EPL

Premier League data dive: Comeback experts Man Utd at it again

By Sports Desk April 12, 2021

Manchester United kept up their extraordinary form for coming from behind as they defeated Tottenham in Sunday's big Premier League match.

Earlier, West Ham continued their push for a Champions League spot with a second straight 3-2 victory, this time over fellow top-four contenders Leicester City.

In the late match, Arsenal moved up to ninth thanks to a routine 3-0 dispatching of lowly Sheffield United.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin returned to boost Newcastle United to a potentially crucial 2-1 win at Burnley, and we take a look at the best facts from Sunday's games, courtesy of Opta data.

Burnley 1-2 Newcastle United: Super-sub Saint-Maximin snatches vital points

Newcastle picked up their first win in eight Premier League games – since beating Southampton 3-2 at the start of February – as they came from behind to beat Burnley.

Matej Vydra's third goal in his last five league appearances, as many as he had across his previous 53 appearances in the competition beforehand, put Burnley ahead, but Saint-Maximin proved the difference after the break.

Coming on in the 57th minute alongside the returning Wilson, Saint-Maximin swiftly set up Jacob Murphy's equaliser – all three of the winger's league strikes have come away from home.

Saint-Maximin scored himself five minutes later, becoming only the fifth player to both score and assist a goal as a substitute in a Premier League match for Newcastle, and first since Rolando Aarons against Tottenham in May 2016.

In all competitions, Newcastle have failed to win any of the four matches in which neither Wilson nor Saint-Maximin have featured.

With both of them playing, Newcastle have six wins from 13 matches, while without at least one of their star attacking duo, the Magpies have registered just two victories.

West Ham 3-2 Leicester City: Lingard at the double as Hammers knock at the door

West Ham have recorded their first Premier League double over Leicester since the 1999-2000 season, after Jesse Lingard inspired them to a 3-2 victory at London Stadium.

Leicester have suffered consecutive league defeats for the first time since November, when they lost to Liverpool and Fulham, with Kelechi Iheanacho's double not enough to inspire a comeback.

Iheanacho has scored 14 goals in all competitions this season, equalling his best tally in a single campaign; the Nigerian scored 14 for Manchester City in 2015-16.

However, the damage was already done for Leicester, with Lingard's first-half double making him the first West Ham player to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances since Michail Antonio in September 2016.

In only his his ninth Premier League appearance for West Ham, Lingard reached double figures for goals and assists combined (eight goals, three assists). It is the quickest a Hammers player has ever done so, with Paul Kitson previously reaching double figures the fastest (12 games in 1997).

Jarrod Bowen scored what was ultimately the decisive goal, putting West Ham 3-0 up early in the second half at the culmination of a slick attack in which Lingard and Tomas Soucek combined.

In 2021, only Man City (16) have won more Premier League matches than West Ham (10), who have picked up 32 points from a possible 45 this calendar year (W10 D2 L3).

Tottenham 1-3 Manchester United: Greenwood closes in on Rooney record as Spurs give up another lead

Jose Mourinho is now winless in his last five home matches in all competitions against sides he has previously managed (D2 L3), having won 12 such matches in a row between 2002 and 2018.

Tottenham led in Sunday's headline fixture – Son Heung-min becoming the first player to score three or more goals against United in a single Premier League campaign since Sergio Aguero in 2014-15.

Edinson Cavani had a goal harshly disallowed after a VAR check prior to Spurs' opener, but the Red Devils hit back in the second half. Spurs have dropped 18 points from winning positions in the Premier League this season, second only to Brighton (20).

Mason Greenwood proved decisive, coming on from the bench to set up Cavani and then score one himself after Fred had restored parity.

Only Wayne Rooney (15) has scored more Premier League goals for Manchester United as a teenager than Greenwood (13).

United have gained 28 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season – in the competition's history, only Newcastle in 2001-02 (34) and United themselves in 2012-13 (29) have earned more points from such positions.

Meanwhile, in English top-flight history, United's current 23-game unbeaten run away from home in the league (W15 D8) is bettered only by a 27-game run from Arsenal between April 2003 and September 2004.

Sheffield United 0-3 Arsenal: Lacazette at the double as Gunners hunt Europe

In Premier League history, only Chelsea (42) have beaten the side starting the day bottom of the table more than Arsenal, with this win the Gunners' 37th such victory (alongside Spurs).

