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Are Manchester United grinding it out?

Thursday 28th September 2017
Manchester United 'ground out' a 1-0 win over Southampton on Saturday. But does grinding out results, as we all say, actually lead to Premier League titles?
We often talk about championship winning teams grinding out wins. We say, for some reason, that because it's unreasonable to expect a team to be able to play at their best for all 38 games of the Premier League season, that those who go on to sit atop the tree come May are those that can earn the three points when their football is less than their best. After all, three points are three points, whether you win by one goal or five.

But do championship sides actually 'grind out' results as is the adage, and did Manchester United do exactly that on Saturday, when they travelled to Saint Mary's and earned a precious 1-0 victory against Southampton, despite being under significant pressure in the second half? Well, I took a delve into the statistics...

I decided to look at the last four title-winning sides -- Chelsea, twice, Leicester City and Manchester City -- to see how many games they ground out. Now, defining a 'ground out' victory is far from easy. It is, after all, a subjective, unmeasurable quantity that will differ from opinion to opinion. Nevertheless, and I accept that this is a little vague and potential overlooking definition, I totted up the number of games won in the title-winning season by one goal, and contrasted it to the total number of wins, total number of games played (38), the proportion of their points earned through such games, and to the number of 'easy wins' that came with a more substantial margin. I am aware this is far from a definitive, clear and accurate picture. But it does go some way to investigating the nature of the 'ground out' victory. So this is what I discovered.

In the 2013/14 season, Manchester City were the champions. In that season, they won 27 of their 38 games, amassing 86 points in total. Of those 27 wins, five of them were by a one-goal margin, meaning they earned 17.4% of their points that season in such games. In contrast, 11 of their 27 wins were by a margin of three goals or more, showing both City's free-scoring style and the far greater proportion of points earned through a comfortable victory.
In the 2014/15 season, Chelsea were the champions under Jose Mourinho, a stereotypically defensive manager. Of the 38 games played, they won 26, totaling 87 points across the year. Of those 26, 11 of them were won by just one goal, resulting in 37.9% of their points won in such games. In contrast to City's 11 games won by three goals or more, Chelsea won just four. That is a slant on Mourinho's more pragmatic style and shows the value of the 'ground-out' victories that the sides throughout his career have been able to achieve.

In the 2015/16 season, it was the miracle of Leicester City. That year, they recorded a points total of 81, winning just 23 games. Of those 23 games, 14 were won by a margin of one goal, meaning that over half, 51.9% to be exact, of their points were earned in tightly-fought victories. Similarly, they won just four games by a margin of three goals or more, the same as a famously defensive Chelsea.

Last season, it was again Chelsea who lifted the trophy, this time, under the tutelage of Antonio Conte. That season, they won 30 of their 38 league games, amassing an outstanding 93 points across the season. Of the 30 wins, 11 were done via a margin of one goal, yielding a points percentage of 35.5%. They also won nine games by three goals or more, which is nearly as many as the free-scoring Manchester City side of the 2013/14 season.

It is clear to see, then, that, other than Manchester City under Manuel Pellegrini, being able to grind out results is extremely important to the success of a title challenge. But there is also a good reason for that. Of these four seasons that I considered, City were the best of the four teams at scoring goals. City scored 102 goals in their title-winning season. The next best was Chelsea last season with 85. Leicester City, for example, scored only 68. And the same can be said for goal difference. City had a +65 goal difference by the end of the year; the next closest were again Chelsea, from last year, with +52. Leicester ended the year with a goal difference of just +32, less than half of what City achieved. In fact, City averaged a winning goal margin of 1.71 per game; Leicester averaged a winning goal margin of 0.84 per game. That is a substantial difference.

For Manchester United, then, if they are to win their first title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, without possessing a team of City's capabilities in 2013/14  - I do not think that they do, and I believe most people would agree with that statement - then grinding out results is a vital component of their winning the league title. It is not a necessity to win the tough games to lift the Premier League. But it is very difficult. You have to be outstanding to transcend such challenging, hard-earned wins, and this season, Manchester United are not that side.
Andrew Dowdeswell

A sport obsessed 20 something who just really wants Arsenal to finally win the league. Please Wenger, what the hell happened to you?!


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