Analytics: Man United makes smart summer moves


Bastian Schweinsteiger in action for Manchester United. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

After Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria failed to impress following their big money moves to Manchester United last year Red Devil fans have approached this summer’s transfer signings with a more skeptical eye.

So far the club has bought Matteo Darmian from Torino, Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich, Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton and Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven. Schneiderlin is already an established Premier League player, and at 25 he is seen as a fairly safe bet. Darmian is a little harder to evaluate as a defender, but comes with high praise. The two that have attracted more attention, scrutiny and perceived risk are the signings of Schweinsteiger and Depay.

Bastian Schweinsteiger

With Schweinsteiger the worry is that the soon-to-be-31-year-old may be on the downward side of his career. United learned the hard way this past season with Falcao (and to a lesser extent Robin Van Persie) that buying older players—even those with impressive numbers in the past—is a big risk.

However, it appears with Schweinsteiger that Manchester United has done their homework and learned from last season’s mistakes. When they signed Falcao he was coming off two seasons of declining production. With Schweinsteiger this isn’t the case. His offensive numbers in terms of shots and key passes (passes that lead to a shot) per 90 minutes have been relatively unchanged over the past six years.

One thing that makes the Schweinsteiger transfer a little harder to evaluate than Falcao’s loan is the fact the German is a more two-way player. Falcao came to United to score goals—something he failed to do—whereas Schweinsteiger will be expected to contribute much more than that playing in midfield.

In order to look at Schweinsteiger on a more overall level we can use his GoalImpact rating. GoalImpact looks at how a team’s goal difference changes when a player is on or off the pitch. If a team has a better goal difference when a certain player is on the pitch than when he is off it then that player will have a higher GoalImpact rating. The average GoalImpact rating is 100. Schweinsteiger’s is currently 178, one of the best in world football.

Not only is Schweinsteiger’s GoalImpact rating incredibly high, but it has also been consistent for the past few seasons with only a slight decline.

So Manchester United haven’t just signed a washed-up superstar, they’ve signed a world-class midfielder. Whether or not he starts to drop off with United remains to be seen, but this move has none of the warning signs that the Falcao move had last season.

Memphis Depay

The second signing that has attracted lots of debate is that of Dutch wunderkind Memphis Depay. Moving from the Eredivise to any top league is always a risk. For every Luis Suarez that makes the step up there are more than a few like Jozy Altidore. That being said United haven’t just signed any promising young attacker from the Netherlands—they’ve signed the best attacker in the entire league.

One tool to evaluate an attacker’s overall contribution to their team’s attack is using a statistic called Weighted Chances Created Plus (wCC+). A player’s wCC+ looks at the number of chances a player creates in terms of shots and key passes per 90 minutes then weights these chances by how many of them actually turn into goals and assists. The statistic is adjusted for the league average so that the average attacker in any league has a wCC+ of 100.

Memphis Depay had a wCC+ score of 200 last season, the highest in the Eredivise. This means he contributes twice as much to his team’s attack as the average forward. He did this on the back of 0.77 goals and 5.68 shots per 90 minutes.

These are incredible numbers for any forward, never mind one who is only 21 (albeit in a league dominated by youth).

These numbers are no guarantee of success in England, given that several Eredivise stars have flopped after making the move to Premier League in the past, but Memphis’s numbers are a step above many of these past prospects. For what it’s worth he also impressed against top-level competition playing in the World Cup for Louis Van Gaal’s Dutch squad.

Manchester United supporters are right to be nervous about their summer signings, especially because some of last season’s transfers were questionable at best. This summer has been different. In Schweinsteiger, United has found an older player who is still near the top of his game and with Memphis the Red Devils have a proven goal scorer and chance creator. It’s too early to say for sure whether or not Manchester United will be better this season, but one thing we can be sure of is that they’ve been smarter.

Data courtesy of Opta

Sam Gregory is soccer analytics writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter

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