Sunday 15 September 2019

The stats that reveal the remarkable turnaround by Zlatan and Manchester United since defeat to Fenerbahce

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic clashes with Fenerbahce's Simon Kjaer as manager Jose Mourinho looks on. Photo: Reuters / Murad Sezer
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic clashes with Fenerbahce's Simon Kjaer as manager Jose Mourinho looks on. Photo: Reuters / Murad Sezer

Alistair Tweedale

November 3rd feels like it was a turning point for Manchester United. Approaching winter and the latter stages of the Europa League groups, Jose Mourinho's team slumped to a disappointing defeat at Fenerbahce that saw them drop out of the qualification spots, while their Premier League campaign had started slowly, to say the least.

10 games in United were already eight points behind rivals City, Arsenal and Liverpool, having won just four times - and barely convincingly - to leave their title hopes hanging by a thread early on.

Then, with their European campaign faltering, Mourinho decided against holding back in assessing his players after the loss in Turkey.

“Football is not just about quality, it’s also about effort, commitment, playing to the limits and giving everything,” he said.

"A team that concedes a goal after two minutes is a team that is not ready, not prepared, not concentrated. It’s our fault.

“After their second goal we had a reaction but we didn’t deserve more because football is 90 minutes and it is to be played at the maximum of your desire, concentration and capacity.

“We started the game asleep. I know we have a problem because it is difficult to play away from home without two proper central defenders. We are playing with two left backs as central defenders (Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo). I passed on all my experience of playing in Turkey, but we started really slow.

"You have to be stronger mentally and start the game in a different way than we did.”

At the time it was difficult to see how his scathing comments would help matters. In his final months at Chelsea, attempts to rally his players came across as selling them down the river. It wasn't clear whether anything positive would come from his latest outburst.

Interestingly, this time around his players have responded exceptionally well. The loss to Fenerbahce meant United had won only nine of Mourinho's first 17 games, losing five times. Since that defeat, they have won eight of 11 and have not been beaten once.

Qualification for the Europa League knockout rounds was sealed comfortably, and they have risen to sixth in the Premier League, now within two wins of City, Liverpool and Arsenal (though Chelsea have extended their lead at the top).

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's skyrocketing form has been key, with the Swede now having hit 17 goals in all competitions this season, including nine in his last eight games. In that time he has only failed to score in the win over Tottenham, and he now has an astonishing 50 goals to his name for the calendar year.

Among Europe's major leagues only Lionel Messi, with 51, has more, but Ibrahimovic has the chance to overtake the Barcelona star - already on his winter break - in Saturday's game at home to Middlesbrough.

He has struck up a clinical partnership with Paul Pogba, who is beginning to shine more and more since a rather slow start after his world record return to Old Trafford. Though we are still waiting for him to find the kind of form that saw him almost carry Juventus at times, he is certainly getting there.

Having failed to set up a single goal in his first 16 league and European games for United, Pogba has four assists in his last seven games. Each one has been for a Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal.

The combination of those two has been enough to spark a United revival and has made them into top four contenders once again. Of course, Henrikh Mkhitaryan's revival has been a factor but he has only really come to the fore in more recent weeks. And it hasn't by any means only been in attack that United have improved so vastly.

A defence that not so long ago was conceding three at Watford to make it three defeats on the bounce is now looking far more reliable. They have let in just two goals in their last five games and have not shipped more than one goal in a game since the Fenerbahce loss.

The reintroduction of Michael Carrick at Marouane Fellaini's expense at the base of midfield has provided greater protection for the defence, while his passing ability has meant United can better suck the life out of games by keeping hold of the ball for longer periods. It is no surprise their win rate rises so dramatically with Carrick in the team.

Behind him, Phil Jones's return to fitness has been crucial, with the man Sir Alex Ferguson once said "could be United's best ever player" a constant in Mourinho's improving side.

He is the centre-back that United were missing in Istanbul and so much has been proven since his return. They have conceded 0.6 goals per game since Nov 4, down from 1.1 per game prior to that date.

While shots attempted have remained almost constant either side of the Fenerbahce game, the number of shots they face has dropped from 9.3 per game to 7.5. They are looking much more like a Jose Mourinho team with Jones back in the fold, both more compact and organised, and it is showing.

Jones, plagued by injury in recent years, has played 90 minutes in eight consecutive Premier League games for only the fourth time in his five-year United career.

Champions League qualification is now a genuine possibility, with United having caught Spurs in fifth and now surely turning their attentions to hunting down a stuttering Arsenal side. There is still plenty of work to be done but there is every reason for Mourinho's men to believe their rise can continue.

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