Manchester United became the joint-second lowest-scoring team in the Premier League after their embarrassing 2-0 loss at West Ham on Saturday.
The issue has been a glaring weakness recently, with United failing to score in four of the last five matches. They’ve scored 20 fewer goals than third-placed Aston Villa, their Boxing Day opponents, and are well off the pace of everyone else in the top half of the table.
Despite the perception of United’s defensive woes in terms of both fitness and form, the main issue has become their inability to create and convert big chances.
Here are some of the teams United have scored less than; Wolves, Bournemouth, Everton, Fulham. Newly promoted Luton Town have only scored one less than United. I’m sure United fans don’t want more embarrassing statistics thrown their way but the evidence is damning.
It’s amazing to think United are level on points with Newcastle with the Magpies having scored 36. If United had an effective method of consistently scoring goals they might’ve somehow been higher, such is the bizarreness of this Premier League season.
This was a problem last season that has been exacerbated by the fact that Marcus Rashford’s form has fallen off a cliff. He was only one of two players last season to score more than 10 goals in all competitions.
United played 62 games last season, that should’ve been enough for another attacker to pitch in and break the 10-goal mark. A rotating cast of Martial-Garnacho-Antony-Sancho-Weghorst would fill positions around Rashford normally as the striker, sometimes as the left winger and Fernandes at CAM.
Each had a run of fixtures regularly in the team none were consistent enough to back up the Englishman’s goals. It was fine to rely on Rashford last season as he was bang in form.
The goals have become such a problem this season, Scott Mctominay is regularly the first name on the team sheet just because he has as Ten Hag put it: a ‘snout’ for goals, despite clear question marks around what else he brings to the table and what United lose when compensating for their most in-form attacker e.g. Bruno being Bruno
Ten Hag stumbled upon the Mctominay solution when he desperately threw him on in the dying minutes vs Brentford where he possibly saved his job and has been relying on him ever since.
In the beginning of the season, it was a matter of United pressing teams high up the pitch and either being poor in execution in the final third (Wolves) or missing the chances they created (Tottenham Hotspur).
What can't be overstated in this game and was a large reason for United's poor performance was just how bad the attack was in the final third. When getting into promising positions through good pressing Antony-Garnacho-Fernandes would mess up a pass or final ball pic.twitter.com/RxZ90OmNsd— Dharnish (@dharnishiqbal) August 17, 2023
Then as the injuries piled up they spent games trying to stop dangerous attacks (Arsenal and Brighton) failed to do so and lost both.
The most bizarre period labelled as ‘pragmatic’ by Ten Hag was when from late September to early November it was really difficult to explain how United was winning games. Namely relying on Fernandes bailing them out (Burnley and Fulham) or last-minute rescue missions (Brentford and Sheffield United)
The style of play wasn’t pragmatic so much as it was to play direct and long. This isn’t a team known for its imposing height, but more remarkably this ‘go long’ plan never felt effective or formulated. Winning football matches with Onana saving multiple shots, Fernandes scoring a worldie, or gathering steam in the final minutes is not a plan.
It contributed to the few goals scored as United looked bereft of ideas to create chances. You could point to the fact that Victor Lindelof and Sofyan Amrabat played as full-backs during this period.
Full-backs are quintessential to the ‘Ten Hag’ way, they’re responsible for stretching the pitch wide to join the front line and rotate in midfield when needed so another winger can occupy the wings. There was a slightly better improvement when Dalot and Wan-Bissaka were the full-backs vs Fulham but not enough to assume United were playing the 3-1-6 ‘wide winger/inverted full-back’ pattern that helped decimate the teams in the bottom half last season.
3-0-7 with no idea how to get it up to 7 pic.twitter.com/lbVVEkXuYB— Dharnish (@dharnishiqbal) October 25, 2023
A lot of Man Utd’s attacks looked like this with space vacated in midfield but the ball in defence and no clue as to how to connect the two and get the ball from A to B.
The game against Luton Town (h) was a more controlled affair with United fashioning many chances, but this was mainly due to Luton inviting pressure and sitting deep in a low block with no intention of pressing. Eventually United figured out how to drag their back five around to create spaces wide.
This brings me to the latest few games to ponder the dilemma of the little goals United scored.
When teams do their homework as Bournemouth did and figure out United struggles horribly when pressed, the Red Devils struggle to progress the ball successfully from defence to attack.
It didn’t help that the only midfielder (Amrabat) that might’ve been capable of solving this was tracked for most of the game whilst your most creative outlet (Fernandes) was forced deeper and deeper because Mctominay is your top scorer. It’s no good having the player your team is built around so deep to get the ball up to where he is best utilised.
The high regains and turnovers from good pressing were probably United’s best attacking performance of the season. It is one route United looks a lot more dangerous and gets United the ball in the final third without having to get there themselves but still presents problems in transition:
A more solid effort defensively vs Liverpool was very much welcomed with Antony and Garnacho in particular lessening the gaps in United’s midfield and tracking runners to make them as compact as possible.
The point was to come to Anfield, stay in the game for as long as possible and hit Liverpool on the counter, but what do United do when they’re forced to have the ball?
Against West Ham, I’m still racking my brain as to what the modus operandi will be to score goals.
Could it be United are faced with an issue of how to get out of the press again?
Will they try to press West Ham themselves out of possession, allowing themselves open to Jarrod Bowen, Mohammed Kudus, and Lucas Paqueta on the counter?
They surely won’t have as little possession as they did at Liverpool so they probably won’t defend for the same amount of time.
It’s tough to guess how United will play because it’s been tough to decipher what they are trying to do to logically be a threat to the opposition. Once the build-up play is cut off for United there isn’t a plan B in terms of how to score, except for relying on individuals to produce special moments e.g. Garnacho’s overhead kick, Dalot’s long ranger vs Sheff.
The lack of chance creation is due to consistently changing how United plays whilst running into problems that aren’t solved once Ten Hag has decided the method according to the opposition.
With the New Year fast approaching, and the announcement made on Christmas Eve that INEOS and Sir Jim Ratcliffe are officially on their way in, the feeling of change is impossible to ignore. But none of those factors impact personnel or tactical decisions.
If United are to increase the abysmal amount of goals they’ve scored, ten Hag must settle on a more effective way to do so. None of what the Dutchman has tried so far seems foolproof.