Manchester United need their players to make 'The Leap.'
United have done a good job developing a young core in recent years but they'll struggle to push for titles until some of those players make the leap from 'good' to 'stars'
Manchester United are a good but not great football team. They are also a very young football team. Frustratingly, thanks to a combination of both factors they’re a very inconsistent football team.
Whatever your feelings are on the manager the reality is simply this. United’s squad is comprised of mostly ‘average’ to ‘good’ players, with a few who range from ‘good’ to ‘great,’ one player who can range from ‘good’ to ‘star’ and one player who’s in the ‘star’ but not quite superstar category.
That is simply not the makeup of a top side in Europe. The teams that compete for league and Champions League titles typically have one or two superstars that can carry the team surrounded by a bunch of great and good players filling the other roles. Occasionally they’ll have an average player or two, but they can withstand that because the rest of the team has enough talent.
Sure every so often a team without a superstar pops up and shows us it’s not impossible to win without one but those are typically one-offs. The overwhelming majority of the time, this is the recipe.
(Even Leicester had the firepower of Mahrez and Vardy. Plus N’Golo Kante who was easily the best player in the league at his position).
United have a few players who have ‘potential’ to be stars but the thing about potential is it’s measuring what you might achieve. It’s the future. In the present those players are still just merely ‘good’ (or ‘average’).
Potentially United are only a few pieces away from competing at the top of the Premier League. One or two more superstars and addressing the few remaining holes could see them get there real quick. But that potential is built on the idea that some of their potential stars shed the “potential” and simply become stars.
They need their players to make “The Leap.”
What is ‘The Leap?”
Think of it this way. When you watch youngsters move up from the academy the hope is every year they’ll get a little better and take the next step in their development.
If you’re at level one when you break into the first team you want to be at level two at the end of the season. By the end of the next season level three. You want to see them steadily progressing to the next level.
But as we know, football is a young man’s game. Attacking players peak around the age of 26, and if stars and superstars are around levels eight and nine, with the Messi/Ronaldo gods coming in at level 10, you’ll never be able to get there if you’re just progressing by one level each year. Eventually instead of going from level three to four you have to go from level three to level five, or even level six.
Every young player arrives doing one thing exceptionally well but needs to add other elements to round out their game. The Leap usually comes when those elements are added. A forward adds better movement in the box and heading ability, you add passing ability which opens up your teammates and makes you less predictable. Things that make you a more complete player.
Every superstar in the game has made The Leap at some point. With few but very specific exceptions players typically make the leap around their third or fourth professional season in top flight football, as well as before the age of 24.
Players who break in at the top level typically ‘arrive’ in their first season before suffering a dip in form the next. You’re no longer catching teams by surprise, they know who you are and they’re prepared to stop you. You have to learn to adapt. The stars do, in year three they’ve brought themselves back to where they were in year one and then make a substantial leap in year four. (This pattern bodes well for Mason Greenwood in his second year slump).
Similarly it’s pretty common for players to to drop off a little bit in the first year after making the The Leap as opponents focus in on them again. If The Leap was actually made, rather just a flash in the pan, they’ll get right back to that level the following year, or sometimes even make a second leap.
That second leap is often very important. The levels aren’t even. It’s easier to jump from level three to level five than it is to simply move from level six to level seven. You don’t want to end up getting stuck at level six and being just a good to sometimes really good player.
(Side note: I know that goal involvements on it’s own is not the best metric for measuring players but it’s all we got for many of these historical players. As we get to the current ones more stats will come into play).
Take a look at Wayne Rooney.
Rooney broke in at Everton and put up a 0.62 NpG+A/90 in his first season. That dropped to 0.52 his second season before going back to a 0.62 in his first year at United. In his second season at United (and fourth in the Premier League) he made The Leap, jumping up to a 0.76.
It’s important not to confuse The Leap with your prime or your peak. The Leap is less about raising - or even hitting - your ceiling but about raising your floor. Essentially you’re setting a new baseline. There’s going to be variance here and there, a spike or an injury could drop you for a season, but for the most part you now know exactly what you’re going to get year in year out. For nine years Rooney produced at a minimum of that 0.76 line.
What separates the stars from the megastars is longevity. Plenty of players have hit level eight or even level nine but few are able to stay there for more than two or three years. Take a look at David Beckham.
Beckham follows the same trend as Rooney. He’s pretty level his first three years before making his first jump. Now he’s a marked man and he dropped a bit the following year, only to make a second leap and significantly raise his floor. But Beckham was only able to keep himself at that level for three years, perhaps that’s why people can forget just how good he was. It didn’t last long enough.
