Man Utd scoring woes: Erik ten Hag’s warning goes ignored ahead of season-defining period
Manchester United’s attackers have managed one goal in 13 Premier League matches, and their manager can’t find a solution.
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For those looking closely, the signs that Manchester United might struggle this season were evident at the end of the 2022/23 campaign.
The Red Devils returned from the winter World Cup break in fine form last term, winning seven in a row and earning 16 victories from 20 games
Then things stalled, and in the last 21 matches of the campaign, United recorded just 10 wins in regular time and put in appalling displays against Liverpool, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Sevilla. The prognosis was a lack of goals from Marcus Rashford, who netted 30 in all competitions last term, but managed just one in his last six, while there were only three goals from the final 11 league matches of the season.
Erik ten Hag even acknowledged the team’s overreliance on Rashford in the final months of the campaign, and claimed after a 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in mid-May, that his side needed to be ‘more clinical’.
Six months on, it makes Saturday’s post-match assessment even more alarming in the aftermath of a hard-fought 1-0 win over Luton Town: “We could have made life more easy when we score goals but we create many chances,” opined the Dutchman.
“First half, I observed four 100 percent chances, if you get the first you get the second and it becomes more easy. But if you don’t score, they can always drop a ball in the box and you are in trouble. So we had to fight to the end and it’s maybe not the prettiest, but we created many chances.”
‘Easy’ is the operative word from Ten Hag, and one United fans would certainly not apply to this campaign. The Red Devils may have won seven of their 12 league matches, but none of them have come against top-half sides, with wins over Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Burnley, Brentford, Sheffield United, Fulham and Luton all earned by the odd goal.
In truth, all were laborious affairs against sides that should have been easily dispatched. The team’s meek showings in front of goal have given real cause for concern and they’ve netted just 13 times in those 12 matches, numbers bettered by Everton and Forest. Again, the warning signs were there last season - United earned 13 one-goal victories, more than any other side in the top flight.
While Ten Hag has regularly pointed to a lack of composure in front of goal as United’s biggest problem this term, the underlying numbers point to a side that simply don’t create enough chances. The Red Devils sit 12th in the table for expected goals (xG) this term, while three other sides have underperformed their xG by a bigger margin.
More alarming still are the numbers for United’s attacking players; Rashford has scored once in 16 appearances and Antony, Alejandro Garnacho, Anthony Martial and Rasmus Hojlund are yet to get off the mark in the league. Between them that’s an xG of just over eight, while United’s defender have outscored the attacking players 3-1.
Yet, Ten Hag had a more upbeat outlook after the Luton win. “What is good, we have already 13 goal-scorers in our team,” he said. “It expresses the way we want to play football, everyone is attacking, everyone is defending, and also defenders can score goals.”
What it really expresses, is that United are proving incapable of providing attacking players with clear-cut chances in open play. Only Bruno Fernandes has more than one league assist this season, and he is the only United player who ranks in the top 50 for expected assists. Of the 10 assists provided this season in the league, five have come from defenders, another indication of the lack of midfield creativity.
That will need to change if Hojlund, Rashford and Garnacho are to start finding the back of the net with more regularity, something Ten Hag insisted they will do. “Rashford scored 30 goals last season, obviously he’s now not scoring but there will come a day when he starts scoring again. I think the other offensive players like Garnacho, they are capable of scoring goals.
“I don’t think it is particularly a confidence thing because Rasmus Hojlund scored five goals in the Champions League and he came full of confidence into this game - it will come.”
Hojlund’s dry spell in the Premier League is particularly perplexing given the ease at which he’s managed to score in Europe. The 20-year-old has netted five in four Champions League matches and the more end-to-end feel to those games evidently suits United. They’ve registered an xG per 90 of 2.16 in Europe, compared to 1.46 in the league.
Finding a way to replicate that and get his attacking players to score is essential for Ten Hag as he enters the longest period of the campaign without a break. Almost four months will elapse between the current international break and the next mid-season hiatus - ensuring he’s still in charge come March may rest on the scoring ratio of five players. The worry for Ten Hag, among others, is that he hasn’t found the solution already.