Lacking effort. Downing tools. Not putting it in. Whatever you call it, giving anything less than 100% is seen as one of the biggest ‘crimes’ a footballer can commit on the field of play.
And if several former Manchester United players are to be believed, it is an offence being committed by numerous members of the current squad.
But is that actually the case? Has the work-rate of the United players dropped? Or are other factors to blame for their poor recent results?
Let’s look at the facts…
Hammered at West Ham
|United’s difficult fortnight|
|Wolves||Premier League||Old Trafford||1-1|
|Derby||Carabao Cup||Old Trafford||2-2 (7-8 on pens)|
|West Ham||Premier League||London Stadium||1-3|
|Valencia||Champions League||Old Trafford||0-0|
United’s lacklustre defeat at London Stadium was the lightning rod for accusations the team is lacking in effort.
The game, which a pedestrian United lost 3-1, confirmed the club’s worst league start in 29 years and prompted fierce criticism from former players Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes, who were working as pundits for BT Sport.
“As a football player, part of your DNA is hard work and effort. I didn’t see that,” said Ferdinand.
“It’s criminal from United. You’ve got to work hard. There’s no passion to work hard. That’s the problem. You’ve got to grind, work hard. They didn’t.”
Scholes added: “That was as bad as you’ve seen from a United team for a long time. The attitude has been questioned before and it has to be questioned again. The hunger and desire to get amongst people wasn’t there.”
After the game, manager Jose Mourinho said his players still possessed the requisite desire to train and play but added “some care more than others”.
United were marginally better against Valencia, with Mourinho claiming his players “raised the level of their efforts”, but that did not spare them from criticism from former United striker Dion Dublin on BBC Radio 5 live.
“Looking at their body language, a few players aren’t playing for the manager,” he said.
“I hate to call out players, but it’s Manchester United, it’s a Champions League night, you’re at home against Valencia and you cannot put a performance in like that.”
Ex-United captain Paul Ince has been even more damning, suggesting the players were “throwing Mourinho under the bus” in an attempt to get him sacked.
United one of lowest in distance covered
The distance covered by United’s players against West Ham was consistent with their season so far, and Mourinho’s reign in general, as the below table illustrates.
|Man Utd distance covered under Mourinho|
|Season||Distance covered (avg in brackets)||Ranking in Premier League||Final position|
Either United’s players haven’t put it in for two and a bit seasons under Mourinho (and somehow managed to finish second in one) or there is a tactical decision behind this.
However, their number of sprints (defined as any time a player exceeds 15.7mph) was noticeably low at London Stadium.
In fact, that tally of 58 was the lowest number registered by a Premier League team so far this season.
In contrast, on the same weekend, Liverpool registered 150 sprints in their 1-1 draw at Chelsea.
Is it effort? Is it tactics? Or is it quality?
Perhaps the question is not whether United’s players are trying, but rather whether they are being set up in the right way. Or, alternatively, whether they possess the quality to carry out their manager’s instructions.
In many key gauges of intensity, United rank in mid-table compared with their Premier League opponents – and way below their top-six rivals.
Is this because the players do not care enough? Or is it because their gameplan is not the one we have become so accustomed to seeing from the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham.
For those teams, pressing is a key part of their approach, something lacking when United faced Valencia in midweek.
In the Premier League, Mourinho’s side are only the 11th best side at stopping opponents progressing up the pitch. On average, they allow teams to advance 12.68m when they have the ball – even winless Cardiff fare better.
Teams are also finding it relatively easy to keep the ball against United. The Red Devils disrupt opponents’ play with a tackle or interception after 13.7 passes on average. That is lower than the rest of the top six and, again, only the 11th best record in the division.
While those figures raise doubts about performance without the ball, it is becoming increasingly common to hear chants of “attack, attack, attack” from fans at Old Trafford when they are in possession.
A look at the data explains, in part at least, where that frustration comes from.
United tend to sit deeper than you would expect from a team with Champions League ambitions – on average, they start their passages of play 40.6m from their own goal. City, in contrast, start theirs 6m further up the pitch.
Will United attack with abandon this weekend? Will their players produce the kind of energetic performance which halts talk that they are not trying?
We will find out on Saturday at 17:30 BST, when winless Newcastle visit Old Trafford.