F365’s early loser: Manchester United and false dominance

Date published: Thursday 6th April 2017 8:25

“The pragmatism is – how many goals have (Marcus) Rashford, (Jesse) Lingard, (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan, (Ander) Herrera, (Paul) Pogba scored?” Jose Mourinho asked rhetorically on Tuesday evening after Manchester United’s ninth home draw of the season. “How many goals from these attacking players? Not enough.”

While Mourinho is right to expect more from his attacking midfielders, you do have to admire the chutzpah of a manager bemoaning a team “playing without confidence” who three days earlier had chosen to publicly criticise them and three minutes later would do exactly the same. If Mourinho cannot see the cause and effect here, his blindness is deliberately self-imposed.

Mourinho will choose to focus on the misfortune in a Premier League season where United have also not been good enough but, after a point was salvaged against Everton, even he conceded that his team had not been at their best. That came after the criticism of the strikers but before the credit taken for Luke Shaw’s impact. Real Madrid and Chelsea’s players may recognise this Jose Mourinho, though they may be a little surprised that his ‘bad cop’ act has come so soon in his tenure.

United have now attempted 52 open-play crosses in their last two games and have scored no goals from open play. You might therefore consider that approach to be flawed at best, and at worst an example of a team that has run out of attacking ideas and is flogging a dead horse. We have not quite reached David Moyes’ The One With All The Crosses against Fulham, but we’re not far behind.

Against West Brom, that strategy was so obviously flawed by the presence of Marcus Rashford as United’s lone central striker, a forward with the pace to run in behind supplied by an array of crosses that either went over his head or were met by a grateful central defender.

Against Everton, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s availability made the tactic more logical, but no more effective. That’s because of the greatest flaw in United’s attacking system under Jose Mourinho, namely the lack of players in the penalty area. It is an unmeasurable statistic, but we can try. Despite 32.8% of the game being played in Everton’s third of the pitch on Tuesday evening, Ibrahimovic was the only United player to reach double figures for the number of touches in the opposition box. For the second game in a row, more than 40% of United’s shots came from outside the penalty area.

A cross can be an incredibly effective tool for creating chances, but only if the strategy is optimised. Rather than two or three players running onto a cross to meet it with head or foot, United use crossing as a weak Plan B. The ball is sent into a penalty area which contains only one attacking player (although Marouane Fellaini joined Ibrahimovic for the last 20 minutes), usually asked to score from standing jump and thus far more unlikely to beat the goalkeeper. It is a low percentage option over which a facade of attacking dominance is placed.

The inability of United to get attacking midfielders close to goal is one of the defining aspects of their league season. Raheem Sterling has had 8.55 touches of the ball in the opposition box per 90 minutes this season, Sadio Mane 6.63, Leroy Sane 6.37, David Silva, Eden Hazard and Mesut Ozil all comfortably over five touches. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has averaged 4.8, Juan Mata 4.5, Paul Pogba 4.2, Jesse Lingard 3.84 and Ander Herrera 0.85. If Herrera looks out of place here, so too did he in the list of those criticised by Mourinho for not scoring enough goals.

For a team who enjoy dominance and territory, particularly at Old Trafford, United are not committing players forward frequently enough. Ibrahimovic ranks fifth for touches in the box per 90 of all Premier League regulars, but his aura demands that the penalty area is his fiefdom. Ibrahimovic’s teammates must learn to share his space.

The image on the left (h/t Opta) shows Mkhitaryan’s touches against West Brom on Saturday. It is as if the Armenian is struggling to puncture through an invisible wall 30 yards from goal. During a match in which Manchester United had 74.8% possession, 36.8% of which was played in West Brom’s third of the pitch, that is alarming. It can only be by design.

There is a balance, of course. Under Pep Guardiola, Sterling, Silva and Sane all enjoy regular touches in the penalty area, yet that inevitably plays a part in Manchester City’s defence being left exposed. If City are too hot and United too cold, is that where Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino’s 3-4-3s have things just right?

For all the compliments of Mourinho’s defensive record this season, he knows more than anyone that a happy medium is far preferable to skewed high performance. Clean sheets should never be sold with a negative spin, but what supporters wouldn’t give for a Manchester United team playing above third gear. Until then, criticism of individual players will always be mitigated.

Daniel Storey

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