The Two-Faces of Manchester United this season

The Two-Faces of Manchester United this season

Much like Harvey Dent of the Batman Universe, the chances of Manchester United making it to the top four of the Premier League do fluctuate with an evil randomness that one could associate with it, the probability distribution of guessing the right outcome of a coin toss multiple times in different conditions.

Following Sunday, the general consensus is they can still finish in the top four, at least mathematically – by assuming that the Manchester United that turned up at the Stadium of Light will do, more often between now and the end of the season than the Manchester United that turned up at home to West Brom. But will they do it? It’s still looking pretty unlikely despite what a comfortable 3-0 victory against the worst side in the country would have had you believe.

The overarching theme of United’s shortcomings this campaign, despite the much-improved style of football, is the failure to convert enough goalscoring chances. This is a problem which is rooted in their over-reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the 35-year old centre forward closing in on the ‘magical’ 30-goal mark in all competitions. It was Zlatan, again, who scored the crucial opening goal that effectively got the ball rolling for the visitors on a cloudy Sunday afternoon against their former manager.

That win was United’s 9th in 14 games on the road so far – that’s a 64% win rate away from home (9W 3D 2L), which is only second to league leaders Chelsea and a hell of a lot more impressive than their record at Old Trafford this campaign (6W 9D 1L).

Under Jose Mourinho, they have become a formidable side on their travels – as any team should with their pace on the break and a very coherent back five. However, it’s also interesting to look at what makes them more clinical in front of goal outside of Old Trafford.

United have created 389 chances (36 assists) this season so far – putting them only behind Liverpool and Spurs. A lion’s share (231) of those were made at Old Trafford (highest chance created per game at home – 7.70) although their goal return would do very little justice. But given their better results away (30 points from 14 games), they are still only the sixth-best side in terms of chance creation on the road (5.27 per game).

If Manchester United do miss something in their home games to get themselves over the finish line, the answer must lie in their performances away from home.  It’s safe to say that United, despite creating lesser chances away, are able to eke out more wins with their superior shot quality – with a little bit of luck that they have not had in front of their own fans.

A quick look at their shot quality – by analysing the % of shots they have attempted from different areas of the pitch and the zones they have taken those shots from, gives a broader and simpler description of what United have done better in their trips to other grounds.

At home, Manchester United have taken 20% of all their shots from the stronger left flank – often littered with some of their best attacking players in Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford – all blessed with quick feet to be able to cut inside and shoot from their favoured right foot. They predominantly shoot from the middle (69%) and 1/10th of their 308 shots at home have come from the right side.

In contrast, the Red Devils attempt a higher proportion of their shots from the left-hand side away from home (29%), but only 7% of the total number of attempts on the road have been made from their weaker right side. It may seem to be an insignificant boost but in football, no margin is too fine.

Likewise, Mourinho’s side have had 183/308 (54%) of their shots at home from inside the 18-yard box with the 6th highest shot accuracy (49%) compared to the 117/208 (49%) attempts away from home with a similar shot accuracy (49%) – this time, the 4th highest in the league.

So, relatively speaking, United’s actions in front of goal are more quality-driven on the road than at Old Trafford where they often get caught between taking a lot of shots and expecting loads of goals and taking shots from positions where the likelihood of scoring is higher – which is why despite attempting 151 more shots at home than Hull (157) at the time of writing, they have just managed to find the net the same number of times.

United need to get their act together before it is too late. Being two-faced has still somehow allowed them to stay in the hunt for top four this long but if they were to break that barrier – they must start getting more value out of their effort and shed the ugly and burnt (of exhaustion maybe?) face they often put on at home and replicate what they do away from it.

(Stats from whoscored.com)