And of course, even the level 10 freaks followed this pattern too.
Messi broke in (albeit with a ridiculous 0.89 in half a season), dropped a bit his second year, came back to level his third year and then leaped his fourth year. Because he’s Messi, he went ahead and leapt for two years. What’s more absurd is what he set his baseline at - something around a 1.35. Remember how good Rooney was? His best season was a 0.95!
One exception to this pattern is players who break through outside Europe’s top five leagues (or for any non-PSG team in Ligue 1). Those players don’t have a second season syndrome. Instead they make The Leap in their second season and either get snatched up by a top club or maintain it in year three and then get snatched up by a top club. They then typically see a drop in production for a year or two as they settle in to their new club before making a second leap around the age of 24.
A great example of this is Luis Suarez.
Suarez made a big leap in his second year when moving to Ajax. When he moved to Liverpool he dropped as he settled in to a new league and role. Eventually it clicked and he made a second leap at the age of 24. That was in fact a two year leap as he drastically raised his baseline when moving to Barcelona, though this was in no doubt helped by playing with Messi (and Neymar).
Then of course there are the late bloomers. Well, they’re seemingly late bloomers as it feels like they were around for a bit before making The Leap but all these players have a few things in common.
As late as it seems, they still make The Leap before their age 24 season and they almost all move from one league to another, whether that be via transfer or promotion. One of the obvious ones here is Bruno Fernandes.
Bruno’s career famously didn’t get off to a great start in Italy. Granted in his five years there he played for three clubs in two leagues, not exactly a recipe for settling in. He moved to Portugal and immediately jumped back up to his Serie B levels, then made The Leap to someone bagging 0.83 NpG+A/90 in his second season. He dropped off a tad in his next half season at Sporting but went right back to 0.83 when joining United.
This season he’s slightly dropped off though his splits are interesting. Until New Years Day he was putting up a 0.97, since then he’s dropped to 0.37. New Years Day is around when Marcus Rashford started playing through an injury and stopped producing, leaving the whole creative burden on Bruno. Lack of support has probably played a role here.
Another player who fits this category is Riyad Mahrez.
Mahrez doubled his production from his first year to his second in Ligue 2. He had success moving from the second division in France to the second division in England, but understandably dropped off with the rise to the Premier League. Nevertheless he still made The Leap in his age 24 season - and his second in the top flight - coming out of nowhere to win the Premier League. Obviously he had some problems the next year but still got back to his title winning form before moving to Manchester City and building on it.
Jack Grealish is currently making The Leap.
Grealish’s career has been anything but straight forward. He made sporadic Premier League appearances for Villa in his teenage years but didn’t become a full time starter until aged 20 when they were in the Championship. His production in the Championship was nothing spectacular and after a year of settling into the Premier League he’s making the leap.
With Grealish it’s not just about the goal contributions but the underlying numbers beneath them. His NPxG+xA per 90 has jumped from 0.35 to 0.56. He’s taking the same amount of shots, just better ones, and but the quality of chances he’s creating is much better.
Last season Grealish’s 5.18 shot-creating actions per 90 was fifth in the league. This year he’s raised that by nearly a shot per game to 6.10, second only to Kevin De Bruyne, and he leads the league in both goal creating actions per 90 (0.91) and goal creating actions from open play passes per 90* (0.73).
Add that to his already tremendous ball progression numbers. No player has carried the ball into the box more this season than Grealish - and Grealish hasn’t even played in the past month.
It’s no wonder Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had Grealish as one of his top transfer targets last season. He was primed to make The Leap this year. He was already doing everything at an elite level except for scoring.
In 2015-16 teenager Anthony Martial arrived at Old Trafford with a bang. It looked like United had found their striker for the future. Later that season Marcus Rashford emerged from the academy and suddenly it looked like Manchester United had two elite strikers for the next 10 years.
When United signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic that summer the concerns of the fan base were about the development of Rashford and Martial. Would they get enough chances to play and develop?
The first season under Mourinho was tough for the pair (some second season syndrome as well) but they ultimately did perform. When United sold Romelu Lukaku before the 2019-20 season they made a conscious decision not to replace him. It was time to answer a question.
Could Martial (23, entering his fifth season in England) or Rashford (22, entering his fourth full season) go from being the second fiddle to now spearheading and leading the team’s attack? Could one of or both of them make The Leap?
At times last season it looked like they were doing it, but did they really?
