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For all their talent and apparent firepower, Manchester United have failed to score more than one goal in more than half their competitive matches this season (19 times in 37 games).
Only one player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has scored double figures (19). In the Premier League the situation is dire: just 33 goals in 22 matches – one more than Crystal Palace in 18th.
Zlatan has 14, but the next top scorers are Juan Mata and Paul Pogba with four apiece. Only nine players in total have scored at least one league goal.
For some, one of the fears of Jose Mourinho’s appointment was his penchant for pragmatic football. In practice, however, the style of United’s play has been increasingly enterprising and attractive to watch, with greater risks often taken in the second half and towards the end of matches.
So why don’t Manchester United score more goals? The consequence so far has been far too many draws and, looking ahead, a real threat that United may not make the Champions League places.
What we don’t intend to do here is examine why other teams score more, because none of them seem to be more committed to attacking football than United. They are simply more successful.
Manchester United goal drought: Who is to blame?
If you want a reason why Manchester United won’t win the Premier League and may not even finish in the top four this season, look no further than the 1-1 draw at Stoke City. Or for that matter the Hull City EFL Cup loss that followed.
In both games the opposition scored first (irrespective of Hull’s dubious penalty). You would have thought that if they were serious top four candidates, they would score enough to win even if the other side scored first. That has in fact not been the case.
The opposition have chalked up the first goal in three of the last four league games. United have not won any.
If United concede first to a team like Stoke, they struggle to score even an equaliser. And so it was until Wayne Rooney‘s historic last minute stunner.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 21, 2017
United struggle against stubborn defences
It is far easier for lesser teams in the Premier League to defend than for them to score. Most coaches can organise a defence and there are far more defenders available for reasonable money in the transfer market than there are top strikers.
It’s all very well being a team that counter-attacks well; United have a tradition of that. But if a team like Stoke score first, they can pack the defence and generally Mourinho’s team seem to need a fluke, a penalty or a free-kick to break that down.
For most of the Stoke and Hull City matches, United’s build-up was too slow. They make too many passes; they sling balls into the penalty area repeatedly. Stoke just kept batting them away.
The team is studded with good players, including one or two who are arguably world class, but they rely too much on Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Aside from the Swede, the rest of the team are profligate in front of goal. For an example see Juan Mata’s shocking miss, shortly after Stoke scored.
Style of play
It is fair to say that supporters are much more relaxed about United’s style of play than the torpid efforts often witnessed under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. That is not entirely surprising. Many may have expected more pragmatic football from Jose Mourinho, but he has frequently stated that he wants to win every match.
Indeed, whenever United have been chasing a game he has been prepared to throw more and more attacking players onto the pitch. That was very much an Alex Ferguson characteristic. Mourinho has even won in “Fergie time” more than once this season.
As stated earlier, United have always been good at counter-attacking but the Red Devils’ tactics do not seem to produce many such opportunities. From one point of view that is hardly surprising. The teams under Van Gaal and Mourinho have both had high levels of possession; but the latter seem to be more enterprising and free-flowing.
It’s easy to recall the classic example of Van Gaal’s methods actually stifling enterprise. Angel di Maria was hardly a success at Old Trafford, but compare his cavalier attacking in the 5-3 defeat to Leicester City to the stifled, strait-jacketed style of his latter days. The Dutchman’s tactics resembled “football-by-numbers”. The team played with a high press, as does Mourinho’s team, but never seemed to get anywhere, with a plethora of sideways and back passes.
And yet, not everything has changed. A fundamental reason for the lack of scoring under Mourinho is that the play is too slow.
After a 2014 encounter with Fulham, ex-United coach and then-Fulham manager Rene Meulensteen described David Moyes’ tactics as “straightforward” and “easy” to defend against:
“I thought their game plan was quite straightforward – get it wide, get it in.”
Though Moyes is long gone, United’s play this season has often resembled Meulensteen’s description. Most notably in the 0-0 against Burnley, where the Old Trafford team had 72% of possession and 37 attempts on goal, to no avail.
