What in the World is Wrong with Manchester United? An Analytics Lookaround

It’s pretty obvious at this point – Manchester United are in freefall. Their attack is stuck in quicksand and their defence couldn’t be more open if they sat Harry Maguire down in front of the goal with a sign reading “Free for all”. If not for the brilliance of David De Gea, where would they actually be? It’s a nice thought experiment (but one I’ll leave for your vivid imaginations).

Now that we have crossed the halfway point of the season, I wanted to deep dive into the numbers behind United’s porous campaign. In this article, we will focus on their attacking numbers and in the next piece I’ll dive into their non-existent defence.

And no, I will not talk about dressing room harmony and all the intangibles involved there. This is purely a numbers exercise and that’s what we’ll stick to.

So let’s get into it!

Note: All data in this article is from fbref.com.

Is Cristiano Ronaldo the Problem?

Let’s tackle the most common criticism – adding Cristiano Ronaldo to this squad has completely backfired. Is this true, though? Has Ronaldo taken away what made United so thrilling to watch under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (well, when it clicked, anyway)?

Let’s start by looking at United’s goal-scoring outputs this season. This is the % share of goals by United players in the Premier League this season:

Wow. A whooping 73% of United’s 23 Premier League goals have come from just 3 players. That sounds wayyy too much, doesn’t it?

Here’s United’s goal distribution in the Premier League last season:

Spot the difference? Apart from Bruno (Duh), there was a healthy contribution across the board with the defence chipping in with a few crucial goals. This season? Not so much. United have 7 different goal scorers this season as compared to 16 last term. Yes, yes, I know we’re only halfway through this season but that’s still a pretty telling stat.

Let’s put that into context by comparing this with the six clubs above United this season.

Chelsea:

That’s about as even a distribution as you’re likely to get in a top side. Thanks to Lukaku’s struggles, players like Mason Mount and Reece James have stepped up to share the burden. This also shows how good Thomas Tuchel’s tactics have been (not that that was in any doubt!).

Liverpool:

There’s also a HUGE reliance on the Liverpool trio but when you’ve got Salah leading the line, that’s not really a problem, is it?!

Manchester City:

When you play without a striker for the entire season, this is what you get. It’s quintessential Pep Guardiola and there’s not much to debate here.

West Ham United:

An expected reliance on Antonio but the other players, like Lanzini, Benrahma and Bowen have really stepped up to the plate for David Moyes. It’ll be interesting analyzing West Ham over the last couple of seasons in a separate article.

Arsenal:

Yep, that’s how good Emile Smith-Rowe has been. But again, there is a nice distribution across the team without any over-dependence on one or two players.

Tottenham Hotspur:

Yeah, this is going to be a problem for Antonio Conte if Son gets injured. Harry Kane has looked pretty poor this season so their reliance on Son is through the roof. Conte needs to make a shrine and pray day and night in front of Son’s statue at this rate.

So what am I getting at here?

When you rely too much on one or two players, your team’s fortunes will oscillate with their performances. Bruno Fernandes, apart from his goals vs. Leeds and Newcastle, has looked like a shell of himself. His output as compared to last season is significantly down and United have suffered as a result.

And what about the elephant in the room? Or the other Portuguese on the pitch?

Here’s how Ronaldo’s expected goals (xG) compare to the rest (these are the top 10 in the league):

That’s pretty impressive. He’s scored 8 goals from an xG of 8.8 – those are solid numbers. It means he’s scoring (almost) as much as he’s expected to based on the chances he’s getting.

Who Do We Blame Then?

Isn’t that the million dollar question? Let’s try to break this down by looking at how United work in possession.

First, let’s look at which the number of touches by each player (and this is pretty much a dead giveaway as to what’s wrong with United):

After Bruno Fernandes, here are the top 5:

  • Aaron Wan-Bissaka
  • Harry Maguire
  • Luke Shaw
  • Fred
  • Scott McTominay

How many of these players are good with the ball at their feet? How many of them can create something? How many can find that killer ball?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a HUGE problem. Manchester United, the self-proclaimed biggest club in the world, DOES NOT have a single creative midfielder outside Bruno Fernandes. And when Bruno isn’t on song (and he really isn’t right now), United look bereft of ideas. Tom Hanks was more creative in Cast Away than United are in the Premier League.

United are simply not set up to extract the most out of their attacking players, namely Ronaldo, Greenwood, Cavani, Rashford, and yes, even Bruno. The team is desperately crying out for a central midfielder who can hold the ball and string a few passes together. Paul Pogba might have been the answer but when he’s done vacationing in Dubai, he will be looking for houses in Paris so there’s no point relying on him.

Want Some More Numbers?

Alright then. Here’s a look at touches in the attacking penalty area by United players:

If you think that looks fine, check out Liverpool’s numbers:

That’s the difference between an elite attack and a very mediocre one. I’m not even going to put Manchester City’s numbers here – it’s just plain embarrassing.

Final Thoughts

You can slice it any way you want (and Lord knows I have), Manchester United have an unbalanced squad that no amount of coaching can fix. When they fix the recruitment cycle (not happening anytime soon), the results on the pitch might get better. Might.

When we compare this dross to teams above United, you can see a clear plan. Chelsea have the likes of Jorginho, Reece James, Thiago Silva and Kovacic. Liverpool have Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson bombing down each flank. Arsenal have Partey and Odegaard in midfield and Saka up front.

You look at these teams and there is a clear, distinct plan in play. United? Well, there’s nothing at all.

And unless United manage to get a world-class midfielder in the transfer window, this is shaping up to be another long, loooong season.

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