Finding the perfect signing for Manchester United – data analysis

Finding the perfect signing for Manchester United - data analysis statistics

Manchester United is one of the biggest and most successful football clubs in the world. But they, for sure, are past their glory days. Sir Alex served the club for 26 years and won 38 trophies during his time. Since his retirement, the club has fallen exponentially and has finished in the top four only thrice in seven seasons. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is taking the team through the rebuilding process and the team has shown some promising signs during his tenure. Manchester United ended their 2019/20 Premier League Campaign with a 14 match unbeaten streak taking them to the third position. United still has a long way to go and the 2020 summer transfer window is crucial for them. In this article, we will analyse their last season’s performance and through data analysis look at what signings will help them push for the title soon.

2019/20 performance analysis

Manchester United finished 3rd with 66 points in the Premier League, reached semi-finals of FA Cup, EFL Cup, and the Europa League. United was eighth and 11 points off the third position at the halfway mark of the season. What came as music to fans’ ears was the signing of Bruno Fernandes, who changed the laid back United to a team that could now control the game.

It is important to note that the points tally of 66 is their second-worst since the retirement of Sir Alex. Their journey to the top four is as much credited to the underperformance of the other teams as much to their own. But since January 2020, they have looked like a different side who can now control the game instead of sitting back and relying on the counter. Let’s go through Man United’s tactics, data, statistics and performances.


Mainly playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, United changed their midfield three drastically throughout the season while keeping the back four consistent.

We can see from the above photos that the wing play was concentrated on the left side with 41% of the attacks coming from the left in comparison to 35% from the right.  One of the main reasons that the left side was dominant was the exceptional performances from Marcus Rashford from left and Dan James’ inexperience on the right. 

Dan James has the worst goals + assist per 90, xG +xA per 90 as well as shots on target and goal/shots on target of all the five Man United forwards. The former Swansea boy had a blistering start to the campaign with three goals in four games but his form dipped after that and he had the least rating of all the outfield players among the most used XI. He lacks patience and currently only has a single dimension in his game, i.e, pace. With poor decision-making and crossing, he still has a long way to go in his career. Manchester United lack a quality right winger and it is one of the main positions they need to strengthen up this summer window.


An ever-changing midfield always causes problems for a team as they fail to find chemistry and consistency. The midfield has changed drastically throughout the season mainly due to factors such as long term injuries to Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay or signing of Fernandes. In the first half of the season, United mainly relied on counter-attacking football and thus faced difficulty in breaking down teams who played with low defensive blocks.

Bruno Fernandes has the best assists/90 among Premier League midfielders (barring Kevin de Bruyne, who is not in the graph due to him being an outlier in both the axis). Surprisingly, Emi Buendia of Norwich has 0.265 expected assists per 90.

Post lockdown, United’s main trio has been Nemanja Matić, Pogba & Fernandes and they looked an entirely different attacking team. They could now break down defences, are fluid in the attacking third, exploit the wings, and played mesmerizing football at times. They went on to score 22 goals in nine games and conceded only six.

Let’s take a deeper look into the current midfield 

Pogba averages 8.81 passes into the final third per match. A number only bettered by Jorginho. Fernandes averages 2.58 key passes per 90

Before the signing of Fernandes, the midfield of Manchester United lacked creativity and were always highly criticized for the same. Fernandes has an xA of 0.23 per 90 but has outperformed it massively with 0.45 assists per 90.  

The two focal points of the unbeaten run were Pogba and Fernandes. They both rank first and second respectively in the midfield for progressive passes per 90 with Pogba making 7.48 and Bruno making 6.87 progressive passes per 90.  With Pogba being injured for the majority of the season and Fernandes joining in January, the two main heavily featured mids in the first half were Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, who have only 2.57 and 3.96 progressive passes per 90. They both played at the attacking positions of the team and with such low returns, United struggled a lot.

De Bruyne ranks 1st with 11.40 progressive passes per 90. Fernandes and Pogba both rank in the top ten midfielders for progressive passes made per 90.

Pogba and Fernandes are the star duo for United, they are the ones who make this team tick in the midfield and rank first in passes into final third and key passes/90 respectively. Fred and Matić boast above-average stats but some fans might argue they are still not up to the standards of Man United. Now let’s have a look at the defensive part of the midfield.

