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Scout Report: Manchester United - Do SAFC stand a chance of stopping Zlatan?

The Zlatan machine rolls into Wearside this weekend, and with Sunderland seemingly unable to keep clean sheets and score goals it makes David Moyes’ side prime pickings for a Manchester United team that are unbeaten in their last twenty matches.

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

What Has Happened Since The Last Time They Met? (3-1, 26/12/2016)

Manchester United have remained unbeaten in the 11 games since they dispatched Sunderland on Boxing Day. However, while this is part of an impressive 20 game unbeaten run, only five of those 11 have in fact been wins. Disappointing draws against the likes of Stoke, Hull, Bournemouth and West Brom have seen them remain in 6th position (albeit with at least one game in hand), with some questions being asked of manager Jose Mourinho, whose return after 29 games is two less than Louis van Gaal's haul.

The Red Devils have fared better in domestic competitions, however, and success in this area will likely see Mourinho's debut season regarded as a successful one. Despite an FA Cup quarter final exit at the hands of Chelsea, United lifted the League Cup with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Southampton at Wembley, while advancing to the Europa League quarter finals and what seems like a favourable tie against Anderlecht.


While Zlatan Ibrahimovic has excelled in his debut season for Manchester United, his presence on the pitch has somewhat limited the way United approach games. Their build-up tends to be slow and methodical, shifting the ball from side to side, rather than exhibiting the one-two passing that United have been known for over the years. The Swede lacks the pace to run in behind, meaning that their play towards him tends to be direct and sees his moving away from goal. His 27 goals may seem like this is not much of a negative factor, but the lack of goal contributions from other players suggests that the team as a whole is not benefiting.

Manchester United v Everton - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

This lack of incisiveness allows their opponents to either sit deep and establish a defensive wall, or push forward and squeeze the space in front of them, as Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams did on Wednesday. While the likes of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial possess raw pace, their chances of getting in behind are limited by a defence sitting deep, or the inability of, or lack of confidence in, their midfield players to pass the ball forwards at pace. This likely explains why United's 26 crosses per game is the league's highest; they simply run out of options and resort to aiming for the big man.

This shouldn't be too much of a problem against Sunderland though. They have quality players, and a side lacking so much in confidence as Sunderland are present United with a great opportunity to let the shackles off.

They're still 6th in the league, the 6th best team in the country - they're obviously not a bad team like the above might suggest, and it needs to be placed in the context of them challenging for Champions League football. As explained below, they still manage to create a large number of chances and present themselves with goalscoring opportunities.


As you'd expect from a team managed by Jose Mourinho, United are highly organised and hard-working off the ball. This translates to some impressive defensive stats - a very stingy, mean defence has allowed just 24 goals (the 2nd best defensive record in the league) and they allow an average of just nine shots on their goal per game (the league's 4th best), while making 29.6 clearances, 18.2 tackles and 15.4 interceptions, which represent the 5th, 6th and 3rd best respectively. They're rather impressive numbers when you consider that only three more teams see more of the ball than United (equal with Arsenal). A league high 2.9 offsides won per game further demonstrates their defensive organisation.

Middlesbrough v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

As a result of their defensive organisation, United have conceded just four goals from set pieces, the lowest total in the league. Their aerial prowess also plays a large role in this. With 56%, they've won a bigger share of aerial duels and have also conceded less headed goals, with three, than any other side. 18.1 aerial duels won per game is also far greater than any of their top six rivals.

As explained above, United's play tends to be slow and methodical, rather than probing and risk-taking. It's no surprise that they pass with 84.8% accuracy, which is marginally behind their city rivals as the league's best. Despite their incisiveness, United still manage to provide themselves with plenty of attacking opportunities. 17.2 shots per game sees them rank ever so slightly behind Spurs at the top of the list, while 6.1 on target represents the league's 3rd best accuracy. They've created 374 chances, or around 13 per game, which again represents the league's 3rd highest amount. It's certainly not for the want of trying with United.


Despite the number of chances that they afford themselves, scoring goals has been somewhat of a problem for United. With 43 goals, they're just the 8th highest scorers in the league - Bournemouth have actually scored more. Just three players have scored more than three league goals this season - Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba - with Ibrahimovic contributing 36% of their goals. That's the league's 3rd highest player/team goal contribution percentage, behind Jermain Defoe (56%) and Romelu Lukaku (41%).

Manchester United v Hull City - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

43 goals scored from a total of 176 shots on target means that they’ve converted just 24.4% of these efforts, which seems rather poor for a side like United. Liverpool, for example, have converted 34.4%, while Chelsea have converted 39.2%.

Unfortunately for United, their excellent defensive set piece record has followed them forward. They've scored just seven goals from set pieces - only Southampton, Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland have been less successful in this area.

On a similar note, their aerial prowess has not exactly been reflected in attack. Nine headed goals is by no means the worst record in the league (it represents the 8th best, in fact) but considering their aerial success, fans may have expected them to be closer to Arsenal's league high 15.

Key Player - Zlatan Ibrahimovic

The evergeeen Swede has enjoyed a successful debut season in the England, scoring 27 goals, including the winner in the League Cup Final.

Manchester United v Southampton - EFL Cup Final Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The 35-year-old has scored eight goals in his last 10 games, along with three assists, and rescued an extremely late point against Everton last time out. His away form has been sparkling in recent months, bagging an impressive eight goals in his last seven games away from Old Trafford. He was also on the scoresheet the last time that the sides met and created Daley Blind's opener.

The odds seem stacked in his favour on Sunday.

Match Facts

  • Sunderland have won just three games against Manchester United in 31 Premier League meetings (D6, L22);
  • However, Manchester United haven't won in their last three visits to the Stadium of Light (D1, L2);
  • Sunderland have failed to score in six consecutive top-flight matches for the first time since a run of eight games in October 1981;
  • David Moyes has lost 15 Premier League matches against Manchester United (W3, D5);
  • Manchester United are undefeated in 20 Premier League games (W10, D10);
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored eight goals in his last seven Premier League away games;
  • Manchester United have scored at least two goals in five of their last six Premier League away games.

Likely Line-Up

Manchester United - Football tactics and formations

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