It’s hard to know which Manchester United will turn up from one game to the next – the perhaps flattering 5-0 win over RB Leipzig last month was then followed by uninspiring showings against Arsenal and İstanbul Başakşehir.
Just as it seemed like they’d hit a new low, United and Solskjaer managed to put together a relatively convincing win over Everton to alleviate the immediate pressure on the man in the hotseat as we entered the international break. Either way, it still leaves us no closer to knowing what this Manchester United team is.
Inconsistency is quickly becoming Solskjaer’s calling card. After going 14 games unbeaten in the Premier League from February until the end of last season (W9 D5), a run that coincided with the signing of Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United are yet to record back-to-back results of any kind this season in the league. Their results card reads: LWLWDLW. The only other teams to fail to win back-to-back games in the Premier League this season are Newcastle and, surprisingly, rivals Manchester City, though the latter are unbeaten in five following a 5-2 loss to Leicester.
However, this wild unpredictably to the season mirrors United’s 2019/20 campaign to some extent, where their inconsistency didn’t see them record the same result in back-to-back matches (whether that be a win, draw or loss) across their opening 13 games of the campaign between August and November 2019.
Inconsistency hurts. For the third season in a row, Manchester United have 10 points or fewer after their first seven games – they’d suffered this just once in the Premier League era prior to this, in 2013/14 the first year of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Manchester United under Solskjaer seem to lurch between an excellent run of form, then an inconsistent-to-poor run, rinse then repeat. We can see this from looking at a rolling average of United’s goal and expected goal (xG) difference, showing periods of over performance in the initial Solskjaer arrival and the signing of Bruno Fernandes, with a long lull in between where United were underperforming compared to their expected goal difference.
The signs of regression to the norm were apparent in the final games of last season, where performances did not match results as United just about made it over the line into third position.
This team currently doesn’t look like the team that emerged from the lockdown period fresh and full of ideas. During ‘Project Restart’, Manchester United won the second-most points of any team (21), scoring 2.4 goals per game and conceding just 0.7 goals per match. These figures were only surpassed by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in this timeframe.
United’s post-lockdown performances benefitted from the same team being run out game after game, but Solskjaer has had to rotate this season to fight across multiple competitions. In Project Restart, Solskjaer made eight lineup changes whilst this season he’s had to reshuffle the pack substantially with 13 starting lineup changes already.
The heights of the free-flowing attack from the summer spell haven’t been hit yet, that much is certain. Only the three winless teams in the Premier League this season of West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley have a lower expected goals figure than Manchester United’s 6.2 when removing penalties.
xG Per Shot – Premier League 2020/21:
|Premier League 2020/21||Expected Goals (ex. penalties)||Shots (ex. penalties)||xG per Shot|
United’s expected goals figure per shot of 0.07 is the third-lowest in the division. This figure was up at 0.11 during that June/July period showing a dip in the quality of chances they are creating. And while United were ruthless in converting these chances (Mason Greenwood in particular) at the end of last season, recently they have not been. By looking at the shot maps from Project Restart and this season, we can see this. In particular, pay close attention to the five goals they scored from outside the box during the restart compared to zero this season. The Red Devils are one of four teams yet to score from outside the area this season, along with Arsenal, Burnley and Liverpool.
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United’s luck at the sharp end of the field hasn’t been much better either, mustering just one shot inside the six-yard box this season the lowest figure in the league, which came against Everton when Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford tangled.
United’s struggles at the back have been pounced upon too. They’ve conceded 14 times this season after seven games, their most at this point in a league campaign since 1989/90 (15). Solskjaer’s team took until MD13 to concede 14 goals last season.
United have looked exceptionally susceptible to high turnovers this season. They are currently suffering just over five high turnovers against them per game, behind only Leeds United this season. They are getting caught out with the ball close to their own goal. Only Sheffield United (10) have allowed more shots from high turnovers this season than Manchester United (8).
Manchester United’s clear strength this season has been their ability to break on the counter, as evidenced by their three fast break goals this season where no other team has more than one. Sitting back, absorbing pressure and hitting teams on the break has been a real recipe for success. Under Solskjaer, United’s win percentage in the Premier League is 44% when they have the majority of possession compared to 67% when they don’t.
Within the chaos lies some form of consistency, with United’s Jekyll and Hyde season typified by their performances in home and away matches.
At Old Trafford, they are winless and have recorded just one point, the first time they’ve gone four without a home win to start a league campaign since 1972/73. Away from home, United have won seven on the spin for the first time since August 1993 and haven’t lost an away match in the Premier League since January (W8 D2).
Which Manchester United will emerge following the international break is anyone’s guess. Will the performance against Everton give Solskjaer a platform to push on or will it be yet another false dawn?
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