Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Slow out of the blocks? – A look at Manchester United’s Premiership starts

By Daniel Alston

“Manchester United are typically slow starters,” is often heard as each campaign starts, if the Reds stutter into gear and then find themselves a bit behind those at the top of the league. “They always come good in the second half of the season,” usually follows and when those seasons have ended with a title or a podium finish as they consistently have in the Premiership era, perhaps that has become something of a certified assumption.

Although they emerged victorious on Sunday at West Brom, it was a somewhat fortuitous result given the nature of the second goal and the fact that for all the attacking energy in the team, only one shot on target was registered.

But do United really start campaigns as badly as people make out? Do our memories play tricks, convincing us that Fergie’s men only truly perform after Christmas? Have Cantona, Hughes, Cole, Sheringham, Ruud, Rooney & co all only found their shooting boots in the ‘business end of the season’? Or are United just guilty of a few starts short of their typical efficiency? The 95/96 season where Alan Hansen wrote off their title chances after an opening day defeat to Aston Villa sticks in the mind.
You'll win nothing with kids will you Mr Hansen?
Despite the low number of points required to top the Premiership last year, it is difficult to argue that the league is becoming harder and harder to win. Whether that be the improving quality of the ‘lower teams’ and their growing capability/belief in taking points off the big boys, or the contrasting view that the elite teams have weakened in recent years, United certainly have more competition than ever before.

So with a serious challenge from neighbours City, a revitalised Liverpool, a Chelsea now full of youth on the sidelines if not on the pitch and no one – including Arsene Wenger – quite knowing how Arsenal will perform this year, do a Manchester United in semi-transition need to hit the ground running in order to capture title number 20?

Let’s class the ‘start of the season’ as the first 6 league games. Below are the results from those fixtures for each season, complete with possible points obtained, league position after that stage, followed by end-of-season comparison stats.

2010/11: Newcastle (W:3-0), Fulham (D:2-2), West Ham (W:3-0), Everton (D:3-3), Liverpool (W:3-2), Bolton (D:2-2).
P6-W3-D3-L0 / F16-A9 / Pts 12 out of 18 = 67%. Pos: 2nd.
Season total points: 80 out of 114 = 70%. F78-A37. Pos: 1st.

2009/10: Birmingham (W:1-0), Burnley (L:0-1), Wigan (W:5-0), Arsenal (W:2-1), Tottenham (W:3-1), Man City (W:4-3).
P6-W5-D0-L1 / F15-A6 / Pts 15 out of 18 = 83%. Pos: 2nd.
Season total points: 85 out of 114 = 75%. F86-A28. Pos: 2nd.

2008/09: Newcastle (D:1-1), Portsmouth (W:1-0), Liverpool (L:1-2), Chelsea (D:1-1), Bolton (W:2-0), Blackburn (W:2-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F8-A4 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 6th.
Season total points: 90 out of 114 = 79%. F68-A24. Pos: 1st.

2007/08: Reading (D:0-0), Portsmouth (D:1-1), Man City (L:0-1), Tottenham (W:1-0), Sunderland (W:1-0), Everton (W:1-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F4-A2 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 87 out of 114 = 76%. F80-A22. Pos: 1st.

2006/07: Fulham (W:5-1), Charlton (W:3-0), Watford (W:2-1), Tottenham,(W:1-0), Arsenal (L:0-1), Reading (D:1-1).
P6-W4-D1-L1 / F12-A4 / Pts 13 out of 18 = 72%. Pos: 2nd.
Season total points: 89 out of 114 = 78%. F83-A27. Pos: 1st.

2005/06: Everton (W:2-0), Aston Villa (W:1-0), Newcastle (W:2-0). Man City (D:1-1), Liverpool (D:0-0), Blackburn (L:1-2).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F7-A3 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 6th.
Season total points: 83 out of 114 = 73%. F72-A34. Pos: 2nd.

2004/05: Chelsea (L:0-1), Norwich (W:2-1), Blackburn (D:1-1), Everton (D:0-0). Bolton (D:2-2), Liverpool (W:2-1).
P6-W2-D3-L1 / F7-A6 / Pts 9 out of 18 = 50%. Pos: 8th.
Season total points: 77 out of 114 = 68%. F58-A26. Pos: 3rd.

2003/04: Bolton (W:4-0), Newcastle (W:2-1), Wolves (W:1-0), Southampton (L:0-1), Charlton (W:2-0), Arsenal (D:0-0).
P6-W4-D1-L1 / F9-A2 / Pts 13 out of 18 = 72%. Pos: 3rd.
Season total points: 75 out of 114 = 66%. F64-A35. Pos: 3rd.

2002/03: West Brom (W:1-0), Chelsea (D:2-2), Sunderland (D:1-1), Middlesbrough (W:1-0). Bolton (L:0-1), Leeds (L:0-1).
P6-W2-D2-L2 / F5-A5 / Pts 8 out of 18 = 44%. Pos: 10th.
Season total points: 83 out of 114 = 73%. F74-A34. Pos: 1st.

2001/02: Fulham (W:3-2), Blackburn (D:2-2), Aston Villa (D:1-1), Everton (W:4-1), Newcastle (L:3-4), Ipswich (W:4-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F17-A10 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 3rd.
Season total points: 77 out of 114 = 68%. F87-A45. Pos: 3rd.

2000/01: Newcastle (W:2-0), Ipswich (D:1-1), West Ham (D:2-2), Bradford (W:6-0), Sunderland (W:3-0), Everton (W:3-1).
P6-W4-D2-L0 / F17-A4 / Pts 14 out of 18 = 78%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 80 out of 114 = 70%. F79-A31. Pos: 1st.

