Erik ten Hag has a big summer ahead. Manchester United’s league season petered out after they had ever so briefly hinted they might join Arsenal and Manchester City in the title race back in February, before ending up clinging on for Champions League qualification. Ten Hag will be well aware that the pressure could build on him if his team’s poor form at the end of last season spills over into next.
That’s why he is predictably – and understandably – looking to go big in the transfer market. There is talk of big money being spent on a new goalkeeper and a new striker, while Chelsea’s Mason Mount looks set to join Manchester United. Mount failed to agree a new contract with his boyhood club, and is on his way out the door as part of Mauricio Pochettino’s summer clear-out.
Given how important Mount has been in recent years, as well as the fact that he came through the academy at the club, news of his departure came as a huge disappointment to the fans. The reality is, however, that they need to shift a lot of players to streamline their squad ahead of a season without European football. Mount won’t be the first or the last to leave.
So, what will Chelsea be losing, and what will United gain if they do sign him?
The first point for Chelsea to consider is that they won’t be losing that much based on Mount’s 2022-23. To be honest, the season went so badly that there aren’t many players in the squad who did enough to be considered indispensable.
But Mount’s drop-off really was remarkable. He managed only three goals and two assists in Premier League games compared to 11 and 10 the season before. He created 1.6 chances per 90 minutes played, down from 2.2, and had 1.8 shots per 90, compared to 2.9 in 2021-22. A look at where his touches have come is also illustrative of a poor season.
The explanation for his touches on the right dropping so much is simply that he played almost exclusively on the left this season, having often played as a right-sided 10 under Thomas Tuchel. However, the drop in his numbers on the right wasn’t made up for by an equivalent increase on the left. What’s more, his touches per 90 in the final third were significantly lower overall.
Playing in such a dysfunctional, underperforming Chelsea side is the main reason for him having such a poor campaign, though. And in order to find out what he could bring to United, it’s worth looking at how he played – and just how impressive his numbers were – in the two seasons prior.
Although it was Frank Lampard who gave Mount his first chance at Chelsea, it was under Tuchel that he really started to show what he could do. As a narrow 10 in Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1, Mount was asked to get forwards more, and increase his output in the opposition penalty area, and he responded in impressive fashion. He had been dropped for Tuchel’s first game as Chelsea manager, and Mount later admitted that experience helped bring out the best in him. “I wanted to get back into the team, so that motivation and that fire that I have inside me came out,” the midfielder said.
Across 2020-21 and 2021-22 – two seasons which include the last six months of Lampard’s reign and the first 18 months of Tuchel’s – Mount was one of the best players in the Premier League, as well as Chelsea’s most important. That period also included Chelsea’s Champions League triumph, when Mount set up the winner in a 1-0 win over Manchester City.
Mount ranked fifth in the Premier League over those two seasons for chances created (145), behind only Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Son Heung-min. He was eighth for total assists (15) but ranked fourth for expected assists (13.8), suggesting that others’ totals were bloated by good finishing in a way that Mount’s wasn’t. Harry Kane, for example, got 23 assists in that period from just 9.2 xA, and Andy Robertson got 17 assists from 11.4 xA.
Mount was integral to just about everything Chelsea did. He was a key cog in the aggressive high press that Chelsea played (10.2 PPDA, the second lowest in the Premier League), ranking 21st in the league for possession regains in the attacking third (40), with 10 more than any other Chelsea player. The success of Chelsea’s press in this period was often in forcing a rushed ball forwards and regaining the ball in midfield rather than directly winning the ball high up the pitch, and Mount was integral to ensuring the team had perfect shape to force the opposition long.
But his importance to the team is best encapsulated in his involvement in sequences that end in a shot. Over the course of 2020-21 and 2021-22, Mount ranked seventh in the Premier League for the number of times he played a part in a shot-ending sequence…
…and fifth when working on a per-90 basis.
A glance at the other names in these lists gives a pretty good indication of the quality required to appear so high up, particularly both in total involvements and per 90. You also have to look a long way down the list for total involvements to find another Chelsea player. The vast majority of everything Chelsea did in those two seasons went through Mount, with 120 more shot-ending sequence involvements than any other Chelsea player.
Of Chelsea players to play at least 3,000 minutes over those two seasons, Mount was also top on a per-90 basis as well.
What is so impressive about Mount is the sheer breadth of strengths he has, and the number of different areas of the game in which he shines. It is rare for a player who gets as many assists as Mount to also have as many shots and score as many goals as him. Usually, if a player has as much involvement in the build-up to goals as Mount, they don’t win the ball high up the pitch as much as him. Or someone with brilliant delivery at corners might not also get as many second assists as he does (yes, he also ranks well for the pass before the assist).
Looking at the best players over this two-year period for expected goals and expected assists gives us an interesting list. Seven players averaged more than 0.2 expected goals and 0.2 expected assists per 90 over the course of those two seasons: De Bruyne, Fernandes, Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah, Jack Grealish, Raphinha and Mount. In other words, in the seasons 2020-21 and 2021-22, these seven players were the most consistent creators who were also a consistent goal threat. It’s not really a surprise to see Mount’s name appear.
But of those seven, Mount had by a distance the most disappointing 2022-23. De Bruyne, Grealish and Mahrez all played key roles in City’s treble win; Raphinha was a regular in Barcelona’s title-winning team; Liverpool had a poor season by their standards, but Salah was still one of only two players in the whole Premier League to reach double figures for both goals (19) and assists (12); Fernandes has arguably become United’s most important – and consistent – player. Mount’s campaign doesn’t come close to any of these other players.
He is an incredibly well-rounded attacking midfielder. He can do it all and thrives when a team is built around him, with responsibility on his shoulders and everything going through him. This season, with Chelsea buying every attack-minded player under the sun, it started to feel as though Mount wasn’t necessarily going to be at the centre of the team’s plans going forward. He only played 48.5% of the available minutes in the Premier League, starting just 20 of their 38 games. From his perspective, it may well be time to move on.
We’re at a crucial stage of his career; he needs make sure the bump in the road that this season has been isn’t anything more than that. He can’t afford for next season to be another one to forget. Manchester United, meanwhile, need to be sure they are signing the player who shone under Tuchel and became a key player for England, rather than the one we’ve seen this season.
Where exactly he’d fit in for United remains to be seen, though he is versatile enough to be an option in a number of different positions in Ten Hag’s 4-3-3. He could be seen as a more dynamic and athletic number 8 than Christian Eriksen, who would provide a bigger goal threat from midfield than the Dane. Or he could play as a narrow 10 on either flank who comes inside to receive between the lines while Jadon Sancho or Marcus Rashford plays a more direct, running role on the opposite side. If a new striker was to come in, he could play off the centre-forward as he has done for England.
Given where he was 12 months ago, we should be talking about a far more exciting time in Mount’s Chelsea career than we are. It might be that a move away is exactly what he needs.