he has he’s been ~fine~. Maguire was dropped for tactical reasons against Liverpool and since then Raphael Varane has never given Ten Hag a single reason to even contemplate changing things.

Maguire’s lack of playing time this season hasn’t been from him being poor so much as United have two centerbacks that are way better than him, plus a third centerback who is arguably a better partner for Lissandro Martinez. His biggest issue has been getting used to playing on the right side. If he can do that, there’s a future for him at this club that he clearly doesn’t want to leave. If he can’t, then natural selection will run it’s course.

Victor Lindelof

PK – 6

For the second year in a row Victor Lindelof has looked fine. Yet somehow this is the second year in a row where United concede the most goals per 90 with Lindelof on the pitch than with any other center back. That’s probably just a small sample size thing that’ll even out over time as United’s xGA is lower with Lindelof than without him. The real positive Lindelof brings is his ability on the ball, which has helped translate to United’s xG jumping up when he’s on the pitch. That’s important for a team that needs to drastically increase their goal output if they want to qualify for the Champions League.

Lindelof is currently ahead of Maguire in the pecking order, which is most likely down to him simply being a better fit to partner Lisandro Martinez than the skipper. It wouldn’t shock me if the reason for that is simply they’re able to communicate far better. With a healthy Varane it’ll be interesting to see how Lindelof gets used in the second half of the season.

Fred

PK – 3

As the leader of the Fred hive since 2019, all I could say is, I have no idea what’s up with Fred. Fred had his best season at Old Trafford last year when Ralf Rangnick removed his buildup responsibilities and let him do all his work higher up the pitch. With Erik Ten Hag coming in along with his international midfield partner Casemiro, it was clear Fred was going to be given a similar role and it was assumed he would thrive.

Fred put in a brilliant performance against Tottenham earlier this season, but despite the favorable role every other appearance he’s made this season has ranged from atrocious to just plain bad. It’s inexplicable. It was hoped he would go to Qatar and rediscover his juju with Brazil but Fred was quickly dropped to the bench and hardly featured. Which Fred shows up in the second half of the season is anyone’s guess.

Jadon Sancho

CD – 4

There could be a big bounce back in store for Jadon Sancho, but it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. It’s a positive that the manager has taken special interest in his development, sending him to the Netherlands with a coaching team and training regimen during the World Cup. Recently however ten Hag has said that Sancho is still not ready physically or mentally to return to first team duties.

Can only hope at this point that he’s able to shake off a difficult start to life at Old Trafford and return to the fold. Manchester United made a big investment in him, and ten Hag seems eager to make it work, but at the moment it seems it’s unlikely to be this season.

Alejandro Garnacho

CD – 7

Whether he was a part of the plan or not, Garnacho got the opportunity to play his way into contention and took advantage. His directness and confidence are clear, and his goals have been important as well as fun since coming into the team. With players being rested after the World Cup he will get his chance again. There’s a surplus of left-sided forwards in the squad, but they could be spread across other positions where needs are greater. Garnacho can benefit, and he’s already shown he has the makings of another exciting academy graduate.

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