Manchester United’s Ander Herrera intercepted a pass in a game this month against Chelsea (possibly with some extra-legal help from his arm), turned and slid an inch-perfect pass through Chelsea’s league-best defense. Young striker Marcus Rashford collected the pass and slotted the ball past Chelsea’s keeper to give United an early 1-0 lead. United went on to win 2-0, and the goal was emblematic of the style of soccer that United’s manager, Jose Mourinho, prefers to deploy against top opponents: Defend stoutly, transition fast and use an opponent’s momentum against them to create high-quality counterattacking opportunities. It worked like a charm against Chelsea.
If only it always did. That goal kept Manchester United’s relatively slim hopes of a top-four finish alive (the chances of which have since climbed to 35 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer predictions). But the reason Man U’s chances aren’t good is because they’re one of the unluckiest teams in the Premier League. For large stretches of the season the team has played well, created the kinds of chances it wants to create and then … not actually scored goals.
Manchester United currently sits in fifth place in the Premier League with 63 points after 32 games. On Thursday, they face Manchester City in the much-anticipated Manchester derby, with a chance to pass their rivals in the standings and stake a claim on fourth place. It’s a chance to salvage what has seemed to be a disappointing season with a momentous win and a real shot at the top four.
While Manchester’s defense has been excellent, the attack has struggled to keep pace. The team only concedes 0.77 goals per game, the second-best mark in the league.1 Only Tottenham Hotspur has been stingier. The attack is averaging 1.55 goals per game, though, only seventh best in the Premier League this season. It’s a testament to United’s strong defense that they’re even as close to the top as they are. The funny thing is that there’s nothing wrong with United’s attack. If instead of looking at the team’s goals, we look at its expected goals, a metric that estimates how many goals a team should have scored on average given where they were taken, the team looks much better. United’s expected goal total is a more respectable 1.74 goals per game, the fourth highest in the Premier League.
That’s only 0.19 goals per game more than Man U has actually scored, which may not sound like much. And it isn’t! It amounts to a grand total of 7.8 goals over a full, 38-game season. But goals are a premium commodity in soccer — one extra goal can easily be the difference between a draw and a win, and thus a difference between one point and three in the standings.
Teams as good as Manchester United don’t usually miss as many goals as Manchester United has. Since 2010-11 there have been 57 English Premier League teams that have scored more goals than they’ve allowed. Manchester United, as it currently stands, is the ninth-most unlucky team on the list. While that’s not record breaking, it’s enough to take a team from solid Champions League contender to long shot.
Even more frustrating, for both the team and its fans, Manchester United is missing the best kinds of shots. They’re missing opportunities that soccer stats-keeper Opta labels as “big chances,” chances such as Rashford’s against Chelsea. (Which is why it was so impressive Rashford’s went in!) They’re the kinds of chances you remember a player missing, the sitters, the one-on-ones with the keepers, the striker arriving completely unmarked in the box at exactly the right time. Manchester United have had 59 shots labeled as clear-cut chances, fourth-most in the league and worth 25.62 expected goals. From them, they’ve scored a disappointing 21 goals, the 11th most in the Premier League. Wipe out that 4.62 expected goal deficit (the second-biggest “big chance deficit” in the league, behind only mediocre Stoke City) and United are only two off their expected goal pace.
But wait there’s more. A full 50 percent of the big chances that Manchester United have put on target have been saved by the opposing keeper. That’s the kind of thing that rarely happens. No other team this season has had more than 42 percent of its on-target big chances saved. In fact, only six teams in the last seven seasons have had more than 50 percent of the big chances they put on net saved. If it seems as though goalkeepers have been standing on their heads to deny United all season, well, they have been.
It’s cold comfort, but despite the lack of goals, this United team is better than in years past. Everything other than United’s finishing has improved. They’re taking 16.97 shots per game and getting six per game on target, the most in both categories since the 2011-12 season. The team’s expected goal total of 1.74 per game is up 0.48 goals from last season and is the highest mark since 2012-13. These are all steps in the right direction.
All the stuff holding United back — the general lack of ability to put the ball in the back of the net, the seeming Achilles’ heel of big chances, opposing goalkeepers standing on their head on a weekly basis — is largely outside of Manchester United’s control. Finishing is a fickle thing. The expected goals a team creates is a much better guide to how they’ll do in the future than the actual goals they score. Players miss good chances sometimes. Sometimes they miss lots of good chances. Sometimes, they even do it for a whole season.
It’s small consolation for United fans coping with the possibility of a fifth-place season, but United’s attack actually marks a decided step forward for the club. The things the team could control were good enough to get it a top-four EPL finish. What got in the way were the things it couldn’t.
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