Why Manchester United epitomise the problem with drab ‘big six’ games this season

Miguel Delaney
·3-min read
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Football is a hugely welcome distraction in lockdown, but there have been times when it’s hard to keep your eyes on the action.

Many of those occasions have been the glamour games between the old ‘big six’, which have generally been low-intensity, and low-scoring. It’s been particularly bad when they’ve involved the biggest club of all, in Manchester United.

Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea was their fifth in games against the big six this season.

Some of that is related to the specifics of how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seeks to play, but even that can’t be divorced from the wider trends.

With a goal rate of 2.66 per game, this has so far been the lowest scoring season 2014-15. The figure would be even worse were it not for the early goal glut - where the number was around three goals a game - but then this drop-off has been a direct response to that. The figures of the first month were not quite a statistical quirk.

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Teams were attempting to press in their usual way, only to find a number of factors - from pre-season to the schedule - meant they couldn’t.

It first led to huge gaps in the team structures, and thereby a lot of chaotic matches, but eventually to a widespread closing up.

The trend across the Premier League has been for pressing figures to fall massively. Managers reacted by tightening up. The leaders, Manchester City, are the primary example of this.

Pep Guardiola has made them much more constrained and controlled. They don’t burst from deep or make the same number of vertical runs, meaning there is less space to exploit.

City have transformed themselves with less pressing this seasonPOOL/AFP via Getty Images
City have transformed themselves with less pressing this seasonPOOL/AFP via Getty Images

Since pressing is the tactical development that has most elevated the very elite end of the game in the last half decade, the drop has naturally had the most effect on those top-end teams. Hence the matches between the big six have seen an even greater drop than the Premier League as a whole.

Since that 2014-15 season, the average number of goals per game in those fixtures have been the following:

  • 2014-15: 2.9

  • 2015-16: 2.8

  • 2016-17: 2.6

  • 2017-18: 3.03

  • 2018-19: 2.8

  • 2019-20: 3.03

  • 2020-21: 2.2

Last season was a high. This season has so far been a low. It has been a drop of almost a goal a game.

Other factors naturally feed into this. It is impossible not to think the lack of crowds has been a huge influence. Whereas the circumstances afforded the players a freedom in the early days of the situation, it has since become normalised.

Now, they are missing the extra energy and atmosphere a crowd provides. It has meant some of these big games just don’t have any impetus, especially in mid-season when there isn’t the same urgency, or pressure.

It is easier for stand-offs to develop. That is what Chelsea-United especially felt like.

As to why United have been involved in so many 0-0s, it’s difficult not to put it down to the way they attack, and the changed context of these games.

They had, after all, previously been one of Solskjaer’s virtues. He’d enjoyed some superb victories against the rest of the big six, often by playing a more counter-attacking game, and attacking that space in behind. This season, that space hasn’t been there. The drop-off in pressing has caused teams to drop off generally.

The match ended goalless at Stamford BridgePOOL/AFP via Getty Images
The match ended goalless at Stamford BridgePOOL/AFP via Getty Images

United still have this dependency on Bruno Fernandes to create, too, which at least makes the defensive plan for Solskjaer easier to prepare for.

It becomes mostly about crowding out the Portuguese. That was what Chelsea managed. They cut off all the supply lines.

This makes it even more difficult for United to open up withdrawn defences.

That has played a significant part in so many drab games. The old big six have offered some big let-downs.