Looking at Manchester United this season, we can divide it into three parts: José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær as a caretaker manager, and Solskjær as permanent manager. Solskjær has had nine games in charge as permanent manager. This tactical analysis aims to deconstruct Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s time in charge and why their xG has decreased.

Of the seven Premier League matches, Manchester United won twice, lost three times, and drew once. They scored seven goals and conceded 12 times. They have serious defensive deficiencies, but what is more disconcerting is their attack.

There are many statistics that can explain Manchester United‘s decline in their attacking performances. From the number of goals, shots, expected goals and passes. However, there is one aspect that highlights their decline is the comparison between their first and second half performances. This tactical analysis will discuss the changes in their statistics and what influenced these deteriorations.

Difficulty penetrating the opponent’s penalty box

Recording an average of one goal a game should not be a problem for Manchester United. It has, however, become one because they had an expected goals (xG) of 9.56 in their last seven matches (ranked 10th of all the Premier League teams in the same period).

With only seven goals scored, United are ranked fifth from the bottom if with regards to the number of goals scored (same number with Arsenal, Newcastle United, and West Ham United) in the last seven Premier League matches. They only better Fulham, Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, and Brighton & Hove Albion.

Premier League 2018/19: Manchester United Tactical Analysis Statistics
Manchester United’s xG graphs from 11th November 2018 until 28th April 2019

Of the seven goals, Manchester United scored twice from a penalty kick, two from the left flank, one from the right, one from the opponent’s defensive error, and one from outside the penalty area.

The final statistics are interesting because Manchester United actually recorded 19 clear cut chances to shoot from outside the penalty area (six of which were against Huddersfield). This number is the biggest contribution from all United clear cut chances; greater than crosses (10), corner kicks, and counter-attacks (both were seven).

The number of shot attempts from outside the penalty area signal an issue in penetrating the opponent’s defence. Even though from the seven matches, United were able to dominate four of them.

But this does not necessarily indicate that Manchester United had difficulty progressing to the opponent’s penalty area because, in reality, they recorded 165 touches in the opponent’s penalty area (the eighth-highest number of all teams in the Premier League) in that time frame.

Unfortunately, the number of touches are not proportional to the number of shots. Manchester United were only able to record 45 shots from inside the penalty area (eighth-worst). Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Southampton, and Watford recorded more shots.

In the end, Manchester United were only able to record 26 shots on target out of a total of 89 shots, with a 29.2% accuracy rate. Manchester United became the fifth worst in the Premier League in the last seven matches. That’s why they have decreased performance in the xG.

It’s not Pogba’s fault

When a tactical analysis of Manchester United’s playing squad is conducted, it’s easy to conclude this decline in performances is because of them. Defensively, David De Gea, Ashley Young, or Chris Smalling are usually scapegoated. While from the front line, Paul Pogba—who is rumoured to want a move to Real Madrid— easily becomes a victim.

Even if we look at the statistics, the only outstanding player in the seven matches under Solskjær is Pogba.

Of all the attacking statistics, Pogba excelled among other United players with 15 shots of which six were from inside the opponent’s penalty area, 14 chances created, and two goals (although both were from a penalty kick against The Hammers).

His number of chances created is even seventh-best among all players in the Premier League in the last seven matches. Pogba only lost the number of shots on target (three) to Marcus Rashford (six), Scott McTominay, and Anthony Martial (both with four) and the number of assist (zero) to Luke Shaw (two) and Fred (one).

Premier League 2018/19: Manchester United Tactical Analysis Statistics
Paul Pogba’s touch heatmap in the last seven matches – Credit: Fantasy Football Scout

Pogba’s heat map indicates his preference to operate on the left, leading to more goal scoring opportunities for Manchester United. Of the total 62 chances (ranked 10th among all teams) United recorded in the last seven matches, 43.5% of them were from the left (fourth best).

Generally, Manchester United have difficulty entering the opponent’s penalty area. It was not exactly Pogba’s fault, he is a symbol of United’s attack. So Pogba became the player who contributed the most shots from outside the penalty area which resulted in clear cut chances: nine out of 19.

United experienced a decline in performance in the second half

Manchester United’s problems are not limited to the above explanations. United have a systematic problem that can be mapped into two parts that can adequately explain the cause. They seem to play differently across both halves.

From their last seven Premier League matches, United conceded 12 times, with eight of them in the second half. The majority of shots (18) on the target they conceded (33) also occurred in the second half.

Does United play worse under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the second half than they do in the first half?

Statistics show that Manchester United attacked better in the first half than in the second half, especially if we put aside the anomaly in United’s match against Huddersfield (where United offered a more attacking threat in the second half).

Premier League 2018/19: Manchester United Tactical Analysis Statistics
Comparison of Manchester United’s key passes in the first half (left) and the second half (right) against West Ham United (13th April 2019) – Credit: Wyscout

In addition to goals (from five goals in the first half to two goals in the second half), United experienced a decline in terms of xG per match (from 0.55 to 0.49), shots per match (5.67 to 4.83), and shots on target per match (1.83 to 1.67) from the first half to the second half.

Manchester United also recorded 17.55 passes per minute in the first half in their last seven Premier League matches. This figure is higher than their record in the second half, which is 16.82 passes per minute.

All of the statistics above make us assume that United played worse in the second half, especially under Solskjær as a permanent manager. They conceded and had more shots on target in the second half. However, they shot and passed fewer in the second half.

It doesn’t matter if they shoot less, but in fact, the quality of their shots (through xG) is also worse in the second half than in the first half.

These players don’t seem to be in prime physical condition. They seem physically tired and lose energy in the second half. This is also indicated by Manchester United’s distance covered from the beginning of the season until the end of March 2019 which is only 3,240.6 km — only Brighton and Cardiff covered less.

Other top teams don’t have this problem

The question remains, is that reasonable? Well, football is a game of two halves; the second half is definitely more tiring, isn’t it?

But it turns out that when compared to Manchester City and Liverpool, United’s performance does reflect their exhaustion. The majority of Manchester City and Liverpool statistics have increased from the first half to the second half.

Manchester City recorded 0.99 xG per match in the first half. In the second half, that number increased to 1.16. Likewise with their shots per match (from 7.64 to 9.09) and passes per minute (18.03 to 18.82).

Liverpool experienced an increase in xG per match (0.86 in the first half to 1.09 in the second half) and shots per match (6.63 to 8.16).

If Manchester City and Liverpool are considered superior this season, then looking at Arsenal, who in the last seven matches appear to have similar statistics to Manchester United. The Gunners scored seven goals (equal to United) and conceded 11 times (one fewer than United).

Except for the number of passes per minute (from 17.65 in the first half to 17.30 in the second half), Arsenal experienced an increase — even though minor — in xG (from 0.72 to 0.79) and shots per match (5.67 to 5.72).

Conclusion

Manchester United have difficulties in penetrating the opponent’s penalty area. That made the quality of the shot (xG) so low after Solskjær’s appointment as permanent manager. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Paul Pogba for the decline in United’s attacking performance.

But in reality, United experienced a decline in performance because the squad is not in prime physical condition. They tire quicker which correlates to their declining statistics in the second half.

This fitness problem cannot be solved in one or two weeks, but a long pre-season process focusing on fitness should. Solskjær will be grateful that his next match will be the last of the season. If he is able to solve this problem, it will go a long way in improving Manchester United’s overall performances next season, with or without a squad reshuffle in the upcoming transfer window.


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Dex Glenniza
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