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Tactical Analysis: What the numbers tell us on how Manchester United play

A look at the underlying numbers of a difficult, yet salvageable, season...

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Manchester United v Luton Town - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

We’re now in the third international break of the season with 12 rounds of Premier League fixtures having been played. Believe it or not, that’s roughly a third of the season having already gone by. Despite schedules having not quite evened out yet, the general consensus among data analysts is that data samples are now large enough to start giving us a pretty clear picture as to what each team is and what we can draw from that.

Numbers can easily be presented in ways to make something sound much better than it is or vice versa. Remember, without context, numbers really don’t mean anything. With a third of the season already in the books, now is a great time to look into the numbers and try to provide some context around them.

The numbers also paint a picture that can help answer a question that’s been on the minds of many fans this season, “how does Manchester United play?”


Two weeks ago Erik Ten Hag said the following regarding United’s press. “Pressing, we are quite good, we have the most ball regains and the most middle regains in the whole Premier League.”

At the time, Ten Hag was correct. Through the first 11 games of the season, United were a step above Tottenham for most high turnovers in the league, only for both to have now been overtaken by... Chelsea. United are getting 10.42 high turnovers per game, a nice improvement from the 8.63 they averaged last season which was sixth best in the league.

That’s a very nice number but what does it tell us? Not a whole lot.

The big question here is, what comes next? What are you doing with those high turnovers? Unfortunately, the answer to that is not much either.

United are second in high turnovers per game but only fourth in shots created from those high turnovers. That may not sound like a huge discrepancy, but only 16 percent of United’s high turnover ends in a shot. That’s the 10th-best ratio in the league, bang average. The 0.53 shots from high turnovers per game are substantially down from the 1.61 they averaged last season. For a team that relies on transitions to generate attacks, that’s a big drop.

That brings us to the other question. What are you gaining from the press?

The reason teams’ press is twofold. On the one hand, you get the ball back closer to the opponent's goal which should make it easier to create scoring chances. The other reason is to keep the ball away from your own goal.

When United’s press works, they’re not making it count. The best they’re doing is just ensuring their opponents don’t have the ball. When United don’t win the ball back high up the pitch, they’re letting teams cut through them with ease.

United have cut down on the amount of progressive passes they allow per game at the expense of letting people just carry the ball right through them. Take a look at United’s 10-game rolling average for progressive carries against. At the start of the season United’s had softened up to levels we hadn’t seen since the Jose Mourinho era and the tail end of the 2018-19 season when everyone was injured.

Last season United could get away with not winning the ball up high because Casemiro was lurking behind the forward line ready to clean up any mess that came.

This season Casemiro’s form has fallen off a cliff, and currently injured, leaving United vulnerable in the middle of the park. They’ve mitigated this in two ways. Firstly, they’ve scaled back on their pressing, choosing to sit off the ball more. Their high turnovers have dropped from 11.17 in the first six games to 9.67 in the last six, with the bulk of that coming against Crystal Palace and Sheffield United - two teams that sat deep so most of the game was played on their end.

They’ve also pushed their defensive line up higher. Over the first six games United’s average line height was 44.1, over the last six it’s about three meters higher at 47.

Given the way line height is calculated (the average location where defensive actions take place), and Harry Maguire’s ability to step forward and win headers preventing the ball from getting deeper, it’s no coincidence that United’s line has pushed higher since Maguire has been re-introduced to the team. Since Erik Ten Hag took charge United’s average line height has been about three meters higher when Maguire starts.

The higher line coupled with a scaled-back press has created a more compact defensive unit, making it harder for teams to easily slice through United’s midfield. Both progressive passes and carries have dropped significantly in recent games, though there is one other (big) factor at play, five of United’s last six matches have come against teams in the bottom half of the table.

Despite the progress being made, a look at where United’s opponents are touching the ball shows United are still defending as deep as ever. Under Ten Hag, United’s opponents are taking more touches in the final third than any one-manager season over the last seven years. The percentage of the opposition’s final third touches that come in the attacking box is the highest it’s been since the Mourinho era and while they’ve cut down on the amount of completions allowed within 20 yards of the goal, those numbers are far above what a top four team typically allows.

