We recently expressed concern on this website about the way Manchester United players approached their match with Arsenal this week, committing 37 fouls in the course of the game. Their average across the last season in the Premier League was 17.3 per match so under half the level of fouling that we saw from Manchester United in the game in the USA.
As we noted 37 fouls in one game is way beyond anything we ever see in the Premier League game, and indeed if any club did start to operate at that level (which would be 250% of the level that Arsenal operated at last season), the referee would have been warning the captain and sending players off big time.
That the referee did nothing about the situation is a matter of concern for all clubs who worry about their players getting injured during a pre-season game, although it chimed with the headline in the Athletic after the game that “Arsenal will be hunted this season – being roughed up by Manchester United proved it.”
So we have waited with interest to see how other Manchester United teams would play, and it turns out that the game in the USA was not the only place where the normal rules of playing friendlies seem to have been abandoned.
For now we hear that Manchester United’s young goalkeeper Nathan Bishop put in a challenge on Paul Mullin in another pre-season “friendly,” that punctured his lung.
Of course, it may just be a coincidence that after getting called out for what seems to be a record number of fouls for a Premier League team, another Manchester United player commits an act that causes extreme dismay in a friendly. Certainly, one would have hoped after the revelation of the extraordinarily high number of fouls in the game against Arsenal, the managers of the various Manchester United teams would have told their players to “take it a bit easy with the challenges,” simply to avoid any more bad publicity, even if not for the sake of the safety of players on the pitch.
And yet, instead in the next friendly we read about it seems that Manchester United hve again seemingly abandoned the normal procedures of friendly matches in which tackles and challenges are reigned in, and instead apparently taken advantage of the more relaxed attitude that most referees use in friendly games.
Worse, rather than offering an apology, Manchester United also seemed to have been focussing on the comments of the Wrexham manager, rather than on the behaviour of their own player. After what happened in the match in America against Arsenal one might have hoped for a different response both on the pitch and in public statements.
The Wrexham manager said of the incident, “It was a clumsy, reckless challenge in a pre-season game and I’m not happy with it at all. I haven’t seen their goalie and he’s probably best steering clear of us for the time being because we’re not very happy.
“It’s a clumsy challenge from the goalkeeper, I’m disappointed with that. It should have been a straight red. If it’s not denying a goalscoring opportunity it’s still a dangerous challenge so if you add the two scenarios together he should have been off the pitch.”
Wrexham were a Conference side last season, and although they won that league and will now be in League Two they can hardly be seen as a threat or challenge to Manchester United, so the excess of the Manchester United player in puncturing a goalkeeper’s lung is there for all to see. This is obviously far worse an event than the remorseless tackling of Arsenal, but when it comes on top of what we saw in the USA, it suggests that Manchester United are adopting a particularly aggressive strategy.
Indeed matters were not helped by the comments of Travis Binion, the manager of the Manchester United side when he said, “It’s part and parcel of the game.”
Actually it isn’t. Part and parcel of pre-season is that all clubs acknowledge that no one wants a player injured before the season actually starts, and so challenges and tackles are cut back from the level we see in League and Cup games.
Last season Manchester United were sixth in terms of the number of fouls committed per game on a par with Brighton and Tottenham, so they were above average when it came to fouling, but not particularly known for the sort of behaviour we saw in the game against Arsenal where their fouling was at three times the level seen in the league last season.
But it is worth noting (although the media commentaries I have seen have not noted it) just how close Manchester United were last season to being the most yellow-carded club in the league. That “honour” went to Leeds United, with 84 yellow cards, Manchester United got 78, just six fewer (or roughly one card less every six games). Or to put it another way 44% more cards than Arsenal got.
So Manchester United last season were already at the upper end of the charts in terms of fouls and yellow cards (data as ever from WhoScored) but now with their level of fouling against Arsenal in the friendly, and this incident in a second friendly played by their younger players, it is starting to look as if such an approach might be the club’s new norm.
Obviously, they can prove such thinking wrong when the season begins by taking their fouling back down to last season’s level of being the sixth-worst team for fouling. But if they do carry on like this they are likely to be known as the dirtiest team in the league. And I suspect also a team that no other English clubs will want to play in pre-season. At any level.