The only two midfielders who are in the top 15 of most tackles and blocks per 90 are Fred and McTominay. It’s surprising to see Matić having comparatively poor tackles, Bbocks, and interceptions per 90 even though he was the preferred third midfielder post lockdown. 

Fred is statistically the best defensive midfielder for Man Utd but still isn’t on par with the best defensive midfielders in the league. What Fred lacks is physicality and the ability to break down the first press. For United to challenge for the title, they seem to need a strong defensive midfielder who will flourish with the likes of Pogba and Fernandes.


Manchester United’s defence has improved considerably through the course of Ole’s tenure. They conceded only 36 goals this season as opposed to 54 in 2018/19 and kept 13 clean sheets opposed to seven in the 2018/19 season. United gained stability in defence after the first half of the season. They went for conceding 1.2 goals per match to 0.5 per match after Fernandes’ signing. 

Ranking second overall in the Premier League in tackles plus interception per 90 with 5.95 as well as improving offensively with time and registering four assists, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has looked like a bargain even at 50M. But the rest of the three starting defenders disappoint here with Victor Lindelöf having league’s second-worst tackles plus interceptions per 90 of 1.63 (minimum 1400 minutes played). 

Wan-Bissaka has been a standout signing and does a commendable job at right-back. He averages 2.95 Blocks per 90

Manchester United likes to build from the back and the centre-halves don’t prefer to go long. In fact, Man Utd is 12th in the league in long passes attempted. Both the centre-backs attempt only 22.7 and 17.6 long passes per 90 (League highest is 34.2). Harry Maguire poses good long pass completion accuracy with 83.5% whereas Lindelöf has a relatively poor completion rate of 77.4%, but with United not preferring that route it may not be the biggest concer


2020 Summer transfer window

What comes as a clear conclusion of the above analysis is that to challenge the likes of Liverpool and City, they need an out-and-out right-winger, a strong defensive midfielder, and a centre-back to support Maguire and Lindelöf.

Estimated Transfer Budget: 150 Million Euros

To find the perfect signing for the right-wing, I did an analysis of the top right-wingers aged under 24 along with the current Man United forwards. 

It’s no secret that Jadon Sancho is the prime right-wing target for Man United and his stats speak for himself. He has an xG+xA/90 of 0.72 and 0.65 goals/90. He is creatively astute with goal scoring actions/90 of 1.26 along with shot creatingacations/90 of 4.88. He plays as an inside forward but also drops deep at times to control the game at his own pace. But with Dortmund making it clear that he is to stay this season, United must look elsewhere.

Raphinha of Stade Rennes (xG+xA = 0.65), Federico Chiesa (xG+xA= 0.56), and Kai Havertz of Leverkusen (xG+xA=0.57) have performed well for their teams and are attracting big clubs. Chiesa and Raphinha are out-and-out wingers and Raphina crosses the ball 4.79 times per 90, more than any United forward.

But the one that stands out for me is Emi Buendia of Norwich. Buendia has SCA/90 of 4.93, and the only reason he has such low GCA is Norwich’s inability to score. He had a non-penalty xG+xA of 0.35 and averaged 8.03 progressive passes per 90. He likes to take the game to the opposition and is an exceptional dribbler with a success rate of 76.3%, well above most of the current wingers. His playing style is very much like that of Sancho, but with him being a left-footed right-winger, he can give United another dimension by attacking from right. He is English and has Premier League experience, he just needs a team around him to up his goals and assists. He will be an absolute bargain for a mere 20M

Chiesa of Fiorentina has the most touches in the opposition penalty box after Kingsley Coman with 5.90. Chiesa also has the fourth-best dribble success rate among the list. Chiesa is valued at 48M and might go up to a maximum of 60M. He poses good stats and is an out and out Right Winger. 

Moving forward to the defensive midfield options.

Even though Fred has amazing defensive stats, he lacks massively at physicality, aggression, and releasing the ball at the right moment. A defensive midfielder must be strong on the ball and since he can get caught on the ball very easily, he is not a reliable option. Matić and McTominay both are good at both of these but Matić is getting on with his age and isn’t as agile and fast. McTominay isn’t a defensive midfielder and is more of a box-to-box midfielder. He is not as good at defensive duties as Fred but provides midfield stability at times.

Analysing the tackles won, successful pressures, blocks, and interceptions per 90, we find some interesting insights.