Another theme that has continued this season is United’s opponents taking a lower percentage of touches in the middle third of the pitch; telling us that once they move the ball out of their own third they’re able to get the ball to the final third very quickly. This will lead to an increase in box entries while the 13.83 shots conceded per game is also the highest since 2017.

In other words, when United’s press doesn’t work, they become especially vulnerable.

As all these things were prevalent last season, this is unlikely due to the injuries United have suffered in their back line.


Over the summer Erik Ten Hag said he wanted Manchester United to be “the best transition team in the league.” United led the league with 2.68 direct attacks per game last season. They scored 10 goals from counterattacks, their highest total in a Premier League season since 2009. Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes thrive on counter-attacks, while Casemiro excels at springing transitions from his tackles.

We should never take what a manager says publicly at face value, at best it’s usually no more than a half-truth, but the logic was there. This may have started a trend this season where what Ten Hag says publicly hasn’t matched with what he’s tried to do on the pitch but the question was always going to be, what if United can’t counterattack?

That’s the question many teams have sought to answer by distinctly changing how they approach matches against United. With the departure of David de Gea and the gradual dropping of Raphael Varane, there aren’t as obvious press triggers in United’s back line. As a response, teams just aren’t pressing United, rather they’ll sit off the back line and block passes to the receivers in midfield.

Last season under Ten Hag United typically went with a slow, slow, fast strategy in their buildup. They’d patiently pass the ball around the back inviting the press onto them and eventually dragging defenders out of position. Once that happened they’d quickly slice through you to create a transition opportunity out of nowhere.

This season has presented a new challenge. Teams are just staying home. They’re not being baited into being dragged out of position.

Combine teams staying home defensively along with Casemiro making far fewer tackles in midfield and it’s been much more difficult for United to create transitions. Their 2.33 direct attacks per game aren’t a terrible dropoff (from 2.68) but it’s only fourth in the league now.

As the numbers will tell you, United’s style has changed. Last season 15.8 percent of United’s touches in the final third came from inside the box. That kind of efficiency usually happens when you’re counter-attacking a lot. It’s easier to get into the box on transition so fewer touches are made in the final third before getting into the box. That number dropping to 14.63 percent this season is another indicator that United is counter-attacking less (that and you know, only having the one goal from counter-attacks 12 games into the season).

This season United are holding onto the ball longer and keeping more possession. The number of sequences that feature 10 or more passes per game has risen from 11.13 last season to 13.17 this season. While United are having longer sequences, they still need to figure out how to capitalize on them. Only 21.5 percent of their 10+ pass sequences have ended in a shot - the 11th-best ratio in the league. Again, bang average.

What United is doing well - really well in fact - is getting the ball to the final third. 28.91 percent of United’s touches this season have come in the attacking third, only Arsenal has a higher percentage. Last season United successfully entered their opponent's box 18.24 times per match, 1.2 more times than the next best season in the last seven years. This year that number has increased by another 1.85 times per match to 20.08 - only three teams are getting into their opponent's box more often. For all of United’s stale buildup, their 137 shots from open play this season are fourth-best in the league.

Those numbers look good, yet United has scored the sixth-fewest goals in the league this year. Let’s put some context around those numbers.

United may be good at getting the ball into the box, but they’re atrocious at doing anything productive with it once it’s in there. The league average for touches in the box per successful box entry is 1.61, United are at 1.39, and only Fulham are lower. While United are fourth in open play shots they’re ninth in open play xG, which drops them all the way to 17th in open play xG per shot. Only Luton Town, Burnley, and Sheffield United are creating a lower quality of shots from open play than Manchester United - those are the three newly promoted sides!

What can we make of all this? When United get the ball into the box, it’s essentially one and done, firing off a shot as quickly as they can. When you combine that number with their open-play xG numbers we can deduce that they are not getting the ball into high-quality areas in the box. Just by looking at the numbers, we could deduce that too many shots are coming from the wider areas of the box, where they have far less of a chance of going in.

The three players who take the most shots per 90 for United are their three wingers, Rashford, Antony, and Alejandro Garnacho. If we look at their shot maps it confirms the above, as only Rashford has been able to somewhat get to the middle, but even that has been limited.

