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Manchester United’s underlying stats offer a glimmer of optimism – Man United News And Transfer News


Manchester United have begun the season in disappointing fashion after what had felt like an encouraging summer window for the club.

A lucky opening day result against Wolves, in which United’s midfield was repeatedly overrun, was followed by a decisive 0-2 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur, which displayed a number of the same structural issues as the first game.

A Porous Midfield

Casemiro has painted a lonely figure at the base of this midfield unit, often left as the sole means of protection against unrelenting waves of opposition attackers. The Brazilian has looked uncharacteristically sloppy, both on and off the ball, in these games.

Erik ten Hag has evidently instructed the other two parts of his midfield triumvirate – Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount – to position themselves higher up the pitch, in an effort to press the other team and force turnovers for United’s attack to capitalise upon.

This has, contrarily, left Casemiro exposed with both Wolves and Spurs able to capitalise on United’s turnovers instead. It’s a choice which, at least in its earliest iteration, has left Ten Hag’s side looking imbalanced and defensively suspect.

Transitional Football

The Dutchman had spoke in pre-season of his desire to see United become the “best transition team in the world”, with the high-press tactic central to this ambition.

As explained in detail here, United possessed the most direct attack in the league last season, scoring the highest number of goals from quick transitions.

Ten Hag’s choice to double down on this existing strength of his squad was reflected in his transfer choices this summer.

Andre Onana, signed to replace David De Gea, is a technically gifted goalkeeper capable of launching counter-attacks single-handedly through world-class distribution.

His outrageous pass to Alejandro Garnacho against Spurs, made fifty yards away from his own goal, demonstrated this in abundance.

Similarly, Mount is a quintessential transitional midfielder.

United’s new number seven is as skilled with the ball at his feet as he is physically capable off it.

His dribbling and quick feet are perfect tools to launch counter-attacks, while his intelligence and pressing abilities are excellent means of winning the ball back in dangerous positions.

Conversely, Mount is not a player who traditionally operates deeper on the pitch, helping out the defence. Nor is he a midfielder concerned, or involved, with build-up play.

Yet these are both areas where United have looked suspect in their opening two fixtures.

The Wrong Profile of Midfielder?

The pervading sense as last season drew to a close was United needed an upgrade on Christian Eriksen; a player capable of progressing the ball from deep in the way the Dane could, while offering a level of physicality and positioning beyond him.

Instructed to occupy the number ten position, Mount is unable to fulfil either of these requirements. And if the ex-Chelsea man is placed closer to Casemiro, it remains to be seen if he is even capable of them. A player such as Alexis Mac Allister, signed by Liverpool on a cheaper deal than Mount, is a closer profile to the midfielder United seemed to need based on last season.

It’s a recruitment choice likely to define Ten Hag’s tenure at Old Trafford.

The Forward Who Could Make It Work

Which brings us to the final addition (so far) of United’s expensive transfer window.

Rasmus Højlund was signed from Atalanta at great expense relative to his considerable inexperience. Ten Hag was said to believe the striker to be the “perfect fit” in his tactical set-up which drove United’s willingness to overpay for the young Dane.

Concerns over a potential back injury led United’s medical team to rule Højlund out of the beginning of the season.

Reports suggest he will be included in the squad for this weekend’s match against Nottingham Forest, however, with the team in desperate need of a more clinical presence through the middle.

This results from the one area of optimism from United’s opening two games – the team’s xG (expected goals) statistics. 

United sit 6th in the league for xG, yet joint 13th (or 18th depending on your disposition) for actual goals scored. Most damningly, Ten Hag’s side rank first for ‘big chances’ missed, with five clear cut opportunities going to waste.

While this profligacy does not excuse the substandard overall performances, it does pay some credence to Ten Hag’s tactical choices. If United had converted one of their many chances prior to Spurs’ opening goal, the game would naturally have unfolded differently.

Moreover, setting your team up to dominate in transitions becomes exponentially more effective with a lead. Teams are forced to attack you more if they are a goal down, opening up even more opportunities to further your advantage.

Had Fernandes scored his gilt-edged chance in the first half, United could easily have sat back and hit Spurs on the counter in the second to great effect. Instead, he missed and his side fell apart themselves after going a goal down.

It’s a chance Højlund would likely have buried.

Yet even if the Dane is comparably wasteful in front of goal, his mere presence on the pitch will facilitate United’s other attackers, as well as the overall game plan Ten Hag is seeking to implement.

Marcus Rashford will be able to operate from the left-wing; his favoured position and one he is far more effective from. Similarly, Fernandes and Antony will have a genuine target to both play off and play through, rather than an unwilling Rashford or an immobile Anthony Martial.

Højlund is also an excellent presser who will help contribute to the high-press tactic. United were physically slow against a Spurs side who were much more decisive with their speed – an area the Dane is sure to help his team improve in given his potent pairing of pace and power.

Conclusion

While United’s midfield will undoubtedly have to improve if the team are to be successful this season, the underlying xG stats suggest progress is there, even if it’s subtle. Additional reinforcements in the centre of the pitch seem likely as well to help buttress the midfield.

The fact United have performed well in creating convertable chances, while operating within a system designed to capitalise upon this, without their new striker, should give fans hope.

The fact this striker may be about to make his home debut against Nottingham Forest should give them genuine excitement.

Højlund could be the difference in converting United’s imbalance into a state of dynamic equilibrium. His price tag certainly a difference maker at least.

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