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Friday, April 19, 2024

Tactical Analysis: United concede a ton of shots but how big of a problem is that?

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Manchester United seemed to have a rare mundane win when they defeated Everton 2-0 at Old Trafford last weekend. It was just United’s Premier League win this campaign by more than a single goal.

For a team that has made things dicy so often this season, doing the mundane was a nice respite – not to mention this came during the early kickoff slot allowing fans to go about the rest of their weekends in cheery moods.

The one caveat to this performance was United conceded 23 shots. Using the stathead tool on Fbref we’ll see that’s the third-highest total Everton have had in a single match this season. They registered 25 against Bournemouth in early October and 24 against United when the two sides met earlier this campaign at Goodison Park.

As that stat might suggest, this is not a one-off for United. You may have noticed – or heard people online talking about it – but United have been conceding a ton of shots recently. Since the calendar turned to February, United have conceded 122 shots in their six league matches excluding the Manchester Derby (for the purpose of this exercise we’ll be leaving that match out).

Just before February began United – playing with 10 of their 11 first-choice players – conceded 17 shots to League Two Newport County in the FA Cup. If you’re thinking maybe Newport County are just one of those high-octane sides that take a lot of shots they’re not. They’ve managed 17 or more shots in a game just four times in their 36 League Two matches.

122 shots over six games comes out to 20.33 shots per game. Sheffield United have conceded the most shots per game this season at just 17.7. Over the first 21 matches of the season United were conceding “just” 14.95 shots per game, an increase of over five shots per game is pretty drastic.

All in all, this seems bad. You don’t want to be conceding this many shots per game full stop. But if we dig a little deeper into how bad it is, the answer is a bit more complicated.

During this six-game stretch (a reminder, we’re leaving out the Manchester Derby) United have only conceded seven goals – 1.17 per match, which is well below the 1.39 they’ve averaged all season. They have won five of the six games and kept two clean sheets along the way, though the quality of the opposition faced must also be taken into account.

The most important number metric though is the shot quality. Over the six-game period United have conceded an expected goal against of 9.6. That comes out to 1.6 per game. That’s still a very high number (6th highest in the league) but over the first 21 matches of the season, United were conceding 1.54 xG per game. Despite conceding over five more shots per game, the xG has risen by just 0.06.

That’s where things look good for Erik Ten Hag’s side. Over the last six non-Manchester City matches the xG per shot United are conceding is just 0.08 – tied for the best in the league. They may be conceding a lot of shots, but they’re conceding very low-quality shots.

They also block a ton of shots. 31.25 percent of shot attempts are blocked by United defenders, the fifth-highest ratio in the league.

Add in the tremendous form of goalkeeper Andre Onana since returning from AFCON and facing teams that lack finishing talent up front and you’ve got a recipe for overachieving on defense.

Though the xG adds up throughout the game, when you’re facing teams that lack clinical finishers up front you can expect them to miss the target fairly often when you’re holding them to low-quality chances. In theory, when United faces better teams those strikers are going to make you pay but how many “good” teams does United still have to face? The list of opposing strikers left on United’s schedule is not too intimidating.

The biggest issue is the more often you concede shots, the more you’re inviting trouble to find you – whether that’s an error from your goalkeeper, a perfectly hit golazo, or just a momentary defense lapse or breakdown such as the match against Fulham. Those who look for trouble tend to find it.

From this particular lens, it doesn’t seem to be the biggest problem that United are conceding so many shots. Albeit not directly. It’s a byproduct of a tactical choice that for the moment is “working.” Where the problem lies for United, are the indirect consequences of playing this style.


United conceding a lot of shots is a direct consequence of the tactical setup Erik Ten Hag chooses to deploy. The combination of high forwards and deep defensive block leaves tons of space in midfield allowing opponents to pretty easily get the ball in and around United’s penalty area. When United finally get back on defense, they’re defending really deep on the pitch.

Once they win the ball back, United want to hit teams quickly on the counter attack. That’s not just with one or two players, Ten Hag wants United to get numbers forward whenever they attack.

That could result in having your fullbacks needing to bomb forward to give United attacking options up front.

