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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United have actually been okay so far

On closer inspection, there’s no reason to panic

Manchester United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Manchester United started their season brightly with a 4-0 win over Chelsea, but dropping points to Wolves, Crystal Palace, and Southampton in their next three matches has taken away taken away all the goodwill of the start and has some fans ready to turn on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

All of this is an overreaction. A deeper look into the numbers shows a different picture. United have actually been doing very OK this season!

After four games United currently sit fourth in the league in expected goals (xG), first in expected goals against (xGA), and second in expected points (xPTS). They’re also doing that with the youngest team in the league.

That last point bears repeating: they have the youngest team in the league.

This is a rebuilding season. They aren’t trying to compete with Manchester City and Liverpool this year. It’s about getting young guys playing time so they can learn and get better. Mistakes will be made. The players will learn from them and get better, but they’re still going to be made. This isn’t going to happen overnight.

If there’s one thing that’s been present in United’s first four matches, it’s been sloppy play. That’s partially from some players not being good enough and partially just from young players being inexperienced. It’s definitely not from the manager — it’s not like Solskjaer is telling his defenders to mishit simple passes.

As the numbers suggest, United have been playing just fine. It’s bad luck that’s prevented them from doing better. Ruben Neves scored a worldy. Victor Lindelöf got beat on two headers directly leading to two goals. David de Gea had a howler. Paul Pogba missed a penalty that would have beaten Wolves. Marcus Rashford missed one against Crystal Palace too.

This isn’t a post to say “don’t worry everything at Old Trafford is all roses.” It isn’t. xG stats are great but you can’t live exclusively off of them. The quality of opponents has an effect on United’s xGA, but so does Solskjaer.

To call Solskjaer ”tactically clueless” is, well rather naive. Last season, United were 11th in goals conceded and eighth in xGA. Solskjaer identified this and made his top two transfer targets defenders.

Last year Wolves beat United twice on the strength of their counter attack. This year Solskjaer’s set up his tactics to neutralize that threat. A big problem for United last season was their midfielders not offering the defense any protection. Solskjaer has addressed that by dropping Nemanja Matić for Scott McTominay and moving Paul Pogba to a more defensive role.

The biggest area for concern remains with the attack. United’s xG of 7.66 may be fourth best in the league, but it’s inflated by 2.28 because of penalties. The penalties don’t worry me too much. They’ve already won three penalties in their first four games, which shows how much pressure they’re putting on their opposition. On average, penalties are converted about 76% of the time. United have missed two out of three so far, but over the course of the season those numbers will typically balance themselves out.

The real problem here is United aren’t creating enough good chances from open play. A large part of that comes from not having a good number 10. They need someone with the creativity to break down a team that’s sitting deep.

Following the draws against Wolves and Southampton (as well as the loss to Crystal Palace), the focus was on United selling Romelu Lukaku and failing to sign a replacement.

Failure is a strong word there. United didn’t fail to sign a replacement because they decided not to. That was a tactical decision by Solskjaer.

In modern football, more and more teams are phasing out classic number 9s. Players need to have more of a skillset than hold up play and getting on the end of headers. They need to be able to contribute in other areas of the field too.

Two years ago Romelu Lukaku, Alexandre Lacazette, and Alvaro Morata all signed big new Premier League contracts. There’s a reason that two of those guys are no longer in the Premier League, and why four months later Arsenal spent big on winger-turned-striker Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.

Liverpool’s three headed attack is led by Roberto Firmino, who arrived at Anfield as a winger. Real Madrid and Juventus may have used Cristiano Ronaldo as a center forward, but United fans will never forget that his upbringing came on the wing.

United are following suit. They’ve moved Anthony Martial back to the center forward position he played when he was signed. Martial is a modern day striker. He’s good with his feet, he can pass, and he can move all around the field.

