What is going on with United in front of goal?

What is going on at Old Trafford at the moment? Why are they struggling to score goals against ‘lesser’ teams that any United fan would expect their team to beat with relative ease. Is it the players? The coach? A bit of both? You may think back to the run when Ole was still the caretaker manager and he had first joined. United had gone their first 12 league games under his tutelage without a defeat. They had a goal difference of +20 in this string of results too. If we look closer at the numbers though, the teams xG scored was 25.6, and their xG against was 13.7 (for a more in depth look at how xG works and what it means, click here); giving them an expected goal difference off 11.9, 8.1 goals less than the players actually scored. It is not normal for a team to outperform their xG for any sustained period of time, so it was almost inevitable that eventually we would have this downturn of form to negate the over-performance earlier. You might wonder when the club started to under perform exactly. Was it after the infamous night in Paris? Was it the start of this current season we are in now? Well, if we look back to the last 5 games of the previous season, they had an xG of 5.7, however only scored 2 goals. The xGA was 6.1, yet they conceded 10 goals.

SituationGoals ScoredxG
Open Play2627.98
From Corner45.83
Direct Free Kick01.58
Set Piece12.40
Our xG scored for 2019/20 League Season. Stats courtesy of understat.

As we can see in the above table, we have under performed compared to our xG from every single type of situation on the pitch this season. Whether it is a penalty, corner or open play, our finishing is below average. Our total xG for this season is 42.56, our actual goal tally being 36. The three players who are under performing against their xG the most are Maguire, Pogba and Lingard. Pogba’s numbers, though having not played much, are influenced by a missed penalty. Even Marcus Rashford, who was by all accounts having a stellar season up until his stress fracture, is the only player who is a top 5 goal scorer in the league yet still under their xG, meaning he still isn’t finishing his chances at the expected rate. In fact, in the entire United squad, only 4 players are performing better than their xG would suggest: Martial, McTominay, Greenwood and Lindelof. Aside from these 4 players, every other member of the squad is performing negatively against their xG. Greenwood is actually outperforming his xG by 2.30; very impressive for an 18 year old, and Martial surpassing his should not be a surprise, he has been the most clinical striker in the Premier League the past 2 full seasons.

Young striker Mason Greenwood celebrating a goal against AZ Alkmaar earlier this season.

All the numbers and statistics aside on expected goals and the like, if we just use the eye test and watch Manchester United play, why we struggle to score from open play becomes even more obvious. Quite often when the ball is recovered and the team have possession, the ball is progressed up the field until around the edge of the opposition box. Then we are subject to the mind numbing exercise of watching the players pass the ball from wing to wing in such a draining manner. This usually carries on until we either get frustrated and take a long shot, or the other team press the players ferociously, so the ball is moved back to the centre backs and the cycle restarts. The problem is the players either don’t want to or can’t make incisive passes, one that break the opposition lines or shift defences. They play right into the hands of the defenders.

(Left to Right) Maguire, Fred and Lingard looking dejected after conceding against West Ham.

Our lack of a specialist set-piece taker has also damaged our set piece scoring capabilities a lot too. From these dead ball situations, we are 4.81 goals behind our xG! This is nearly 2.5 times more than we are behind our xG from open play. Not having someone on corners who can consistently deliver well placed balls past the first man, and someone regularly on the pitch who can take a decent free kick has massively affected United’s goal scoring capabilities this season (to see where United rank in the division for set piece goals and others, click here)

New signing, Bruno Fernandes unveiled alongside Manchester United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

To conclude, unfortunately there is no obvious glaring solution to United’s goal scoring problems this season. The acquisition of Bruno Fernandes at the end of January will hope to improve on the set piece conundrum with his expertise in that department. His eye for a pass from open play, and Pogba’s impending return will also surely help, but after so many months of performing so badly in front of goal, can we reasonably expect these two players to change the whole outlook for the team. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see.

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