Football Features

Why Man Utd’s Big Six record is not enough to challenge Liverpool and Man City

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:15, 9 December 2019

For all their woes so far this season, Manchester United have beaten Tottenham, Chelsea (twice), high-flying Leicester and Premier League champions Manchester City.

The Red Devils have also drawn with league leaders and champions-elect Liverpool as well as Arsenal. All in all, their record against the big sides this season has been tremendous. They’ve faced all five of their “Big Six” rivals and have yet to taste defeat, winning an impressive four of their six games and racking up 11 points in total – with one of the wins over Chelsea coming in the Carabao Cup.

They fly forward on the break at rapid pace, causing opposing defenders no end of trouble. That they’ve also taken down Leicester solidifies them as one of the most dangerous opponents around.

So why on earth are they only fifth? Five points behind Chelsea and a whopping 22 points behind Liverpool atop the Premier League table? Why are they a laughing stock? Why has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job security been questioned? Well, here’s the thing: Manchester United have lost four games so far and the opponents have been, shall we say, less than impressive.

Crystal Palace, West Ham, Newcastle and Bournemouth have all triumphed against the Red Devils so far this season. Palace are highest of those sides in ninth, Newcastle are in 10th, Bournemouth are 15th and West Ham are 16th. United have also failed to beat Southampton and Aston Villa, and got absolutely dominated by Sheffield United as well.

To make matters worse, when United lost those games, the only opponents who came into the match with any sort of form was West Ham. The Hammers had won three of their last four games before beating United, but since the match at the London Stadium they have lost seven of the next 10, winning just once against Chelsea.

Meanwhile Palace drew with Everton on opening weekend, then lost to Sheffield United before winning at Old Trafford. Newcastle were on a five-game winless run when they bested the Red Devils, in fact that win was one of only two in the first couple months of the season. Bournemouth, meanwhile, were winless in five before beating United and have lost all five since.

So not only do United lose to bad teams, but they lose to bad teams that are playing badly. It really is baffling. To look at United vs smaller sides is to look at the same post-Fergie United who are just an utter shambles; but look at them in the big games and it really is a throwback to the Fergie era.

Just under half of United’s Premier League points have come against “Big Six” opponents: 11 of 24. Factor in the Leicester game and you’ve got 14 of 24 points (58%) coming from just six games against big name or big form opponents. United have beaten three of the four sides above them and drawn with the other.

When United are playing the big boys, they find their best form. José Mourinho said as much after his Spurs side tasted defeat at Old Trafford.

It is easier for them against better teams, against teams who want more of the ball.

Jose Mourinho

That could have been taken as sour grapes, a defeated manager making a parting shot about an opponents style. But as you can see from the evidence, Mourinho isn’t wrong.

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The term “flat-track bully” — referring to someone who only plays well when in easy conditions — is often seen as a negative one. And sure, if a player or team only performed against weaker opponents then that wouldn’t be seen as good. But in order to win a league title, especially in today’s age where the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool are setting mammoth points totals, you need to beat up the small sides.

They’re not as glamorous but there’s more “normal” games in a season than big ones. No matter the claims to depth of quality, the vast majority of Premier League sides are beatable by the best teams.

United have 14 points from a possible 18 in the six games against big name or big form opponents. That means in the remaining 10 games they have played this season they have picked up just 10 points. One point per game. That is embarrassing. A side with as much stature as Manchester United, with as much ambition and financial power as Manchester United, should be doing much better.

Even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thinks so, saying: “When I played, that’s how we won the league.

“We never gave points away against the lesser teams, the not-so-good teams. The Premier League is difficult – if you don’t have that mentality you won’t get results. I’ll work on the mentality.”

But why do United struggle in these games? Solskjaer seems to think that it’s a matter of mentality, that his players don’t have the relentless focus they need to get points against smaller sides. And that’s probably a factor, but the biggest problem is that United don’t really have the players to break down those teams.

United’s big game record involves them sitting deep and counter-attacking opponents. They fly forward into the spaces left by teams that dominate the ball and do their damage with quick, precision strikes. Their young, fast forwards all suit this style, as do their midfielders and defenders who are also better in a low block than playing high on the half-way line.

But these smaller teams force them into precisely those positions. They do to United what United do to other big sides: they sit deep, absorb pressure and break at pace. United have fast forwards to hurt teams that give them space, but they don’t have any creative passers to unlock teams that deny it to them.

Paul Pogba is obviously an enormous creative talent, but injury has reduced him to just five games this season. And beyond the Frenchman, United are reliant on Juan Mata to roll back the years, which can happen occasionally — such as against Partizan at home in the Europa League — but isn’t reliable enough for a club of United’s ambition.

So when opponents sit back, all they really have to worry about is a wonder strike from one of United’s players or a magical bit of dribbling from Anthony Martial destabilising their defensive shape. These are margins teams are happy to live with, because they do not favour United. Solskjaer even acknowledges this, saying: “we know that we have to get better results against teams that drop deeper.”

To this end, January cannot come soon enough. United spent all summer trying to sign a no. 10 and there’s no doubt that getting an elite creator into the side in the winter transfer window would transform the Red Devils’ ability to dominate these smaller sides.

A top-quality no.10 wouldn’t be a full solution, but it would allow United to get a glimmer of the flat-track bully edge that saw Man City rack up 198 points across two seasons and currently sees Liverpool having won 15 of 16 games this season.

The Red Devils’ face Arsenal on New Year’s Day, a massive clash they’ll be well up for. But until then they have six games, four in the league, all against sides smaller than they are. If United are to gain ground in the top four race and carry on the momentum that they’ve built-up with these massive wins against Spurs and Manchester City then they’ll have to try and find some flat-track bully edge from somewhere. Whether that’s Solskjaer working on his players mentality or Juan Mata coming in and playing a blinder, it has to happen for United to progress.

But if United can transfer their big game form (14 points from six games) onto the other matches (currently 10 points from 10 games)? Then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s nostalgia-heavy approach to management might gain more substance beyond mere references, United could start actually picking up points with the ruthless frequency of Sir Alex Ferguson’s old sides and regain their status as one of the country’s best.