Leaving aside the diehard, valiant and sometimes miraculous defending of the opposition, United’s play became predictable. More importantly, the players simply failed to score from the myriad opportunities.
So let’s start with that as an example. From 37 attempts, only 11 were actually on target. For a team that cost over £300 million (including substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Memphis Depay) that is, frankly, woeful.
In the two matches against Stoke City combined, United had 66% possession and 49 shots but once again 32 of these (65%) were off target and only two goals were scored. In the same matches, Stoke had 13 shots; 7 on target and scored two goals. So who has the better attacking players?
Compare those stats with Chelsea’s 4-2 win against Stoke on New Year’s Eve. The Blues had 60% possession, 18 shots, 7 on target, 6 off target (33%) and scored four goals.
You can look at match after match and the United stats look woeful for a team of “galacticos“, including the world’s most expensive player and arguably one of the top five strikers around.
The recent pattern shows that the build-up of play is far too slow in the first half, with little apparent urgency, followed by a frenetically growing pace in the second half, often culminating with Fellaini being thrown on and what Jurgen Klopp would call “route one football”.
Is Paul Pogba the main culprit?
Maybe the Hull City EFL Cup match showed a glimpse of change. Paul Pogba played higher up the pitch, was in the box more and scored a slick goal from the six yard line.
Goals have been lacking for the Frenchman. His link-up play with Zlatan Ibrahimovic is often excellent, but it does not always produce the desired result. Ibrahimovic’s play and goal record have been outstanding. He has managed to play deep to open spaces for his attacking colleagues and yet still arrive in the box when needed. His finishing is often sublime.
But compare that with Pogba. Although the French international is playing from midfield, his attempts on goal are often wild lashes that hardly ever hit the target. Against Stoke, rather than slip the ball into the bottom right hand corner with his right foot, he attempted a ridiculous shot with the outside of his left foot. He should have scored, right at the start of the match.
When United don’t score in the first half – and especially when the opposition score first – you can see the latter grow in confidence.
There is no doubt that Pogba, like Mata and Michael Carrick especially, can slice open a defence with a killer pass. But the Frenchman dwells on the ball too much; showboats far too often; and gets caught in midfield possession more than any other player. Against Liverpool he was poor.
Who has been the worst player on the pitch so far? pic.twitter.com/rIz6EmHA1Q
— Just Football (@JustFootball) January 15, 2017
His distance passing can be exceptional, but look at the short slick passes that Ander Herrera, Mata, Ibrahimovic and Carrick all make, which keep the pace of play high.
Returning to United’s woeful shooting record, Pogba is a culprit. Clearly United have a much higher proportion of misses than a lot of sides. Many of these are spectacular, usually over the bar and rising. The failed shots on target are either weakly hit or perhaps too deliberately placed.
Is there a solution?
United have been very successful in playing a high pressing game. The possession statistics speak for themselves. But the build-up play is far too slow compared to Chelsea and especially Liverpool (when in form).
This gives even the worst teams time to organise their defence. Then either crosses have to be inch perfect or you are trying to smash down a pretty solid barrier.
The next obvious point is that somebody needs to play closer to Ibrahimovic. This may involve United going to a more traditional 4-4-2 (Antoine Griezmann, a reported summer transfer target, would be a very good fit in that formation). Either that or the other attacking players must take it in turns to get close to the Swedish striker.
Another possibility is using a version of Chelsea’s tactics. Although the latter play three at the back, United could still have both of their wing backs up, stretch the opposition and create room for the front three to make and score chances.
The final significant detail is that United have had the least number of penalties in the Premier League this season (only one in 22 matches, compared to at least five for each of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur).
Is this because of poor refereeing or are their attacking players not in the box enough to be fouled? The statistic may be something of a red herring, though. Chelsea have had only two penalties, yet they have scored 14 more times than United. Indeed, the five teams above the Red Devils have scored between 10 and 18 more goals. It’s not all down to penalties.
Whatever the reasons, surely Manchester United’s profligacy will not continue for the remainder of the season. United may go on to have more luck as the season goes on (including penalties) and at least one team is surely in for a drubbing soon.
Words: Terry Carroll