Why Manchester United are struggling for goals

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For at least a brief while on Saturday, after a thrilling last minute goal gave them a win against Watford and before Manchester City and Leicester City played, Manchester United took a once-familiar spot on top of the English Premier League table.

Since Alex Ferguson ushered in an era of almost constant success in the 1990s and 2000s, United fans have been used to seeing their team atop the table, but normally with a style different than what’s currently being played. Ferguson’s sides always played fast-paced, offensive football, with pace and trickery out wide a specialty. In the club’s illustrious history of over a century, it was a Ferguson side that scored the most goals in a season (97 in a 91 point season in 1999-2000), and once Ferguson had properly cut his teeth in the job and Sky started the Premier League in the early 1990s, United never scored less than 58 goals and in 13 seasons topped 75.

This season they’re on pace for 55. Last season they scored 62. The year prior with David Moyes and Ryan Giggs, they scored 64.

It’s not as if United don’t have the opportunity. They have well over 50% of the ball on average, but they display a shocking lack of ambition with it, taking only the 16th most shots per game out of the 20 Premier League clubs.

TeamShots per gameShots on Target per gameShots on target %
Arsenal18.46.535%
Manchester City18.46.938%
Tottenham Hotspur15.86.340%
Liverpool15.34.831%
Leicester City14.65.135%
Southampton14.5534%
Chelsea14.2428%
West Ham13.54.332%
Norwich City13.44.332%
Watford12.53.226%
Swansea City12.24.234%
Everton12.14.336%
Crystal Palace124.437%
Bournemouth11.83.631%
Aston Villa10.52.625%
Manchester United10.53.937%
Sunderland103.333%
Stoke City9.83.132%
Newcastle United9.73.839%
West Bromwich Albion9.53.234%

While the table above doesn’t exactly correlate with the league ladder, it gives you an understanding about how teams want to play and where the problem lies. Jürgen Klopp for example, has already commented about his Liverpool team’s lack of patience and belief, which manifests itself in not having the patience to follow through with offensive maneuvers, instead taking shots from anywhere and any distance despite those being far less likely to be on target.

Meanwhile a counter-attacking team like Crystal Palace does not depend on volume of shots to get goals, but rather a few shots but with a high likelihood of being on target with the chance to score a goal.

Despite United being down with the dregs of the table in terms of shot volume, they only take one more shot per game than bottom placed West Brom and take almost 8 fewer per game than top place Arsenal. Their shots on target % is one of the highest in the league, in keeping with their contemporaries at the top of the table. It’s as if Louis Van Gaal wants to play the Crystal Palace way, defend most of the game and pick a few choice moments to shoot when you have a good chance of conversion, but United’s excellently groomed and expensive players do their defending with the ball, rather than without like Palace.

Defending with the ball is nothing new. Barcelona have been doing it for years. And if you’re good enough with it at your feet, then it makes perfect sense. With the ball, you don’t get tired chasing after it. With the ball, your opponent literally cannot score. With the ball, you are the proactive team that decides the tempo and where action can happen on the field. The famous Barcelona tiki-taka is “both defensive and offensive” as the team is always in possession, and thus does not have to waste time and expose vulnerabilities when shifting from an offensive to a defensive shape. Everything is fluid.

There was a time during the Ferguson blood and thunder years when you would expect Manchester United to lead or be close to the lead in the league in a few statistics, dribbles, shots, fouls against due to people constantly having to bring down a flying Ryan Giggs running past them. Now everything is more measured.

TeamDribbles per gameFouled per game
Arsenal13.612.7
Aston Villa12.810.5
Leicester City10.810
Chelsea10.813.7
Everton10.4 11.7
Liverpool10.310.2
West Ham10.112.4
Tottenham Hotspur109.8
Manchester City9.910.7
Crystal Palace9.811.6
Newcastle United9.711.5
Bournemouth9.511.7
Norwich City9.17.2
Stoke City8.811.2
West Bromwich Albion8.89.7
Swansea City8.512.6
Manchester United8.210.4
Watford7.811
Sunderland7.89.6
Southampton6.79.7

Again United is with the laggards in stats that detail attacking ambition, and it’s not because they don’t have the players to dribble or run past people and get fouled. Their squad is light years ahead of Watford, Sunderland, and Swansea. Van Gaal has obviously assessed his options, and thought that the chance of scoring 20 extra goals a season through improved offensive ambition is not worth the defensive headaches it would give the team.

Is he right about that? It’s a subjective question. United are conceding 0.7 goals a game, on track to concede 26 for the whole season. A low number to be certain, and tied for the best defensive record in the league with Manchester City.

But it’s also a defensive record that Ferguson matched or bettered four times, while also scoring 80, 68, 73, and 58 goals. Although given that United have not conceded less than 30 in the league for 5 seasons, perhaps Van Gaal is entirely right to start his rebuilding from the back?

The crowd at Old Trafford is demanding, winning is not enough. They expect to see young talent flying down the wings and players confident of turning and beating their marker. The enforced impotence of Van Gaal’s side is frustrating to watch, after all what could this hugely priced team do if properly let off the leash? But at the very least, it is all part of a plan. And given that this plan is seeing United make a proper title challenge for the first time in three seasons, it could be well worth sticking with.

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