Most of all, he’s very efficient. His 44% shooting accuracy is two points better than Sergio Aguero’s 42% and his 18.46% shooting accuracy is slightly better than Aguero’s 18.22%. There’s definitely a difference in sample size, but the point is getting Martial the ball in front of goal should result in more goals.

United’s dropped points haven’t come from not having a ‘proven goalscorer.’ Martial’s scored in two of the three games he’s played. His goal against Wolves was a classic ‘just put your boot through’ it number 9 finish.

Like Marcus Rashford though, Martial isn’t good with his head. After the Southampton match there were cries about United letting go of Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini, two players who could be aerial threats to get on the end of a cross.

Those that are calling for players like that have just one problem. Crossing is archaic. There’s a reason that the best teams do it less often than anyone else.

As you can see, on average crosses lead to a successful shot just 7.4% of the time. Only 0.9% of the time does a cross lead to a goal. They’re a really inefficient means of creation (I covered how “often” Fellaini as a plan B actually worked for United here). In fact, more often than not the team with more successful crosses in a match doesn’t win.

Who are the teams in the Premier League that cross* the ball the least? You guessed it, Liverpool and Manchester City. (Of Sergio Aguero’s 170 Premier League goals, only 16 have been headers).

*The above stats refer to crosses in open play. Liverpool actually had the most total successful crosses in the Premier League last year. That was thanks to set pieces and Virgil van Dijk, which is one of the reasons United signed Harry Maguire.

What’s unique about City and Liverpool is that their creativity still comes from out wide, they just don’t cross the ball. Last year for City it was wingers Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, or Leroy Sane getting into the box and firing low hard balls right across the six yard box.

Liverpool’s creativity came from their full backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. They didn’t do it with your typical crosses. Robertson thrived on playing a lot of early crosses (or through balls) in to a player he was picking out with a pass, rather than your typical “they’re queueing up in the box for a cross” type of play. If it wasn’t that, it was similar to City, a low hard ball across the face of goal.

Remember Divock Origi’s winner against Barcelona in the Champions League? [Ed.: We’d rather not.] That too came from a low driven ball across the six yard box, this time from Trent Alexander-Arnold.

You know who noticed this? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

In United’s first few games there’s been a noticeable shift in how United attacks from out wide. With the exception of Ashley Young, those big looping crosses are gone. Instead, just like City and Liverpool, United’s wide players are focusing on playing low crosses right across the six yard box.

This is the area in which Rashford and Martial need to improve. They need to have that poacher’s mentality to not only anticipate this ball being played, but to know if they just get any body part on the end of it it will probably result in a goal.

Against Southampton, Daniel James played this same ball numerous times, but over and over again Rashford failed to make the run to the six yard box.

In the opening game against Chelsea Martial did get on the end of this cross.

But the following week against Wolves he could have done better.

It’s understandable that this is the area in which Martial and Rashford need to improve. For the last three years they’ve been mostly deployed on the wing and weren’t given a chance to develop these instincts.

And you know what? They’re working with one of the best poachers in the history of the game. They’re young, and they’ll learn these skills. It won’t happen overnight, it probably won’t happen by the end of September, but over time they’ll hone these instincts.

These are the type of plays that don’t show up in the xG (because no shot was taken), but it’s a positive sign that United’s wide players are getting these balls in (it also shows tactical awareness from the manager).

The results haven’t been going United’s way in the early part of this season but there’s still a lot to be positive about. Leicester will be a big challenge this weekend but also a good one. They’re a team that will take the game to United and allow them to play on the counter, which is where United are best.

This season may be about learning and developing, but that doesn’t make it a lost cause. For as many questions as United have their top four rivals have just as many if not more. Arsenal can’t defend, Chelsea have issues all over the field. Tottenham have plenty of issues themselves. Wolves? They’ve already played 10 matches this year and have yet to win a Premier League game. If you think United aren’t deep enough to play in both the Premier League and Europa League just remember that Wolves’ squad is even smaller.

There’s no reason anyone at Old Trafford should be hitting the panic button after four games. So far, everything is going perfectly OK!