Manchester United’s attack are 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 recent weeks have seen the United manager asked about the goalscoring potential of his side, and it appears he is ready to use 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, a gap exists between United’s potential to score goals 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 goals-for column.
Newcastle, Leicester City and Brentford have scored more, as have all the traditional Big Six clubs except Chelsea, who are also on 16. Ten Hag has improved his side’s defense to the point where they stand an outside chance of making the top four, but their attack places them among the Premier League’s middle class.
If we dig deeper into the relationship between a team’s goals scored and their expected goals (xG), we can get a feel for whether a team is in a purple patch of finishing or a rotten spell.
Manchester City and Arsenal are good at creating chances and very good at scoring them, while Wolverhampton Wanderers are OK at creating but terrible at finishing. Leicester and Fulham are OK at creating, but able to maximise what chances they get.
When we look at United, we find a Premier League side that — relative to Ten Hag’s aims for the season — are OK at creating chances and OK at finishing them.
(The one goal of difference between the United’s goals scored and expected goals was an own goal provided by Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister.)
Prior to facing Tottenham, Ten Hag said he was not concerned by his team’s lack of attacking fluency, and a comprehensive performance that brought two goals, 10 shots on target and 28 total shots against Hugo Lloris hinted at a possible revival. However, United’s goalscoring efforts are a long-standing issue, prone to erratic peaks and troughs in recent seasons.
The chart below takes a 10-game rolling average to illustrate the difference between United’s non-penalty goals scored and the quality of chances created (xG). During the past three seasons, United have had spells where they were good at creating chances and even better at finishing them (the blue sections under 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 again present for Ten Hag. As evidenced by United’s 0-0 draw with Newcastle, Ten Hag’s men have difficulty progressing the ball into the final third without Christian Eriksen and, outside of Marcus Rashford’s direct dribbling, they lack a pacey goal threat.
Bruno Fernandes’ unorthodox interpretation of the No 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 seasons past. Jadon Sancho has difficulty playing with the required courage and intensity 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 attackers require it in high volume in order to make good things happen.
- United have had difficulty maintaining pressure on opponents, rarely holding possession in the final third for long periods.
- United have an odd collection of strikers, who can only work partway to remedy points one and two.
Ten Hag’s attack longs for the injury-free presence of a dynamic forward such as Anthony Martial, who is good at exchanging passes with team-mates around him and bringing them into moves.
Failing that, United might one day recruit a striker who can properly occupy the final line of the opposition’s defense and has the off-ball movement to create space for others — like the departed Edinson Cavani once did.
If you cast your eye to the goals vs expected goals chart above, you can see a small blue uptick on the right, which began after the victory over Spurs. Ten Hag is beginning to remedy some of the smaller goalscoring troubles: Eriksen improves United’s ability to progress the ball, as does Luke Shaw’s return to the starting XI.
In that game, United had a five-minute spell 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 struck in the face by the ball and went down needing treatment — allowed Spurs to escape. It was the sort of spell Ten Hag will want United to repeat in future games, to expand the amount of time they can maintain pressure on an opponent, and to make sure said pressure yields goals.
As the below chart shows, United are improving in the number of possessions they have that end in a shot. The next step is to ensure those shots are of higher quality.
How Ten Hag goes about that isn’t easy to predict. There are pros and cons to his potential central midfield pairings: a combination of Fred and Casemiro offers greater defensive security, but Eriksen is key for ball progression (albeit less complimentary to Sancho). Scott McTominay has weaknesses, but his energy and height can be valuable assets.
In front of any midfield duo lies Fernandes, one of several United attackers who needs a lot of the ball to affect a game. Before facing Tottenham, Ten Hag defended his new matchday captain, but Fernandes will also need to take smaller, subtler touches, aiding the likes of Sancho and Antony as United attempt to break deep defenses.
Then there is the issue of a striker. Rashford has been Ten Hag’s preferred replacement as the No 9. He has enjoyed a solid start to the season, but he is most potent when running in behind defenses rather than offering the passing and back-to-goal play of Martial.
United are still to master their new manager’s methods, but even when they do perfect “Ten Hag-ball”, there will be further bumps in the road. Ajax’s elimination from the 2021-22 Champions League came about partly 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 penalty area and were punished by Fred and Fernandes. Not every Premier League team will be so undemanding.
United’s attack need to get better at keeping the ball in the final third and turn that pressure into valuable goals, which is harder still.
At its peak, a Ten Hag attack is about positional discipline and excellence when in possession. United will one day hope to put those principles into practice.
For now, though, (nearly) everyone at United appears on the same attacking page. This page could be the start of a new chapter.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling via Getty Images)