Konrad Laimer of RB Leipzig is an outlier here as he tops the successful pressures per 90 with 11.70 and wins 2.45 tackles/90. He is ahead of any other midfielder here by 2.6 pressures per 90.

Wilfred Ndidi has been incredible this season and he wins 2.56 tackles per 90 and has successful pressure per 90 of 8.22. Ndidi has 2.83 interceptions per 90 and 2.39 blocks per 90. At Leicester, he plays behind James Maddison, and Youri Tielmans who like Pogba and Fernandes are exceptional going forward. He stays back and lets the duo to do their magic. He acts as a shield in front of the centre-backs and can play a similar role at Man United. 

Philip Billing of Bournemouth is the only midfielder with over three blocks per 90 and has grown over the last few years. He intercepts the ball 2.5 times per 90. Billing is someone to look out for. He is winning more than 60% of his aerial duels and contests for 3.78 aerials duels as well. He is a massive presence in midfield and can do a job in the mid. 

Looking at the current market value of the selected midfielders, the best value has to be Ndidi who is valued 45M Euros only. But Leicester does not want to sell him and according to rumours want 75M to let go of him. By saving money on Sancho, United can break the bank on a top defensive midfielder like Ndidi, who will cost them 75-80M and will be worth every penny as he improves them massively.

If United fails to sign Ndidi(which they probably will), the cheaper and still very good options are Laimer of RB Leipzig, Billing of Bournemouth. Laimer will cost them around 35-40M to do the job of providing a shield in front of the defence. On the other hand, Billings is only 24, has Premier League and with Bournemouth getting relegated, he will not cost much.

Now the position is the centre-backs.

Maguire ranks fifth in the Premier League in aerial duels win percentage. The 80M euros central defender has helped the defence improve enormously. Lindelöf has relatively poor aerial duels win percentage of 66% only. But the partnership of Maguire and Lindelöf has looked strong barring some moments.

Burnley defender James Tarkowski has been the main defender for the team and played a vital role in keeping 15 clean sheets. He is a leader of the men and has a powerful presence at the back. He wins 78% of his aerial duels. Leverkusen’s Johnathan Tah is still only 24 yet has ample of experience. He is a ball-playing centre-back and plays 4.78 progressive passes per 90. He averages 6.19 clearances and 2.76 tackles plus interceptions per 90

Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Nico Elvedi has a successful pressure rate of 42%, wins 5.32 aerial duels and 4.16 tackles plus interceptions and has the best long pass percentage with 92.6% among the central defenders across Europe and with Man United defenders having poor long pass percentage and progressive passes per 90, he can be a valuable addition to the team to add another dimension in their defence.


Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, and Axel Tuanzebe have missed most of the season through injuries and have played a combined total of only 1,855 minutes in the whole 2019/20 season. Maguire and Lindelöf have been overused throughout the season and they pose weak tackle won rate and successful pressure rate. 

Dayot Upamecano is solid on the ball with 5.9 progressive passes per 90, wins his challenges, and has a tackle win rate of 78.5 and a successful pressure rate of 42.7. He wins 3.5 aerial duels/90 and has 3.78 tackles plus interceptions per 90. He has great defensive awareness and is a towering presence in the defence. He is perfect for this young United side but with him signing a new deal recently if United really wants him they might have to pay 55-60M.

Alternative options are Tah and Elvedi who both are cheap and dependable options. They both are young but still experienced enough and will cost United around 30M.


What would come as a shock to many was that an xG/90 of 1.57 in the Premier League shockingly went down to 1.54 post the signing of Fernandes. During the unbeaten run, Man United scored 2.14 goals per 90 and outperformed their xG/90 by 0.6. Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, and Fernandes have been key but they all have outperformed their xG during the run. It is important for the club not to get carried away and introspect to find the shortcomings. They play Champions League next season and with the current squad depth, they will find it difficult to compete. There are still many other positions to upgrade but these three should be a priority in order for them to push for the top two.

Best options for Man Utd this transfer window are:

  • Right winger – Emi Buendia from Norwich for 20M/Federico Chiesa from Fiorentina for 50M
  • Centre Def. Mid – Wilfred Ndidi from Leicester for 70M/ Konrad Laimer from RB Leipzig for 35M
  • Centre-back – Dayot Upamecano from RB Leipzig for 50MNico Elvedi from Borussia Mönchengladbach for 30M/  Johnathan Tah from Bayer Leverkusen for 30M