It wasn’t hard to predict that Manchester United would struggle for goals this season. In fact, one of the biggest questions was where their goals would come from in the side’s first season under Erik ten Hag
Entering the season the club had two recognizable strikers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Anthony Martial. The former was past his best days and was never going to mesh with the playing style of the new coach. He was doing everything possible to move away from the club. The latter was a player with the potential to score 20 goals in a season while creating even more for his teammates but was more often frustrating than thrilling and even more often than that simply unavailable due to injury.
Halfway through the season Ronaldo left and United brought in Wout Weghorst on loan as a short term replacement. Weghorst had been a goalscorer in his mid 20s, but had only scored 16 league goals for three different clubs over the last three seasons. Needless to say, no one was expecting much more than that from him.
Manchester United have scored 48 non-penalty goals this season from a non-penalty xG of 58.1 (plus two own goals). This -10.1 underperformance is the second worst in the league - though as The Busby Babe outlined the other week, it hasn’t actually cost United points in the table. Regardless, it’s been clear and widely discussed that going forward Manchester United need a more dependable option at striker.
The real question is, what kind of striker does the team need?
The inefficiency in front of goal has fans clamoring for a classic no. 9 type. A fox in the box. Someone who gets on the end of chances and finishes them. Sign one of those and at the very least you’ll add 10 goals just from the finishing balancing out with the xG.
It sounds so simple but as always football is never that simple.
Where are United’s goals coming from?
In order to really assess what kind of striker you need, you need to understand what kind of players you already have. If you put the wrong profiles together, you’re going to do more harm than good.
Let’s start by taking a look at the production United have gotten this season from their strikers and wingers.
These numbers tell a pretty large story. United get more production from their wingers than their strikers. That’s not breaking news. They’re built around Marcus Rashford, who has spent most of his career on the left wing and is their best attacker. Rashford has responded with a career best season.
On the other side of the pitch has been Antony who has been far more wasteful. The numbers here flatter Antony. His npG-xG is boosted by his goal against Manchester City giving him almost a full +1. Unfortunately for him, since the World Cup Antony leads the team in shots per 90 but has only scored one goal. His npG-G is -3.9.
The good thing for Antony is he’s getting good chances and it’s still his first year in the league. It’d be foolish to write off anyone after just one year in a new league. There’s a very good chance takes a step up next year, puts it together, and starts finishing these chances. It’s not far-fetched to think with the same opportunities he can double that output to eight or possibly even 10 goals next year.
Below those two you have Sancho who maybe can add more to his game in his second year under Erik Ten Hag followed by Alejandro Garnacho. Garnacho is likely to see more minutes next season and if there’s natural progression there we should expect to see that goal tally grow a little bit.
Even without any progression from Rashford just like that we can conceivably see the wingers contributing 38-40 goals next year.
The conventional belief is to add an elite striker to this setup and get a further 20+ goals from the striker position. Now you’re looking at 60 goals before even accounting for Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, and any other goals you might get from midfielders, defenders on set pieces, penalties, or even the potential return of Amad from his loan at Sunderland.
Unfortunately the conventional belief doesn’t line up with reality. There’s enough research out there to show us this isn’t what ends up happening.
What a new striker really means
Football is a sport where 2+2+2 doesn’t always equal 6. You can’t assume that adding a 15 goal scorer to your two 10 goal scorers is automatically going to give you 35 goals. In fact, it’s more likely for the opposite to happen.
When fans see a striker miss a chance, the immediate reaction is “a better striker finishes that chance.” What they don’t factor in, is everything else. Things such as, if striker B was playing instead of striker A would that chance have even occurred in the first place? That can be influenced by a whole number of things like the strikers link up play, chemistry with teammates etc. If you’re striker plays a big role in helping get the ball to your attacking players in dangerous positions and his replacement doesn’t do that, the replacement isn’t going to get as many chances to finish as your original striker did.
If you want to increase your goal scoring, the best way to do that is to increase the amount of shots and scoring chances your team gets. Just adding a towering number 9 doesn’t typically do that.
We don’t have to look far to find examples.
Erling Haaland joined Manchester City this season and promptly set a new record for goals in a season. Clearly Manchester City have even more firepower than ever before.
Except that’s not what’s happened. Take a look.
