Manchester United’s attack is a strange work in progress.
Casemiro’s 94th-minute header against Chelsea saw Erik ten Hag’s men snatch a feel-good point from the potential jaws of disaster, but in recent weeks the United manager has been asking about his side’s goalscoring potential, and it seems he is ready to tap into it. familiar pieces to solve long-standing puzzles.
Let’s examine how United create and score goals.
Is this United team good at attacking?
On the surface, there is a gap between United’s goalscoring potential and the 70 league goals often needed to qualify for the Champions League. Casemiro’s header was United’s 16th goal of the Premier League campaign, which puts them ninth in the goal-for-goal column.
Newcastle, Leicester City and Brentford have scored more goals, as have all the traditional Big Six clubs except Chelsea, who are also on 16. Ten Hag have improved their team’s defense to the point where they have an outside chance of finishing in the top four, but their attack places them among the Premier League’s middle class.
If we dig deeper into the ratio of a team’s goals scored to their expected goals (xG), we can get a feel for whether a team is in a purple finish patch or a rotten spell.
Manchester City and Arsenal are good at creating chances and very good at scoring, while Wolverhampton Wanderers are OK at creating but terrible at finishing. Leicester and Fulham are OK at creating, but can maximize what chances they get.
When we look at United, we find a Premier League side who – relative to Ten Hag’s goals for the season – are OK at creating chances and OK at finishing them.
(The only goal difference between United’s goals scored and expected goals was an own goal from Brighton’s Alexis MacAllister.)
Before facing Tottenham, Ten Hag said he was not worried about the team’s lack of attacking prowess, and a comprehensive performance that produced two goals, 10 shots on target and 28 shots in total against Hugo Lloris hinted at a possible revival. However, United’s goal scoring is a long-term issue, subject to erratic highs and lows in recent seasons.
The table below takes a rolling average of 10 games to illustrate the difference between United’s goals scored without penalties and the quality of chances created (xG). Over the past three seasons, United have had spells where they were good at creating chances and even better at finishing them (the blue sections of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s better days), to spells where they struggled to create and shoot (the red sections from the end of Solskjaer’s reign and into Ralf Rangnick’s interim period).
The attacking problems Rangnick encountered are once again present for Ten Hag. As evidenced by United’s 0-0 draw against Newcastle, Ten Hag’s men struggle to get the ball into the final third without Christian Eriksen and outside of Marcus Rashford’s direct dribbling, they lack a quick goal threat.
Bruno Fernandes’ unorthodox interpretation of the number 10 position is a help and a hindrance to attacking moves and, even after regaining match fitness, Cristiano Ronaldo cannot run past defenders like in previous seasons. Jadon Sancho finds it difficult to play with the courage and intensity required to push his attacking skills to their limits.
United’s attacks have historically had low moments because:
- There is only one ball, but several of United’s best strikers require it in high volume to make good things happen.
- United have struggled to keep pressure on opponents, rarely having possession in the final third for long periods.
- United have an odd collection of strikers, who can only work halfway to remedy points one and two.
Ten Hag’s attack craves the injury-free presence of a dynamic forward like Anthony Martial, who is good at exchanging passes with teammates around him and getting them moving.
Failing that, United could one day recruit a striker who can properly occupy the last line of the opposition’s defense and has the off-ball movement to create space for others – as the late Edinson Cavani once did.
If you look at the goals vs expected goals chart above, you can see a small blue spike on the right, which started after the win over Spurs. Ten Hag is starting to address some of the minor goalscoring issues: Eriksen improving United’s ability to develop the ball, as is Luke Shaw’s return to the starting line-up.
In that game, United had a five-minute period in the middle of the first half where they camped outside Spurs’ penalty area and gave Conte’s men no respite. Only an injury to Eric Dier – who was hit in the face by the ball and went down in need of treatment – allowed Spurs to escape. It was the kind of spell Ten Hag wants United to repeat in future games, to extend the time they can maintain pressure on an opponent and to ensure that pressure yields goals.
As the chart below shows, United are improving the number of possessions they have that end in a shot. The next step is to make sure these images are of higher quality.
How Ten Hag goes about it is not easy to predict. There are pros and cons to his potential central midfield pairing: a combination of Fred and Casemiro offers greater defensive security, but Eriksen is key for ball progression (albeit less complementary to Sancho). Scott McTominay has weaknesses, but his energy and height can be valuable assets.
In front of any midfield duo is Fernandes, one of several United strikers who need a lot of the ball to influence a game. Before facing Tottenham, Ten Hag defended his new matchday captaincy, but Fernandes will also need to take smaller, more subtle touches and help the likes of Sancho and Antony as United try to break deep defences.
Then there is the question of a striker. Rashford has been Ten Hag’s preferred replacement at No 9. He has had a solid start to the season, but he is most potent when running in behind defenses rather than offering Martial’s passing and back-to-goal play.
United still have to master their new manager’s methods, but even when they perfect the ‘Ten Hag ball’ there will be further bumps in the road. Ajax’s elimination from the 2021-22 Champions League came about in part through Ten Hag’s persistence with an attacking plan that struggled against defenders adept at stopping inverted wingers. Spurs were content to let Ten Hag’s men shoot from just in front of the box and were punished by Fred and Fernandes. Not all Premier League teams will be so undemanding.
United’s attack needs to get better at keeping the ball in the final third and turning that pressure into valuable goals, which is even more difficult.
At its peak, a Ten Hag attack is all about positional discipline and excellence in possession. United will one day hope to put these principles into practice.
But at the moment (almost) everyone at United appears on the same attacking side. This page could be the beginning of a new chapter.
(Top image: Alex Pantling via Getty Images)
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