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Statistical Analysis: Manchester United almost always need to score first to win

We keep saying that United can’t break down teams that sit deep. But have we misdiagnosed this team’s real problem?

Norwich City v Manchester United - FA Cup: Quarter Final Photo by Joe Giddens/Pool via Getty Images

All season, the narrative about Manchester United has been that they’re very good on the break but struggle to break down teams that sit deep.

The signing of Bruno Fernandes in January has seemingly helped with that. The club are unbeaten since his arrival — winning four of their seven league games. I say seemingly because United’s creative numbers have actually gone down since Bruno arrived.

Statistically at least, United’s good record in the league is explained by things balancing out from the first half of the season when they performed well enough to get wins but weren’t.

That’s not to say that Bruno hasn’t been valuable. His professionalism and leadership have been immense to this team. His ability on set pieces alone sealed the win against Chelsea and gave United the win against Manchester City. That alone accounts for 4-6 points, and the lack of set piece conversion played a fair part in dropping so many points the first half of the year.

United are now flying high. They’re unbeaten in their last 14, winning 9 of them. They’ve kept 10 clean sheets during that run. This run has come against teams who both like to have the ball, and teams that like to sit back.

But there’s still a problem that Bruno hasn’t fixed.

Look at this stat on United’s record (prior to Saturday’s FA Cup win).

What’s the problem here? Those three goals conceded.

Obviously conceding only three goals in 13 games is a fairly good defensive record —especially since none of United’s defenders have played in all 13 games. The problem is the final scoreline of each of the games in which they’ve conceded goals.

Thirty-three goals in 13 games is an average of 2.54 goals per game. Yet in the games where the opponent scored, United could never manage more than one.

Taking a closer look at United’s performances, the xG suggests that creating chances hasn’t been their issue this season. Just look at all the matches where United have dropped points this season.

In eight of those games United created enough chances to win. In two others, it was even enough to suggest a draw. That’s a lot of points left on the table. But with the chances that they did create, United were certainly inefficient...

...and that’s a problem that hasn’t gone away.

Let’s look at something else. In all those games where they dropped points in the league, United only scored first four times.

What happened in those games where United scored first and still didn’t win? Ruben Neves hit a worldie, Southampton scored on a corner, Axel Tuanzebe coughed up the ball to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Marcos Rojo switched off his man for a second and Liverpool took advantage. Two very individual errors, a set piece — which has been United’s nemesis all season — and a golazo that you had to tip your cap to.

That means that in 13 of the 18 games where United have have failed to win, their opponent scored first (you can add City in the League Cup semi-final first leg, and Brugge away in the Europa League to that list — Astana away isn’t counted for obvious reasons).

So let’s look at all the Premier League games this year where United have conceded the first goal.

What should immediately pop out at you is this: only once this year have United come from behind to take all three points.

Only four times have United managed to score an equalizer in the final 20 minutes of a match. In two of those, they conceded another goal in injury time.

Going 1-0 down has basically been a death sentence for United this season. They can’t play from behind. Even in games where the Reds equalize fairly quickly (Aston Villa at home, Everton away) they haven’t been able to turn it around. Not even Bruno Fernandes has helped with this problem; Brugge, Everton, and Tottenham all scored first and United were only able to claw back a draw.

Of course you could say that going a goal up changes things and teams may become even more defensive, but that isn’t particularly true here. Newcastle played defensively the full 90 minutes in their win. Tottenham were parking the bus right from the opening whistle. Watford kept pushing for more goals even when they were 2-0 up. Everton didn’t sit back after a 2nd minute goal, and they dictated the play for most of the 90 minutes.

It’s hasn’t really been a tactical issue either. When Everton scored on Victor Lindelöf’s own goal (and a possible foul on David de Gea) the xG was 0.75-0.14 in favor of United. United had already had chances and missed. Over the rest of the game the xG was 0.73-0.14. A month later against Burnley the xG was 0.66-0.58 in United’s favor when Burnley struck. Over the rest of the match United created another 0.76 worth of expected goals, Burnley just 0.14.

Neither is this a fitness issue. United may not score a lot of late goals but they don’t concede many late ones either. Furthermore, under Solskjaer they’re one of the fittest teams in the league.

This seems entirely mental — and that makes a lot of sense. Under Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United were famous for their late comebacks and wins. This was from two things. The first (and less crucial) factor was that — like now — United were fitter than their opponents. The more important factor, however, was their mentality. United knew that if they just kept playing their game, a chance would come. There was no panic; eventually we’ll get a chance and we just need to take it.

As they did this over and over again, eventually they knew they would score when they needed to. But more importantly, their opponents knew it too — their spirit was broken before the goal even came.

These days, United have the youngest team in the league. They haven’t developed this never say die attitude yet. When United score first, things are great. If their opponents need to open up to chase a game, United are exceptional at attacking those openings. But when something doesn’t go their way, their heads drop — a common problem among young players.

This was perhaps most evident in the Burnley match at Old Trafford in January. United, playing without their talisman Marcus Rashford, were playing okay. Aaron Wan-Bissaka created a few chances that were muffed by Juan Mata, Daniel James, and Anthony Martial respectively, but the Reds looked to be in control of the game.

Then Burnley scored a goal out of nowhere on some poor set-piece defending. It came just before halftime, and it was deflating. Just after the start of the second half, Jay Rodriguez scored a second fluke-ish goal. That did it. United had been the better team, but now were 2-0 down. The heads dropped. They chased the game the rest of the way but never really looked like scoring.

There’s been a lot of criticism heaped onto Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this year as fans believe he waits for too long to make substitutions. It’s a bit overblown but perhaps there’s a reason behind it, besides not exactly having game-changing options off the bench for most of the season. Solskjaer may be challenging his young players. Okay, things didn’t go right for you, but now it’s on you to fix it. If he pulled off players every time United needed to chase a game those young players would never learn that mentality of “eventually we’ll get a chance — always be ready because a chance will come.”

United’s young team need to learn how to ride the emotional rollercoaster of a game. Even when they came from 2-0 down to go 3-2 up against Sheffield United, they ended up conceding a late goal. As a collective, they have to learn not to get too high from the good, but more importantly they must learn to not get too low when a mistake happens.

There’s only so much the coaches can do about this. It’s a bit of a catch-22. That never-say-die attitude and collective self-belief will come from experience, but that experience can only come when United start taking all three points even when they concede first.

This is something United need to figure out if they are to end the season successfully. It’s one thing to run out of time to find a winner after a late equalizer, but it’s a major weakness if a team can’t reverse a score line even when they concede in the first half.

United have solved their “low block problem” — if that was ever really the problem. Now the next problem they need to solve may be one that’s between their ears.