Both Manchester City and Liverpool are taking less shots this year and have a lower xG than a year ago. City’s hasn’t dropped off much because Haaland has been so remarkably efficient while Liverpool’s has because Darwin hasn’t had that level of impact. However even with Haaland’s crazy finishing, the goals have been stagnant. He hasn’t added to City’s total goals.
Manchester United should know this - though I’ll admit it is asking a lot for the club to be well run and learn from their mistakes. In 2019-20 United took 13.95 shots per game worth an xG of 1.35 and scored 1.45 non-penalty goals per game. Despite Anthony Martial scoring 17 Premier League goals, the fan base was shouting for a ‘traditional’ number 9.
The club added Edinson Cavani who took about half the minutes from Martial and the effect was... minimal. United dropped to 13.55 shots per match while their xG stayed the same at 1.35 - so a very small increase in the quality of shots. Their scoring “jumped” to 1.58 non-penalty goals per game. The result of slightly more efficient finishing, though their +8.6 npG-xG is on the higher end and not something that could be expected to be improved upon.
The following season the club added Cristiano Ronaldo under the guise that he was “guaranteed goals” and would add goals for the club. Ronaldo lead the team in scoring but he certainly didn’t “add” goals. The teams’ shots dropped to 12.82 per game, their xG only fell to 1.33, but their goals fell to 1.34.
This season when Ronaldo was on the pitch United took 12.51 shots per 90 with an xG of 1.03. When he’s not on the pitch United are taking 15.88 shots with an xG of 1.72.
As for Ronaldo, last season he took 3.92 shots per 90. This season he managed 4.29 in his limited minutes.
That’s the thing about chance dominant strikers. They don’t add shots and goals to your team, they merely redistribute them.
Take a look at how United’s shots were distributed in the two seasons prior to Ronaldo’s arrival.
There’s a pretty even split across the front three attackers, plus Bruno Fernandes getting very involved. Defenses couldn’t lock in on any one particular player because the attack was coming from anywhere.
Now look at how they were distributed last year.
Not only are there fewer shots, but one person is taking even more. Once Mason Greenwood was banished from the team in January, Ronaldo’s share went up even further to 32.74 percent, he was taking nearly a third of the shots.
Finally, here’s how things look for the current team before and after the World Cup.
Since the World Cup the distribution is far more even. Not by coincidence, since the World Cup is when Bruno and Rashford have done the majority of their scoring.
Players like Haaland and Ronaldo get a lot of chances, but typically they do so at the expense of their teammates. Adding a player who cannibalizes the chances of their teammates would mean we could not longer expect the same production from the likes of Rashford and Antony.
Those strikers are going to get their chances. They’re going to create chances for themselves and their movement is going to put them in good situations where chances find them. But we’ve seen enough to know they’re not going to increase the chances for their teammates. The consensus among United fans is, the strikers teammates will become more creative now that they have an actual striker playing in the middle.
Again that’s where the consensus differs from reality.
Adding to the mix
Let’s go back to the initial graphic detailing United’s production this season. There’s one problem with it. Rashford has spent about half his minutes this season playing as a striker. If we factor those minutes in United’s production looks a bit different.
Rashford’s production looks a lot different as a winger but it gets even worse. One of his nine goals as a winger came when he was playing on the right wing. Three of the remaining eight goals came during 598 minutes where he was on the left wing while Anthony Martial was playing striker. Both of those assists were for Martial goals.
That’s the thing about Rashford. As a left winger, he’s not that particularly creative. In the last four seasons, Rashford has 10 Premier League assists while playing on the left wing. Seven of those went to Martial. None of the other three went to the a center forward such as Cavani or Ronaldo. When Rashford did assist Cavani they came more traditional crosses from the right wing (plus one set piece).
This isn’t breaking news. We’ve known for quite some time that Rashford is at his best when playing next to a striker that drops deeper and gives him space to run in behind. When playing next to a traditional number 9, he’s far less effective. His worst years have come when playing next to Zlatan, Ronaldo, and Cavani - with Cavani he was able to find success as a right winger.
On the other side of the pitch is Antony, a player with as many league assists for Ajax this season as Manchester United. When United signed Antony last summer, fans saw him as an inverted winger who would provide creativity and goal scoring.