Apologies for the quality and how it’s difficult to see

United worked to address their lack of goal-scoring this summer by signing 20-year-old striker Rasmus Hojlund, a prototypical no. 9 that they’ve been lacking the last few years. Hojlund is a raw talent with sky-high potential, signed less for what he’ll do this year and more for what he’ll do in the next few years. Hojlund has scored five goals from 5.9 xG in the Premier League and Champions League this season though by chance all five goals have come in the Champions League.

Hojlund is struggling in the Premier League for a very simple reason. He’s not getting any shots. His 1.95 shots per 90 ranks him 65th in the league. Hojlund is not the type of player who’s going to create his own shots, he’s incredibly reliant upon what kind of service he gets. While United’s wide players may take a lot of shots, they really don’t do a good job of creating shots for their striker.

This goes back to the makeup of the team. A few weeks ago The Busby Babe talked about Ten Hag often choosing an unbalanced XI, especially up front. Rashford on the left wing has never been a prolific creator for an old-school number 9 type striker, while neither Antony nor Garnacho have ever been big creators for the center forward either. Ten Hag has been choosing the in-form Scott McTominay, a midfielder who can provide a goal threat but doesn’t offer much in terms of creation. With United’s attack flurrying, you can see why Ten Hag is picking him, he wants someone to finish chances, but by selecting four players in your front five who don’t create much for the striker, you’re limiting how many chances you can create.

Underlying Numbers

That brings us to the big boy. Expected goal difference measures the quality of chances a team creates vs the quality of chances a team allows. It is probably the best metric at ranking how good teams actually are. Since the 2017-18 season only four teams that weren’t in the top four of expected goal difference finished in the top four in the table:
2017-18 Manchester United
2018-19 Tottenham
2022-23 Manchester United

Neither of the first two teams finished in the top four the following season. If we strip penalties out and look at only non-penalty xG difference the list falls to just 17-18 and 22-23 Manchester United.

United currently ranks 11th in both expected goal difference and non-penalty expected goal difference. That is as mid-table as they come and go along with all the other metrics that have United as bang average.

Here’s where things get tricky. Who you have on the pitch is obviously going to impact plenty of different metrics, but expected goal difference is among the least impacted. It really tells you what the team as a whole is doing. What will be impacted by injuries or players missing is the actual end product.

When Liverpool was decimated by injuries and spent most of the 2020-21 campaign outside the top four, their expected goal difference per game only fell from +0.82 in their title-winning 2019-20 season to +0.65 - still third-best in the league.

This summer Brighton lost two of their best and most important players. That’s contributed to a rather large drop in xGD from 0.61 all the way down to a still very respectable 0.31. That’s what losing players tend to look like.

United’s non-penalty expected goal difference this season has taken the biggest dropoff in the league, going from +0.45 last season to -0.11 this year.

Looking at just the first 12 can give you some added details in both directions. After 12 games last season, United’s NPxGD was just +0.03. The dropoff from the start of the season isn’t as extreme albeit United’s schedule over the first 12 games last season was probably slightly more difficult.

Going from +0.03 to +0.45 by the end of the season shows that things got way better though there are some things to note. Luke Shaw also missed some (though not as much) time in the first 12 games last season. Meanwhile, Lisandro Martinez played 94.81 percent of the available minutes in the first 12 matches last year but played less than half the available minutes (46.62%) in the remaining 26 matches when United’s numbers got much better.

United are as high as sixth thanks to their inability to draw matches. They’ve played eight games this year that could have gone either way and managed to turn them into seven wins and just one loss. United are currently the form team in the league - albeit that comes from having just gone through one of the easiest parts of their schedule.

Things are about to change as we head into December. United still haven’t beaten a team in the top half of the table and five of their next seven matches come against teams currently in the top half. Six of those teams are above United in expected goal differential.

United are expecting some players to get back from injury. The return of Luke Shaw will provide a boost and United have put themselves in a great spot. If they can start beating the teams in the top half they can quickly leapfrog several teams and give themselves secure footing in the top four race.

If United are going to do that they’re going to need to figure things out quickly. A third of the way through the season the numbers show United as a team that don’t really know how they want to play, nor are they particularly good at any one style. If United continue to play to their numbers through December, things could get really ugly really quickly.