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Tactical Analysis: Why do Manchester United win so many penalties?

United’s high number of penalties is more than just luck, and could be sustainable throughout the season

FBL-ENG-PR-MAN CITY-MAN UTD Photo by LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images

When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over Manchester United, the club went on an insane run. Freed from the shackles of José Mourinho, United won 14 of Solskjaer’s first 18 matches in all competitions, with the lone loss being the first leg of their Champions League tie with Paris Saint-Germain.

United had clearly gotten better — and their underlying numbers suggested as much — but combined with the uptick in play, they were also getting lucky. They were outperforming their metrics; quite significantly at that, and were benefitting from a really strong run of finishing.

Their form was unsustainable. Many people knew it, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who warned his bosses that United would come back to earth and changes would need to be made.

The Red Devils have since regressed to the mean in nearly every area, with one big exception. Penalties.

[Disclosure: All the research for this piece was done before the New Year’s Day fixtures so it does not take into account anything that happened in those matches. Just pretend you’re reading this on New Year’s Eve.]

United win a ton of penalties, especially since Solskjaer took over. United won the most penalties in the league last season with 12. Through matchday 20, they’ve already won 8 penalties in the Premier League (11 in all competitions) — twice as many as the next highest team(s).

It’s hard to gauge anything from how often teams win penalties because there’s so much randomness that goes into winning them. There are soft ones given, there are clear cut ones denied; sometimes the referee is in a bad position, sometimes a handball is ruled accidental. There’s just a lot that goes in to it.

But it’s impossible not to look at the change that’s happened under Solskjaer. When Solskjaer took over, United had already been given 3 penalties in the league (and 4 in all competitions), the same amount that they had in the entirety of José Mourinho’s first season in 2016/17 and 1 fewer than the 4 they won in 2017/18. There was an element of luck to it — this was the first penalty they won last year.

A ball pinging off a defender into another defenders arm? That’s why there’s an element of luck in winning penalties.

Over the second half of the season United won 9 penalties in the league and 11 in all competitions. As stated above, those numbers seemed completely unsustainable, and yet United have continued the run over the first half of this season.

Why is that? Better yet, how have they kept this up? Under Mourinho ,United were being awarded just about the league average or fewer a season.

stats via Fbref

They nearly doubled last season’s average in the second half of the season alone. This year they’ve gotten almost three times the league average. This can’t all be down to the element of randomness. There had to be something they were doing differently, but what?

Those are the questions that I thought about over the past week (thanks to a nice discussion I had in the comments section last week). The answer seems obvious. Solskjaer came in and had United playing more attacking football. They ran at defenders more, and spent more time near the opposition box. With pacy players like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial (and now Daniel James), defenses couldn’t cope and would end up fouling them.

The problem with that line of thinking is, United aren’t the only team with pacy forwards. They’re not the only team that plays attacking football. Liverpool and Manchester City are two of the best attacking teams ever. They practically live in their opponents box, yet United win more penalties than them.

So I spent some time digging deeper.

I certainly can’t say that reached a definitive conclusion because, again, no matter how much analysis you perform, the element of luck still exists. But I did find some interesting answers.


Wilfried Zaha

Uhh Pauly, have you forgotten that Wilfried Zaha doesn’t play for United anymore (as if he ever did)? What does he have to do with any of this?

United have won 27 penalties in the Premier League over the past four seasons. That’s more than any other club except for one, Crystal Palace.

Until this year, Palace were consistently above the league average in penalties. They had nearly three times the league average in 2017/18, and despite an increase in penalties across the league last year they still won double the league average.

How did they do it? Wilfried Zaha.

I dug into the numbers, looking at three numbers in particular. Dribbles, touches in the box, and fouls won. The latter two are simple to explain, to win penalties you need to be fouled and you need to be in the box. Players who get a lot of touches in the box and are fouled a lot will win more penalties. As for dribbles, in theory, players who take on their opponents more will probably get fouled more.

