Can Manchester United Turn Their Season Around?
Manchester United stole the headlines during the transfer window with their record signing of Paul Pogba, but on the field, things have not been easy for the Red Devils so far this season. Fourteen league games into the campaign, United are sitting in a disappointing sixth place, a whopping 13 points behind league leaders Chelsea.
A title run seems almost unfathomable at this point, but United fans do have some reasons to be optimistic about the rest of the season.
Improvement From the Attacking Midfielders
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial were basically non-factors for Manchester United in the first few months of the season due to ineffectiveness and injuries. However, both players have returned to the starting lineup over the past couple matches, and they have combined for two goals and three assists in the team's last two games. Obviously, this is an extremely small sample size, but the track record of both players indicates they should be strong contributors on any team.
Martial scored 11 goals with four assists in league games last season, and he was the best player for Manchester United a year ago, according to WhoScored.com's rating system. Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored 11 goals with 15 assists for Borussia Dortmund last season in the Bundesliga, so he has established himself as a top tier attacking midfielder, as well. It seems likely that the slow start for these two players was somewhat of a fluke, and they both should produce much better going forward for Manchester United.
Manchester United Have Been a Bit Unlucky
There is currently a fairly large six-point gap in the Premier League table between the top five teams -- Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal -- and sixth-place Manchester United. There is an even more glaring gap in goal differential, with fifth-place Tottenham at plus-14 and United at plus-3.
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On the surface it appears that Manchester United are simply outclassed by the top five teams in the league, but if we dig a little deeper, we can see that this is not entirely accurate.
Manchester United are currently fourth in the EPL in shots attempt per game, ahead of league leaders Chelsea and second-place Arsenal. They are ranked fifth in the league in possession with 55% per game, also ahead of Chelsea, and they rank fifth in the league in shots allowed with 9.7 per game.
These three stats do not tell the entire story, but it does seem that Manchester United are not quite as outclassed by the top five teams as the table would indicate. If they are able to maintain these shooting and possession stats, then Manchester United will almost certainly be able to close the gap between them and the top five just by having a bit more good fortune.
Zlatan Is Heating Up
Manchester United has struggled to score goals this season, and much of this was due to a scoring drought from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Zlatan had an 11-match stretch from September to early November where he scored only one goal. However, over the past month, he has broken out of this slump in style, scoring six goals in his last five matches (in all competitions).
Zlatan is a world-class goal scorer with a pristine track record, so it seems unlikely that he will go on another prolonged scoring drought again this season. Plus, he should be getting much better service from his outside attacking midfielders now that Mkhitaryan and Martial are starting to reestablish themselves as consistent starters.
Manchester United have dug themselves into a hole early in the season, but there is reason to be optimistic about the remainder of the season. Manchester United have played a bit better than their placement in the standings would indicate, and that is without getting the production they would expect from Martial, Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic.
A title chase is, in all likelihood, out the window at the moment. However, if the Red Devils can get more production from these three players, and if their luck starts to turn for the better, Manchester United should still be able to challenge for a coveted Champions League spot this season.