How do you evaluate a team’s attacking performance when they haven’t been playing well? It might be in a variety of ways, but recent outcomes on the pitch would considerably obscure the bigger picture. This is not to argue that Manchester United, as a team, have not had a subpar start to the season, they have. They’ve had some good spells in a few outings, but overall they’ve been less than impressive. There may be genuine disagreements about the coaching or how the players fit in together at the moment, but there is widespread agreement that the squad must improve quickly, especially given the upcoming run of games they have.
With that out of the way – statistically, their attacking performance in the Premier League after 8 games is quite fascinating to examine. It’s not that different from how the other “top” teams have been doing. Indeed, the numbers reveal that their issues lie more on the defensive side of the game. It would be easier to dismiss them to Individual errors, which they are, but given how frequently they occur, the problem may be deeper than we currently realize.
In the league, United have scored 16 goals, averaging 2 goals per game. In comparison to the other big teams, this isn’t too bad. Manchester City and Chelsea, for example, who are 5 and 3 points ahead of them in the league table respectively, have scored the same number of goals and at the same rate on average.
Indeed, the attack doesn’t appear to be as bad as it looks on the pitch. The team creates 2.6 “big chances” per game, missing 1.8 of those chances on average with a conversion rate of 15%. All this adds up to 21 big chances created (making United the third most creative team in the league, statistically) with 14 “big chances” missed.
While this is far from satisfactory at the level the squad aspires to be, the disparity is not astronomical when compared to Chelsea’s goal conversion rate of 23% from 2.1 “big chances” created per game and City’s 18% from 3 “big chances,” despite all 3 teams scoring the same number of goals. So, while United has been more wasteful with their opportunities, in terms of attacking output, they are still up there with the best in the league.
When we look at the types of goals Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have scored in the league this season, things get a little tricky. It is crucial to note that, at the outset of Solskjaer’s reign, United were a club that mostly relied on counterattacks, but has since evolved into a squad that is expected to dominate possession.
They were never solely a counter attacking team but they were extremely efficient at them. The team has scored a total of 12 goals from “fast breaks” across 2 full seasons. Only 1 of their 16 goals in the league this season have been from a counter attack.
At the moment, they patiently build out from the back and look to walk the ball into the opposition’s box. As a result, only 2 of their goals have come from outside the box, with 14 goals in 86 attempts coming from inside the area. This means that 57% of their total attempts have come from inside the 18 yard box, with only 38% coming from outside.
It’s not bad, especially when compared to the clubs ahead of them in the current league standings. In 98 attempts, City have netted 13 goals from inside the box, while Chelsea have scored 13 in 69. Chelsea, as we’ve seen, Chelsea are currently the more clinical team when it comes to taking chances.
When it comes to shots on target, Liverpool leads the way with 7.6 per game. Already on 22 goals this season, LFC is the league’s most attacking side. Their shots on target rate ranks them 1st in the league with Manchester United ranked 2nd with an average of 6 shots on goal per game.
Now when you assess the quality of the shots, the eye test reveals that Liverpool’s are significantly better, but not by a large margin. However, United should simply be doing better with their shots.
Despite the fact that we are only 8 games into the league season, there has been no significant alteration in United’s attacking areas from last season. It is well known that they rely significantly on the left side of the pitch, partially because of the offensive prowess of Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw, and partly due to the right wing dilemma that plagued the team before Mason Greenwood was brought in.
Since Solskjaer’s first full season, there has been an overrealince on the left side. In the 2019/2020 season, United’s attacks came from the left flank 41% of the time and the right 35% of the time. The 2020/2021 season was not much different. 42% on the left and 33% on the right. Even without Rashford, it’s been almost the same thus far this season. 40% from the left, and 33% from the right.
With Rashford back, Jadon Sancho and Greenwood may be rotated on the right wing. Solskjaer, on the other hand, could make a bold move and start all 3 players at the same time.
Despite their glaring lack of defensive organization and seemingly overabundant individual errors, Manchester United have improved their goal-scoring output this season. This is something the coaches will have to keep working on in the future. The club is ready to have a very productive season if they can build on their attacking prowess with a strong defensive foundation.