I broke down the top players in each category (per AS Stats) and put them into simple scatterplots. Players who do these things well should then appear in the top right corner of the graph.

Look at who jumps off the charts in all three graphs. Some players are great dribblers, some get a ton of touches in the box, some draw a lot of fouls. Only Wilfried Zaha excels at all three.

Zaha is single-handedly responsible for Crystal Palace winning all those penalties. But for everyone else, you have to look at the team as a whole.

Touches in the box

Team Touches in opponents box Touches in opponents box per game
Team Touches in opponents box Touches in opponents box per game
Manchester City 878 43.9
Liverpool 600 31.58
Manchester United 481 24.05

Nobody gets more touches in the opponent’s box than Manchester City. They’ve taken nearly 300 more touches in the box than second best Liverpool (they’ve played one more game). They practically live there. So why aren’t they getting more penalties?

Dribble attempts per game

Team Dribble Attempts Dribble attempts per game
Team Dribble Attempts Dribble attempts per game
Manchester United 400 20
Liverpool 322 16.94
Manchester City 372 18.6

City don’t take players on. That’s a staple of Pep Guardiola teams. His quick passing style doesn’t lend itself to dribblers. Why take someone on when you can pass around a player?

Similarly, Liverpool don’t take many players on either. They use their fullbacks and their width and like to get their forwards in behind the defense (similar to United), but they don’t take players on.

We should note that of course these two teams have good dribblers on them, but they don’t do much of that in the final third, which is reflected in the final table.

Fouls won per game

Rank Team Fouls Won Fouls won per game
Rank Team Fouls Won Fouls won per game
1 Aston Villa 269 13.45
2 Crystal Palace 247 12.35
3 Manchester United 245 12.25
18 Liverpool 149 7.84
20 Manchester City 148 7.4

Liverpool and City are two of the three least fouled teams in the league. It’s hard to win penalties if you’re not getting fouled.

Winning fouls is a skill. Last year Zaha won 102 fouls, just two behind Eden Hazard’s 104 for the most in the league. Coming in third? That was James Maddison with 78! This year United have two players in the top six for fouls won (Daniel James 5th, Scott McTominay 6th) and four in the top 25 (Rashford 14th, Fred 20th)!

They’re good at getting fouled!

The difference between Villa, Crystal Palace, and United is that the Red Devils spend a lot more time near their opponent’s box. United’s 21 shots directly from free kicks leads the league (Southampton is second with 16) and tells us that United aren’t just getting fouled a lot, they’re getting fouled in dangerous areas.

That right there should translate to winning more penalties. But how are United doing it?


Tactics

Let’s go to the videotape!

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Solskjaer’s pacy counter-attacking football, where forwards were encouraged to run at defenders, was leading to more penalties than Mourinho’s far more cautious approach.

When you use your pace, stuff like this happens.

But again, United aren’t the only team in the league with pacy players. We should look at who United have won penalties against this season.

Chelsea
Wolves
Crystal Palace
Leicester
Norwich
Tottenham
Manchester City

Let’s break down how these penalties happened.

Rashford gets gets in and begins running at a somewhat isolated Kurt Zouma. Yes, Zouma has help coming, but he’s in a one-on-one last defender situation (before the help comes). When Rashford cuts inside, he has Zouma completely off balance. It results in a clumsy challenge that catches Rashford.

United try to catch Tottenham out in transition. Rashford has already gotten by right back Serge Aurier, now he identifies midfielder Moussa Sissoko in a one-on-one situation. Rashford attempts to dribble by him, beats him to the touch line, and Sissoko clumsily steps on him as he goes past. It’s a dumb foul since Rashford didn’t have anywhere to go, but a foul nonetheless.

