As much as results are the key to a successful tenure as manager, performance has got to be up there too and if your team are putting on performances more boring than a midget’s day out at a theme park then it’s not a great sign. I for one have been extremely frustrated watching Manchester United matches this season and I’m a neutral so I can only imagine how their fans are feeling.
There’s been a lot written about United and their performances and some ex players have had their say too. What I find interesting, however, is the comparisons between the situation at United and at Atletico Madrid who, as far as I can see, are the Manchester United of La Liga this season.
Let’s start with the obvious similarities at the time of writing (and keeping in mind that Atleti have played one less league game):
- Both 2nd in their respective league tables
- Both have won 8 games and lost 2
- United have a goal difference of 10 compared to Atelti’s 11
- United have scored 19 goals, Atletico have scored 17 (thus both average around 1.4 goals per game)
- The teams directly above and below both United and Atletico have scored almost 10 more goals than they have
- Atletico have 7 clean sheets, United have 9 (both top of their leagues for this stat)
- Both spent heavily in the transfer window on players who haven’t quite delivered
The last point is potentially one of the reasons why both Atletico Madrid and Manchester United have been a little frustrating to watch this season.
Players not performing
Atletico spent €75 million on Jackson Martinez, Yannick Carrasco and Luciano Vietto in the summer and they have 5 league goals between them so far this season (good thing Griezmann has 5 on his own).
€35 million of this went on Jackson Martinez who, to add insult to injury, is now injured. He has had a difficult start to life in the Spanish capital with the pressure of such a large price tag and the inevitable comparisons to Radamel Falcao, given the similarities in their transfer moves.
Atletico club president Enrique Cerezo also said that Martinez was ‘the best number nine in Europe’ which obviously takes all the pressure off such an important player just before a Madrid derby…
Martinez seems to have struggled in important games where he could have a big impact. Their Champions League game against Benfica comes to mind when Martinez had a chance to put his side 2-0 up but he hit the post and Benfica ended up winning 2-1. Unfortunately it is this sort of miss that has summed up his season so far.
Similarly, United spent £60 million on Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial who also have 5 league goals between them. While Depay was on target against Watford in their last league match, he has had a difficult first season and has spent some time on the bench as youngster Jesse Lingard has arguably outshone him.
Martial is a difficult one. At the start of the season he got off to a flyer and there was a lot of excitement around him. Unfortunately he was stuck out on the left in favour of a misfiring Rooney leading the line. While he hasn’t been necessarily bad, Martial has had a hard time impacting games from out wide and the fact that Rooney hasn’t been scoring the goals we know he can has added pressure to the youngster to step up.
Manchester United's style of play
Johan Cruyff said, in relation to Manchester United, two things that I think sum up why people aren’t raving hysterically about how Van Gaal has turned them around.
The first was in response to a question about whether Van Gaal was cautious or not to which he replied ‘I don’t think so, but it’s strange that against strong teams they’ve got good results and with weak teams they’ve had difficulties. That’s a strange situation.’
With a defeat to Swansea and draws against Crystal Palace, Newcastle (and Middlesbrough in the league cup, eventually losing on penalties) it rings true that United have struggled against weaker teams. Then, by contrast, wins against Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and an arguably surprising draw against Manchester City have proved that United can battle with the best.
The second was that ‘the most important part are the fans, that people going home are happy. It’s their time off and you should give them something to enjoy.’
This is the crux of United’s problem. Second in the Premier League and the best clean sheet record is no disaster and yet, fans aren’t enjoying the matches. I want to quote Jose Mourinho here because it’s a miracle that he and Johan Cruyff are agreeing on something. Mourinho said ‘I ask myself about the future, and maybe the future of football is a beautiful, green grass carpet without goals, where the team with more ball possession wins the game.’
Van Gaal has an obsession with possession, a total football style that leaves his players scared of losing the ball and they just don’t seem as adventurous with their runs and passes by consequence. It works defensively but offensively there’s not much for the fans to cheer.
Admittedly this style pays off a fair amount of the time as essentially controlling the match leads to lots of narrow victories. The problems come when his side concedes and United have to get a goal and their style of play doesn’t seem to change.
Atletico Madrid's style of play
Atletico have a different style of play but it causes similar problems to Van Gaal’s possession mantra. The two teams do share the philosophy that all players have to contribute defensively which is detrimental to their flair and creativity. They also share a compact defensive shape that is difficult to break down.
Where Atletico differ from United is the fact that Simeone is obsessed with specific pressing and counter-attack. By specific pressing I mean that they stay in their defensive shape unless a realistic opportunity to regain possession is seen in which case a player or several players press to win the ball back. Atletico’s players do not make rash challenges or press when winning the ball back looks unlikely or would cause a dangerous defensive situation.
Counter-attack is also a style that differs from United. Losing possession in the attacking third causes little risk defensively so Atletico like to play quick balls on the break to catch opponents off guard.
This is why Antoine Greizmann has had so much success as he has the pace and finishing ability to benefit from this system. Fernando Torres on the other hand does not and this goes some way to explaining his lack of goals.
This counter-attack style can be exciting to watch and so Atletico have not had many critics in relation to play style. The only argument for it being boring to watch that really holds up is that they rarely score more than two goals in a game using this style which is a similar problem to United.
They do however share a problem that United experience which is struggling against weaker sides.
A style that relies on winning the ball from the opposition and hitting them on the break naturally is less effective against weaker teams who won’t have the same attacking presence as the stronger teams. This means that Atletico will have more possession, which doesn’t suit the style of play that Simeone is promoting.
While Ateltico and United are getting results and sitting in 2nd place in their respective leagues, they are frustrating teams to watch because I know they have players capable of a lot of flair and impressive attacking performances.
The only upside is that betting on Manchester United and Atletico Madrid wins and Under 2.5 Goals has won me a lot of money this season!