Man Utd should not obsess over City, Son’s xG cheat, and feeling happy for Nunez – The Briefing – The Athletic

By Nick MillerMar 4, 2024

Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during the season, The Athletic discusses three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.

This week, Jude Bellingham was sent off for his frantic protests against a disallowed goal, Nottingham Forest’s owner embarked on some complaints of his own after Liverpool’s late winner at the City ground, and Chelsea drew rather limply again.

Here, we will ask if Manchester United have the wrong models for their rebuild, whether Son Heung-min has cracked the xG code at Tottenham Hotspur, and whether we should be happy for players who emerge from the ‘bantersphere’…

Are Manchester United looking at the wrong models for their rebuild?

At times, Sunday’s Manchester derby was like watching a Premier League side face a League One team in the FA Cup.

United scored an early goal and then tried to defend deeply and perhaps nab another on the counter, which led to an awful lot of City passing the ball around 30 yards from goal, trying to find gaps in the armour, before they inevitably broke through.

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This isn’t really a dig at United. They played how a lot of teams set up against City because Pep Guardiola’s team are so much better than all but about four or five sides in the world, never mind in the Premier League. This was obvious and we knew it before the game.

Neither should it necessarily be another layer on United’s cake of despair as they contemplate their rebuild under the guidance of Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Sir Dave Brailsford and the rest of the INEOS boffins.

United’s plan was fine, but they’re a long way behind City (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

As a United fan, you might watch that game and be filled with ennui at the idea that this rebuild could take years, particularly if you consider some of the statistics. That was United’s 11th defeat of the season, hot on the heels of the record for most losses suffered by a team who went on to finish in the Premier League’s top six that season (held by Chelsea’s 1997-98 vintage, who lost 15 games). United have also only scored 37 goals, which is the same as 18th-placed Luton Town. From all that, they might think they’re staring down the barrel of another generation of woe.

This might be true — if they use City as their model.

The 3-1 defeat on Sunday should serve as another reminder of just how far City are ahead of their rivals — so far that they’re barely relevant to what United should realistically expect.

More on United’s future under INEOS…

  • Ratcliffe’s admiration for Manchester City
  • Brailsford’s story, part one: The rise of Mr Marginal Gains
  • Can Ten Hag sense the ground shaking?

Perhaps, instead of looking to City, as Ratcliffe said they would be doing, they should instead use teams like Aston Villa or Tottenham as their models. Their turnarounds have been much quicker than anyone anticipated. The expectation levels might be different — United’s history dictates that their target is not merely Champions League qualification, but pushing for titles — but it might feel rather more manageable to look at teams who have taken one or two steps up rather than the 10 that separate United and City.

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Take Arsenal — it took a few years of being asked to trust Mikel Arteta’s process and the faith certainly wavered in some places, but they pushed for the title last season and are in the race this time. Liverpool, too — they were in the Champions League final in Jurgen Klopp’s second full season.

City are an alien spacecraft. They are naturally, given the rivalry, United’s point of comparison, but they are so far ahead to be unreachable in the foreseeable future. However, a few of the other clubs between them and City are not.

Son Heung-min: Tottenham’s reliable cheat code

Spurs are quite a chaotic team, which makes them terrific fun to watch.

That they have now come back to win five games this season after going behind is a case in point. It is exciting and has made for a lot of thrilling late finishes but, at this stage, Ange Postecoglou must be praying for a boring, routine 2-0 win.

Chaos and consistency are not friends and constantly conceding the first goal doesn’t feel sustainable, so a team with Champions League ambitions requires a sure thing, something or someone they can bank on.

Luckily, they have Son, whose brilliance you can judge via a few methods.

First, the eye test. We’ve all known for some time that Son is a sensational footballer. When he was clean through against Crystal Palace at the weekend, did you have any doubt he was going to score?

Next, the most basic statistic: that was Son’s 13th Premier League goal of the season, which is already better than five of his full campaigns at Spurs, including last season. If things continue like this, he could feasibly surpass his best goalscoring season of 2021-22, when he scored 23 league goals.