Martial’s move back to the number nine role saw him score 17 Premier League goals, eclipsing his previous career best of 11 in 2016. However, his NpG+A per90 of 0.79 was hardly better than the 0.74 he put up in 2017/18 - when he was on fire for the first half of the season before Mourinho inexplicably stopped playing him. His 0.49 NPxG+xA per 90 was lower than the 0.63 he put up in 17/18.
Martial’s shot creation was also down compared to two years prior, though that could be attributed to moving back to a central position. But even then, his 0.58 and 0.35 non-penalty goals and NPxG per 90 were barely above the 0.50 and 0.30 he put up the year before.
When we look at what Martial was doing in front of goal, nothing hear screams “leap.” It’s really just, he played more minutes and thus he accumulated more goals.
This season Martial has been relatively the same. His shots have dropped a tic but his xG per shot has rose. His NPxG+xA per 90 is actually above last year. He’s down his shot creation but that’s probably attributed to him spending more time on the LW this year where he hasn’t created anything.
Then there’s Marcus Rashford.
Rashford started last season looking like he was making The Leap, but never really did. He’s got the great raw numbers - especially in Europe - he comes up with big goals in big games, and his goal record against the top sides is phenomenal.
All that has prompted fans to ridiculously be putting him in the same conversation as Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe. Rashford currently isn’t close to those two. He’s not the Lewandowski to Haaland and Mbappe’s Messi and Ronaldo. If anything he’s a Zlatan/Rooney to Haaland and Mbappe’s Messi and Ronaldo. Very good, but not in the same stratosphere.
This is Rashford’s fifth full professional season and nothing about his numbers say “leap,” but rather, very very consistent.
Everything looks pretty much the same year after year. His NpG+A per 90 over the last four years has been remarkably consistent (0.60, 0.62, 0.61, 0.61). This year his NPxG, xA, and shot-creating actions are all down compared to last year. The fact that the goals and assists haven’t dropped is thanks to efficient finishing. Yes he’s been hurt for a while now but his production rate has remained fairly stable all year.
The only thing Rashford has drastically improved in this season is the amount of times he successfully carries the ball into the box (1.05 last year to 1.82 this season) but he isn’t turning that into more shots (just 0.45 SCA from dribbles this year compared to 0.37 a year ago).
Players make The Leap when they round out their games and become more complete players. Rashford has been in the league for five seasons now and still has the same holes.
He’s at his best when he can run at defenders or run in behind. He scores goals against the big teams because those are the games where he gets the space to do that. Against teams that play a low block, he struggles to make an impact.
Yes this year he’s scored against the likes of Brighton, Newcastle, Sheffield United, West Ham, Wolves who can be low block teams but look at those goals again. They all look like typical Rashford goals, either coming on a counter attack or getting played in behind. Against PSG he twice scored his third type of goal (though rarer than the other two) the shot from just outside the box. Only twice this season (Leicester and Newcastle at home) has he scored a goal thats looked different.
On pure talent Rashford is right up there with the rest of the top goal scorers in England. This season Rashford has gotten even better on counter attacks, making him even more dangerous in one of his strongest areas, but Rashford has hasn’t developed those other element to his games that will help him score against low block teams.
Heading ability, movement in the box, (Dan James has been adding these elements to his game) whatever it might be to make you a threat in those games and pad your stats to get you up to the top of the goal charts. He doesn’t seem to have that hunger to score goals week in week out that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer always talks about.
His hat trick against RB Leipzig in October was the first time he scored more than one non-penalty goal in a match since he scored twice against Liverpool in 2018. Only once in Rashford’s career has he scored in three consecutive league matches when he scored four goals in four games right after Solskjaer took over. Harry Kane has done at least once a season for the last seven years and all the top goal scorers have done it multiple times.
The consistency in Rashford’s numbers isn’t exactly a good sign. It doesn’t look like a player who’s getting set to make The Leap. Next year will be his sixth full season in the Premier League only he doesn’t have the caveats that late bloomers usually do. He’s never changed teams, he’s never changed leagues. If he hasn’t made The Leap by now, he’s probably not going to.
Luke Shaw is currently making The Leap. On paper he looks like a bit (ok maybe a lot) like a late bloomer but this also just his third season playing regular first team football. He could be an exception to the norm, or you can see the caveats. It’s up to how you choose to view this particular case.
Martial and Rashford’s failure to make The Leap has left United with another hole in the squad. They always needed another creator to play on the right side but now they need that bonafide goal scorer as well. Shopping outside for those pieces is extremely expensive which makes it nearly impossible to address both issues in a single summer.
That means United will only be able to address one of those needs this summer (it should be the creator), which will still leave them a year away from a proper title challenge.
If they want it to come any faster, one of their current players is going to have to make The Leap.