It was a comfortable win for Mikel Arteta's team, with Sheffield United having suffered their 25th league defeat of the season, the most by a non-newly promoted side since Huddersfield Town in 2018-19 (28). 

Arsenal are now unbeaten in their last four away games in the Premier League (W2 D2), their longest such run of the season. Indeed, the Gunners have earned more victories on the road (seven) than they have at the Emirates this season (six).

Paul Heckingbottom has seen his Blades side concede 10 goals during his three Premier League games in charge, the joint-most after a manager's first three games in the competition, alongside David Moyes (2002, Everton) and Christian Gross (1997, Spurs).

Gabriel Martinelli's strike was his first Premier League goal of the season for Arsenal, and his first in 446 days since netting against Chelsea in January 2020.

It came in between Alexandre Lacazette's double. He is the sixth Frenchman to score 50 Premier League goals for a single club, with four of the six doing so for Arsenal.

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    Sri Lanka will be hoping a win in 50-over cricket can trigger a white-ball resurgence as they prepare to take on India in a three-match T20I series, beginning on Sunday in Colombo.

    Half-centuries from Avishka Fernando and Bhanuka Rajapaksa helped Sri Lanka win the third and final ODI between the nations on Friday, just their second win in 11 outings.

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    Sri Lanka at least avoided that fate against India in one-day action, aided by a turning track on Friday that allowed their spinners to trigger a batting collapse – the tourists lost their final seven wickets for just 68 runs following a rain delay.

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    India, meanwhile, remain without a number of their star names, so these games provide crucial opportunities for fringe players as they look to impress, particularly as this is a World Cup year.

    Pushing the boundaries

    Sri Lanka have hit a boundary once every 7.7 balls faced in the powerplay overs since the beginning of 2020 in T20I action, the worst rate for any team in that period. 

    India have the third-slowest rate, taking 5.6 balls for every boundary. Captain Shikhar Dhawan will hope to help lower that number as he continues to lead the team, while Prithvi Shaw could get the chance to stake his claim for a regular top-order spot.

    Positive spin can help India

    Varun Chakravarthy could finally be handed his international debut in the series. India appeared keen to pick the mystery spinner against England in the T20I series on home soil earlier this year, yet concerns over his level of fitness ruled him out of contention.

    The 29-year-old is a compelling option, though. He has taken 25 wickets in 21 matches in the Indian Premier League, 17 of which came in a 2020 campaign for the Kolkata Knight Riders that saw him finish with an economy rate of 6.84 runs per over.

    Key series facts

    – India are unbeaten against Sri Lanka in multi-game bilateral T20I series (W3 D1). India have beaten Sri Lanka in each of the past three such series, the most recent meeting being in January 2020.

    – Sri Lanka have one win from their past 11 completed T20I matches against India (L10). The solitary triumph was achieved in March 2018 when the Lions beat the Men in Blue by five wickets at the very same venue this match is being played.

    – Since the beginning of 2020, only 43 per cent of the runs scored by Sri Lanka in men's T20I matches have come via boundaries, the lowest rate for any team in that period.

    – Dasun Shanaka has a batting dot ball rate of 48 per cent in T20I matches since the beginning of 2020. Only two players have a higher rate than the Sri Lankan (Chris Gayle at 53 per cent and Andre Fletcher at 51 per cent, minimum 100 balls faced).

    – Bhuvneshwar Kumar needs five wickets to reach 50 in T20I action for India. He will become the fourth player to achieve this feat for his country, with his career-best figures seeing him take 5-24 against South Africa in 2018.

  • Tokyo Olympics: USA respond in style as hat-trick hero Banda ties record Tokyo Olympics: USA respond in style as hat-trick hero Banda ties record

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    Meanwhile, Banda equalled the record for most goals scored by a woman at a single Olympics, matching Christine Sinclair's tally of six for Canada at London 2012 with another treble, this time against China.

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  • Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address? Solskjaer's new contract: With Sancho signed, what weaknesses do Man Utd still need to address?

    Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

    But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

    It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

    Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

    Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

    Physical dominance is the key

    There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

    While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

    Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

    In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

    In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

    Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

    Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

    But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

    And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

    While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

    That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

    But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

    United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

    Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

    Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

    The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

    That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

    Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

    For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

    But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

    Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

    If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

    But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

    Pressure now on Ole

    Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

    But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

    Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

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