1999/2000: Everton (D:1-1), Sheff Wed (W:4-0), Leeds (W:2-0), Arsenal (W:2-1), Coventry (W:2-1), Newcastle (W:5-1).
P6-W5-D1-L0 / F16-A4 / Pts 16 out of 18 = 89%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 91 out of 114 = 80%. F97-A45. Pos: 1st.

1998/99: Leicester (D:2-2), West Ham (D:0-0), Charlton (W:4-1), Coventry (W:2-0), Arsenal (L:0-3), Liverpool (W:2-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F10-A6 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 5th.
Season total points: 79 out of 114 = 69%. F80-A37. Pos: 1st.

1997/98: Tottenham (W:2-0), Southampton (W:1-0), Leicester (D:0-0), Everton (W:2-0), Coventry (W:3-0), West Ham (W:2-1).
P6-W5-D1-L0 / F10-A1 / Pts 16 out of 18 = 89%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 77 out of 114 = 68%. F73-A26. Pos: 2nd.

1996/97: Wimbledon (W:3-0). Everton (D:2-2), Blackburn (D:2-2), Derby (D:1-1), Leeds (W:4-0), Notts Forest (W: 4-1).
P6-W3-D3-L0 / F16-A6 / Pts 12 out of 18 = 67%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 75 out of 114 = 66%. F76-A44. Pos: 1st.

1995/96: Aston Villa (L:1-3), West Ham (W:2-1), Wimbledon (W:3-1), Blackburn (W:3-1), Everton (W:3-2), Bolton (W:3-0).
P6-W5-D0-L1 / F15-A8 / Pts 15 out of 18 = 83%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 82 out of 114 = 72%. F73-A35. Pos: 1st.

1994/95: QPR (W:2-0), Notts Forest (D:1-1), Tottenham (W:1-0), Wimbledon (W:3-0), Leeds (L:1-2), Liverpool (W:2-0).
P6-W4-D1-L1 / F10-A3 / Pts 13 out of 18 = 72%. Pos: 3rd.
Season total points: 88 out of 126 = 70%. F77-A28. Pos: 2nd.

1993/94: Norwich (W:2-0), Sheff Utd (W:3-0), Newcastle (D:1-1), Aston Villa (W:2-1), Southampton (W:3-1), West Ham (W:3-0).
P6-W5-D1-L0 / F14-A3 / Pts 16 out of 18 = 89%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 92 out of 126 = 73%. F80-A38. Pos: 1st.

1992/93: Sheff Utd (L:1-2), Everton (L:0-3), Ipswich (D:1-1), Southampton (W:1-0), Notts Forest (W:2-0), Crystal Palace (W:1-0).
P6-W3-D1-L2 / F6-A6 / Pts 10 out of 18 = 56%. Pos: 6th.
Season total points: 84 out of 126 = 67%. F67-A31. Pos: 1st.

*Seasons 1992/93, 93/94 and 94/95 were when the Premiership was home to 22 teams and United played 42 fixtures. Stats have been adjusted accordingly.

The average percentage of total points amassed over the 19 Premiership seasons by Manchester United is 72%. For the first 6 games, the average percentage of points they won equates to a slightly lower 69%.

In 9 of the 19 seasons, United won a greater percentage of the points available in their first 6 games than those for the whole season. These moments are highlighted.

In some seasons, United have lacked in goals at the onset and conceded more than expected (lowest GF:4 in 2007/08 = just 5% of season total in 16% of season’s games). Yet their Goals For column over the first 6 games is on average only 1% lower than at the end of the respective season. Conversely, the Goals Against column is only 1% higher. Thus, it could be argued, there is little difference to United’s attack or defence in August than for the following 9 months.

Returning to the Hansen moment cited earlier, United went on to win their next five matches – something that isn’t as well recalled as the 3-1 defeat to Villa. Yes, United have had some faltering openings. But even some of their worst (56% of points in 92/93, 44% in 02/03) have fronted title-winning seasons. On the other hand, some of their best (89% of points in 97/98, 83% in 09/10) have been runners-up years.

A lot can be learnt over the first half dozen games of a season, but rarely does it paint a true picture of how events will unfold. United average a table position of 3rd after their first 6 fixtures, a position they have finished three times, but never a place lower.

So United may be slow out of the blocks on occasion, not only by their own standards, but also in respect to the league table mid-September. Used to topping it by May, their position is little more than a guide stick in the first few months. Sir Alex may be best at getting results out of his side during ‘squeaky bum time’, but you have to be in the mix for that to even matter. A flying start, it would seem, is little more than a bonus to aiding the process.

Perhaps pre-season predictions and short odds on United as title favourites almost every year have led many to be disappointed if they don’t come away with six straight victories - something they have yet to do in Premiership dawns. Regardless, the saying that United are slow starters is not exactly a myth, but neither is it as much of a trait as conceived. Each season is different and with the Red Devils clear favourites with the bookies once more, anything other than a near-flawless start will sound those familiar misguided echoes.

After that win at the Hawthorns, Manchester United’s first 6 fixtures this time around are completed by: West Brom (A), Tottenham (H), Arsenal (H), Bolton (A), Chelsea (H) and Stoke (A). As the average points recouped for that first half dozen over the years equals somewhere between 12 and 13, I’ll be more than happy with 2 home wins and the remaining 3 as draws, thank you. Hopefully we’ll have a better away record than last year, but I’d be quite happy to go another season at Old Trafford unbeaten. In addition, taking points off Arsenal and Chelsea will be as important as ever.

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