Again United catch their opponent on the break. However, by the time Rashford gets into the box, City already have men back. But Rashford knows what he’s doing. City right-back Kyle Walker is nowhere to be found, because this break started when he was dispossessed all the way up the field. Because of the break, City’s defense is all discombobulated, Rashford is going up against winger Bernardo (not known for his defending), and John Stones, the left sided center-back who had come over to help out. With everyone scampering to recover, by just running at players Rashford is asking for trouble, and he finds it.

Dribbling at defenders, with speed. That seems to be one of the keys. In fact, take a look at the penalties won vs Wolves and Crystal Palace.

Two very similar looking plays. United’s midfielders play 1-2s to break into the box with pace. They catch defenders flat footed and the challenges are too late.

There’s not so much luck here as much as United just making things happen.


VAR

When picking my fantasy team at the start of this season I made sure to find a place for Luka Milivojevic. Milivojevic isn’t anything special but he takes Crystal Palace’s penalties, and as mentioned before, Crystal Palace get a lot of penalties.

I figured, with the implementation of VAR, the amount of penalties would go up, certainly at the start of the season. All those extra grabs in the box, “fouls” that referees let go, and those weird handballs that no one ever complains about, would now be called penalties.

It didn’t play out like that, but the logic is solid. Part of the reason that penalties are so random is because they depend on the whim of the referee. Does he have a good view? Did he deem that enough contact? Was that hand in an unnatural position or was there nothing he could have done about it?

In theory, VAR should be taking an element of that luck away. The referee thought the defender won the challenge? Well VAR took a look at it and disagreed. Don’t forget this foul against City originally wasn’t given.

It was VAR that stepped in and said, “that’s a penalty.”

Remember that penalty against PSG? Upon first glance did you think Diogo Dalot had a penalty shout, or were you just hoping United could do something from the ensuing corner? If there was no VAR would you have been mad had that not been given? Of course not.

Or how about this situation against Norwich this year?

A year ago would you have thought this was a penalty? Doubtful. But there’s VAR, enforcing those rules that used to have a large aura of randomness around them.

VAR of course isn’t perfect. It awarded United this penalty,

when it probably shouldn’t have. Then again, you can make the argument that it should have given this as a penalty, when it didn’t.

Overall, it stands in good reason to think that it would slightly easier to win a penalty this year. Referees would still see the fouls they’ve always seen, but VAR would catch the ones they missed, and also those handballs that none of us would have ever deemed penalties too.

And that’s where I was wrong.

As a whole, penalties in the Premier League are actually down this season. Through 20 weeks (19 for Liverpool and West Ham) 46 penalties had been given, putting the league on pace for about 87 penalties. That’s up from the 80 that were given in 2017/18 but dramatically down from the 102 given last year.

That tells us some things. For starters, defenders are adapting. They know that even if they get away with the initial infraction, they may not be able to hide from the videotape. There’s less grabbing in the box on set pieces than there used to be. Defenders don’t lunge into tackles in the box as often as they used to. Most importantly, defenders are keeping their hands down, now that there’s grey area for ‘accidental’ handballs, and more definitive ‘arms in unnatural positions.’

Is there also an element of referees not giving penalties when they’re unsure of a decision because they have the crutch of VAR? Yes. That certainly exists too.

So what do we make of all this?

United aren’t the only team with pacy forwards. They don’t have the best attack in the league. For the most part though, they don’t win their penalties against teams that sit back, but rather that let their forwards get out and run. That’s not out of the ordinary. Liverpool have won four penalties this year and they’ve come against Tottenham, Arsenal, and Leicester (twice).

United have pacy forwards who love to run at defenders. They also are really good at drawing fouls. That style of play lends itself to more penalties being won in their favor. The fact that United won three penalties in nine non-league matches, where there was no VAR, over the first half of the season (and two in six European games) is further evidence of that.

If they keep playing this way over the second half of the season, they should be among the teams that win the most penalties the rest of the way.

Will they win another eight penalties over the second half of the season? That’s less likely, but don’t be shocked if they win another five or six in the Premier League.