It’s not just limited to fullbacks. If a centerback steps up to make an interception, you can expect to see them push forward to join the attack. Here’s Harry Maguire doing it against Luton Town.

Here’s Jonny Evans making an interception and beginning the charge forward against City.

We’ve even seen situations where center backs are all the way forward on transitions.

This is evidenced in the touch maps for where United and their opponents take their touches. Under Erik Ten Hag less of the game is played in midfield than under previous managers. This season the fewest percentage of touches are being taken in the middle third of the pitch, everything is happening end to end.

This creates a lot of back-and-forth running every match. United throw a lot of men forward into their attacks. Defenders getting forward is not at all exclusive to United, but many teams who let their defenders get forward are also capable of slowing things down, keeping possession, and allowing their defenders to easily get back in position.

United don’t do those things, nor do they do a good job keeping the ball in their opponents’ third. That means that rather than their defenders making forward runs, then either jogging or walking back to their position and catching their breath, they often have to high tail it back.

Take this situation against Everton. When Kobbie Mainoo loses the ball right at the edge of the final third, Everton are already looking to counter.

With just one pass into space, Everton can bypass eight United players, leaving just two outfield players left for United.

With no one covering the right side, Diogo Dalot has to sprint back to defend this counter for United.

This is going to have an effect on the team. Pep Guardiola often talks about how City look to find times during a match where they can slow down and walk. It’s important to have those walking periods so players can rest their legs. It’s just not possible to be all out running for 90 minutes.

Yet that’s exactly what United do. They go up and down the field back and forth for 90 minutes. That’s going to wear down your legs. That’s going to put a strain on your muscles and make you more susceptible to injuries. United have had a spate of muscle injuries this season. These tactics may not be the direct cause of them but they’re certainly a contributing factor. Is it really a wonder why Casemiro seems like he’s aged three years over the past year? Look at all the ground he’s being asked to cover every week! That’s going to wear down your legs. Frankly what’s most impressive about this season is that somehow Diogo Dalot hasn’t gotten injured yet.

If we look past the injuries, these tactics’ next most profound effect is weakening United’s attack.

It’s not just United’s defenders and midfielders who have to cover all this ground. Thanks to the low block, once United’s forwards are done pressing high, they now need to come back to their box to do some defensive work. Look here as they have nine men in and around their box – including Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho, the two men who should be outlets for when United win the ball back.

When United wins the ball back, Garnacho and Rashford would be expected to bomb forward to provide an attacking threat.

This will serve to do one thing. Tire these guys out. Playing a high press has always been difficult on the attackers since they need to work so hard off the ball. Asking them to work hard to counter-press when they lose the ball, then come back to defend, and then bomb forward again is absurd.

A direct consequence here is United don’t have an outlet up the pitch when they win the ball back. The indirect consequence is all those miles being put on the legs of their attackers does is tire them out. As the match progresses and their legs get more tired, you start getting more fatigued mentally as well. That’s going to lead to things like perhaps not making the right decision with the ball, or mishitting that ball you’re trying to play squandering an attack, or even just not putting enough strength behind playing that ball.

There’s a reason why last season Ten Hag instructed Rashford to stay back and not worry too much about defending. There’s a reason why even a rigid defensive coach like Jose Mourinho typically had one player in his team who was left free of doing heavy defensive work. Attacking requires energy too. If you’re relying on your star attackers to carry the attacking load of the team you need to make sure they have the energy to do that.

Per Understat, from the 76th minute onwards this season, United are being outscored 11-10. That comes from being outshot 108-86 with an xG of 13.34-8.87 in favor of their opponents. Is any of that surprising? Don’t forget matches are even longer this season, so when United plays this style that tires them out and they have to hold on late, they have to hold on even longer!

In a vacuum, United conceding a lot of shots every game is not the mark of a good team, but also not something to be too overly concerned about. As they’re keeping shot quality low, they’re good enough to prevent this from hurting them more often than not.

Unfortunately for United, the sport isn’t played in a vacuum. The causes of why they’re conceding so many shots are having much bigger consequences to the team. The wide-open back-and-forth play depletes the energy levels of the squad, increases the risk of injuries, and ultimately weakens the attack. If any bad luck finds United at the back, it’s now that much harder to overcome that.

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