But you’re all intelligent readers, so let’s move on to some slightly more advanced numbers and point out that Son is an expected goals (xG) cheat code, a forward who consistently scores more goals than the metrics suggest he should. He has outperformed his xG for the past six seasons, as you can see from the below chart, with only the occasional dip in a constant run of graph spikes. Essentially, those blue patches below show he is finishing at a rate that is far above the average and has been doing so for years.

This season, he is outperforming his xG more than any other player in the Premier League. The numbers suggest he should have scored about eight goals, but he has five more than that. Only Jarrod Bowen is close to such an overperformance, then there’s Diogo Jota and then a pretty big gap to the rest.

There have been many inevitable conversations about whether Harry Kane’s absence has set Son free, that the responsibility of being Tottenham’s main source of goals has made him better. It’s not an unreasonable debate, but it misses the point that Son has been this good for a very long time.

Nunez and Werner emerge from the ‘bantersphere’

If someone has made their mind up about a player, it’s often quite difficult for that to change. When a whole group of people make their minds up about a player, it’s even more difficult. And when the player enters the collective bantersphere, it’s almost impossible.

Some players very quickly become punchlines, their every move mocked and their successes written off as flukes. They become walking memes, constant sources of fun, which is particularly absurd given they are Premier League footballers.

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It’s impossible not to feel pretty sorry for them (as much as one can feel sorry for multi-millionaire athletes) and also impossible not to feel that extra little bit happier for them when they start to do well.

That thought occurred this weekend when big goals were scored by a couple of players who have suffered from the banter treatment: Darwin Nunez and Timo Werner.

Nunez’s reputation as an unpredictable agent of chaos, a striker just as likely to shank nine shots into the stands as he is to score a crucial goal, does actually have a degree of truth to it. He’s a forward who operates under the law of large numbers, taking so many shots that it’s inevitable that plenty will miss the target. At just a shade under five per 90 minutes, he takes more shots than anyone else in the Premier League.

Nunez celebrates his winner at Forest (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

But does it matter when he produces moments like the late winner at Nottingham Forest on Saturday, particularly as he now has 10 goals and seven assists this season, one every 88 minutes? No, it does not.

GO DEEPER

Liverpool’s minute of mayhem: ‘Karma’, Van Dijk the cameraman and title hopes ignited

It’s a similar case for Werner, whose sense of haplessness continued from his time at Chelsea into his move to Tottenham, via RB Leipzig. After he failed to score a one-on-one chance against Crystal Palace, the onslaught of jokes felt inevitable, but then he scored in the second half — a much easier chance, admittedly — but the relief on his face at the time and in his post-match interview was obvious and rather heartwarming.

This is not necessarily a pious call to the banter merchants of the internet to be nice and kind all the time, but more a celebration of the players that rise above it all to succeed.

Coming up this week

  • There might have been a Premier League game that has looked more one-sided than Sheffield United vs Arsenal on Monday, but it’s difficult to think of one right now.
  • We can look forward to a juicy evening in the Champions League on Tuesday: Paris Saint-Germain hold a 2-0 advantage over Real Sociedad going into their last-16 second leg in Spain, but the real drama could come in Germany as Bayern Munich attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Lazio.
  • There is perhaps a little less juice on Wednesday given Manchester City won 3-1 in their away leg against Copenhagen and Real Madrid take a 1-0 advantage over Leipzig back to the Bernabeu… but what else are you going to do? Go out? Speak to your loved ones? Pfft.
  • The big dogs are in the Europa League knockouts: the choice cuts are Sparta Prague vs Liverpool, Roma vs Brighton and Marseille vs Villarreal.
  • Don’t you dare forget about the Europa Conference League: Aston Villa travel to face Jordan Henderson’s Ajax, while the most interesting of the rest is probably Union Saint-Gilloise against Fenerbahce.
  • Finally, we don’t usually look ahead to the following weekend in this section, but it’s worth it this week: cancel all your plans for next Sunday because it’s Liverpool vs Manchester City. Big. Huge. Large.

Some things to read

  • Is it time for football to have a stopped clock after the 90th minute?
  • Will Tuchel or Sarri return to the Premier League?
  • Fergie’s first fledgling on the difficulty of life as a young player

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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Nick Miller is a football writer for the Athletic and the Totally Football Show. He previously worked as a freelancer for the Guardian, ESPN and Eurosport, plus anyone else who would have him.

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