That hasn’t quite happened this year but once again the conventional wisdom says, bring in a striker and Antony will suddenly become creative. The problem is that’s never really been the type of player Antony is or ever was.
Per Fbref, this season Antony has 74 shot-creating actions, 3.75 per 90. Not bad but certainly room to improve. However, only 6 of those shot-creating actions have been the primary shot assist to the center forward (IE Antony passes to the striker who then shoots). Four of those shot assists have come in the last four matches - with three of them going to Martial.
Obviously this could be influenced by United’s striker problems so we looked back at last season at Ajax when he lined up next to Sebastian Haller who scored 21 times in the Eredivisie. Last season Antony had 109 shot-creating actions, but only nine of those were the primary shot-assists for Haller. In both seasons the bulk of Antony’s creation came from making the pass before the pass, usually to an overlapping fullback - Jadon Sancho is similar in this regard.
For more on Antony, I reached out to The Busby Babe’s resident Ajax expert Suwaid Fazal and asked him simply, “does a classic no. 9 help Antony or hurt him?”
“Probably better but I won’t say that with any confidence after this season. He was better at playing the pass that opens up the game, assist before the assist stuff.” Suwaid responded.
He then continued, “Rashford improved at the creating part over time from close to zero to something. Feel like Antony has the technical stuff to be better but just haven’t seen it yet. Like he overhits crosses and I think his right foot is probably better than he rates it. He has the skill but we typically don’t see players improve when there’s nothing in the data.”
This is where United have to be careful. They just invested £80 million in Antony and Rashford is the homegrown star. Both players are better playing narrower and making runs into vacated space in the middle than staying wide and working the ball into the middle themselves.
United have a lot invested in these two players (plus Sancho, plus Amad - another winger who is more a goal scorer than creator). You can’t expect them to suddenly become creative wingers just looking to feed the number 9. Rashford has never been a player who whips in lots of crosses, and while Antony did that in the Netherlands, it’s been more difficult for him to get off crosses in the Premier League due to the way teams defend by having a second man aggressively close him down as soon as he puts the ball on his left foot (his splits between the Premier League and the Europa League are telling).
For United, the priority has to be adding a striker that is going to compliment the abilities of the players they already have. It’s better to have a front three where each player scores 15 goals, then have one player score 30 but the other two each get seven.
It’s time for United to learn from their mistakes. They’ve been in this situation before and each time they’ve opted for the quick solution of “just sign the guy who scores goals” rather than looking at the whole process and figuring out where they really need to improve.
United are a team that currently relies on their number 9 to help with the ball progression and facilitate play. A traditional number 9 with great movements in the box may be better at creating chances out of nothing, but the opportunities to do those things will be fewer if they don’t provide the same qualities deeper on the pitch that United are currently utilizing.
United may be a traditional number 9 away from competing for the title, but they’re not ready for that player yet. One of the reasons Haaland and City are thriving is because Pep spent the entire first half of the season tinkering with his team to cater it more towards Haaland. Mainstays in the team are no longer there while guys who were previously bench players start every week. Their skillsets are now better fits for the team than before.
United don’t have this kind of squad flexibility.
United are only sixth in the league in touches in the attacking third. You need to increase that number just so you can get your striker more situations where his movement will make a difference. Their wingers aren’t the creative types that create chances for a striker. Therefore that creativity needs to come from the fullbacks. United only have one fullback that’s truly good at that and he hasn’t been able to do much of that this season because he’s been needed deeper on the pitch to help with buildup.
They need to improve the buildup so their creative players can be used in more creative positions. They need to get a better right back so they can support both wingers.
If you don’t build the foundation before you bring in the striker you’re setting yourself up for failure. The striker will underperform which can shatter confidence and leave you with even more money tied up and the same hole in your squad. The rest of your player’s form will take a dip too as their put in situations that don’t allow them to be their best. The fans will then turn on the players and eventually the entire project will collapse.
United need to score more goals next season. They need a striker who can finish chances. But they also need to concede fewer goals and chances on the other end. They need to get ball to their attackers more so they can have more chances to influence games.
These are things United need to remember as they enter the transfer market this summer. The team has a lot of needs and if done properly, all of them will contribute in helping both attack and defense. If you spend too much of the budget on one area, you better hope that player’s back is strong enough to carry the entire club.