Not Even Chicharito Could Turn Manchester United Around

As the boos rang around Old Trafford Saturday afternoon following a 2-1 defeat to newly promoted Norwich City, Manchester United’s transformation from functional dullards to dismal incompetents was complete. Louis van Gaal’s pedestrian, monochromatic football has been painful on the eye all season long, but at least it had previously brought results. With consecutive defeats to relegation favorites and no wins in their last six, however, Manchester United are now the worst of both worlds: dismal and dysfunctional.

Many United fans have long bemoaned the Dutchman’s style and direction, not least his decision to discard with the services of Javier Hernandez. As we predicted on these pages last season, United’s loss has been Bayer Leverkusen’s gain: with 11 Bundesliga goals in 12 appearances this season, Chicharito is arguably Europe’s hottest striker.

However, those United fans who yearn to don their comedy sombreros once more must recognize an uncomfortable truth:  such are the depths to which the Red Devils have slumped with van Gaal, not even an on-fire Chicharito could transform this Manchester United.

However prolific a striker you may be, and however hot a goal-scoring streak you might be on, it is nigh-on impossible to stick the ball in the back of the net if your teammates aren’t creating chances. And in this United team, under van Gaal, goal-scoring opportunities are rarer than an intelligent comment at a Donald Trump rally.

Take a look at the graph below, which compares Chicharito’s goals-scoring rate per chance created within the 18-yard box (LHS of graph) against that of United’s leading goal-scorer this season: Anthony Martial. You’ll note that, while Hernandez has scored nearly three times as many goals for Leverkusen (RHS of graph), his conversion rate is very similar (34% vs. 29%) to that of United’s young striker.

javier hernandez chance conversion

Chicharito's chance conversion rate is only slightly better than Anthony Martial's (Source: Robert Gordon)

How has he managed, therefore, to score so many more goals? Because at Leverkusen, Chicharito is being presented with more than twice as many scoring opportunities per game than Anthony Martial is receiving at United. If Chicharito was feeding off the same scraps as Martial, he would have scored just a solitary goal more this season than the Frenchman.

chicharito chances conversion

Chicharito is receiving markedly better service at Bayer Leverkusen. (Source: Robert Gordon)

But comparing performances in the Bundesliga with the Premier League is akin to likening apples with starfish. So let’s take Chicharito’s conversion rate from his first and most prolific Premier League season with United, in which he scored 13 goals. As you can see from the chart below, even based on his conversion rate in that breakout 2010/11 season, Javier Hernandez would have exactly the same number of goals in 2015 as Antony Martial.

chicharito strike rate martial

Not even 2010/11 Chicharito would be scoring more goals in van Gaal's present-day United (Source: Robert Gordon)

We’re not going to pretend that the above provides 100 percent proof that Javier Hernandez or any other of Europe’s hottest strikers couldn’t have a positive impact upon Manchester United: Chicharito’s movement and positional sense alone may have created more opportunities for his presently hapless former teammates.

Directionally, however, the above is unquestionably telling: Manchester United have serious structural and ingrained philosophical problems that cannot be solved by simply signing a gifted striker or undoing erroneous decisions of the past. Possession for possession’s sake is only worthwhile if it leads to incisive through-balls or telling crosses, and United have singularly failed to convert such dominance of the ball into goal-scoring chances.

Which can only lead to the conclusion that Manchester United and Louis van Gaal have crossed their Rubicon: because when a red-hot Chicharito can't bring you an influx of goals, there is something very, very wrong indeed. 

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