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Beating Man United: The Power of Analytics

Introducing Analytics

Football Analytics is slowly but surely gaining its position as a performance analysis tool for football, with its success from major American Sports. It is so new only 6 to 7 clubs use it in the Premier League, whilst there is a similar trend in occurring in the top leagues in Europe.

Over the past few months we have begun to use statistics to uncover strengths and weaknesses of teams via an analytical approach.

Raw Data and Approach

We have collected data from EPL Index (@EPLIndex), a data feed providing intricate technical variables for all 20 Premier League clubs. Luckily, this data is powered by Opta, so is the FourFourTwo Performance App, which can accompany and add further insight as match actions or events are coded from its start and end point.

Using analytics is perhaps the quickest and most efficient way to analyse technical variables and seeing which ones show a strong link to winning, drawing, losing, goals scored, goals conceded, crosses, shots on target, the list goes on. By the majority of clubs however, it is used to aid recruitment, taking player data from leagues world wide and comparing them.

In this example we have accounted for 50 on the ball variables covering all of Manchester United’s games so far this season.


The first question was; which technical variables link strongest to Man United’s winning, drawing and loosing. These were:

• Shots on target
• Crosses
• Accurate Passes in Own half

Although shots on target and crosses seem fairly obvious traits, crosses works in an opposing way and is counterintuitive; as the more crosses Man United have, they increase their chance of loosing (see graphic-click the link). For instance against Blackburn (a 3-2 loss), United had 71 crosses. On some occasions however, United still win even if they have a high amount of crosses, thus limiting shots on target also has an impact on the match result.

Shots on Target

Pictured right are United’s shots on target in matches they have drawn and below are 2 of their 3 losses. The loss not included is the loss against Blackburn, in which United scored 2.

As you can see from the draws the majority of the shots on target are behind the penalty spot, those in front of the penalty spot tend to be goals or shots blocked by a defender.

From a loss (left), the majority of shots area outside the penalty area, so the teams who have beaten or drawn against Man United have forced them to take the majority of shots outside the 18 yard box, with a possible deep defensive line, “parking the bus!” Using this type of tactic, forcing United wide to cross and defending the cross well (leading to a successful clearance), would increase the chances of beating Man United.



Passing in Own Half

Accurate passes in own half is the final attribute that links strongly to Manchester United’s winning. This variable brings perhaps more questions than it does answers. It could be suggested that United manage to control the game once in lead, forcing the opponent to chase the ball. If this is the case a high pressure defence should be utilised, trying to force United into a mistake.

What causes 80% of United’s goals

United have scored 73 goals this season so far, 61 inside the 18 yard box, 12 outside. This supports the the tactical suggestion previously mentioned; “parking the bus” or the plane in Mourinho’s words (see video above).

There are 5 variables that link to Manchester United’s goalscoring, 3 of which can be controlled by Manchester United, 1 controlled by the opponents and the other, rather bizarrely, by the referee. The 3 controllable variables are; shots on target, possession won in middle third and accurate passes in their own half.

Interestingly, shots on target and accurate passes in own half link to United’s goalscoring and winning, so for an opponent, high pressure defending may work but then defending deep, limiting shots to outside the penalty area may also be effective. This would be incredibly hard to achieve, as forwards (pressing high) would have to work hard to stop the ball being played forward and then support the midfield and defence if United were successful in playing the ball into the midfield or final third. These two variables should be the priority though as they link to goalscoring and winning!

Regaining possession in the middle third, total tackles and total time on pitch, are the other variables that link to goalscoring. Sir Alex Ferguson can probably claim responsibility for total time on pitch linking to goal scoring, the last few moments of matches where United need a goal named by the media as “Fergie time”. But United also show an ability to win the ball and counter attack from the middle third of the field, so this should be seen as a potential starting point of a successful goal scoring Man United attack.
Notably, these 5 variables account for 80% of Manchester United’s goals, there are other ways they have scored this season, but to prioritise it is the best way to prevent conceding against United.


From this, teams playing Manchester United should create tactics or strategies to prevent these variables occurring, but concentrate on those that overlap with winning and goalscoring (shots on target-with the aim of forcing shots from outside the penalty area and accurate passes in their own half). Some tactics have been suggested, but each team playing United has it own strengths and weaknesses and every individual player with their own attributes. Therefore no definitive tactic should be applied, simply because each team has differing attacking and defensive attributes that could dictate their strategy when against United.

What may be of interest, and another research question is which players have the most shots on target for United or play the most accurate passes in own half? If you have any other research ideas or questions on a PL team, comment on twitter: @TacticianMag.

Article previously posted on: TACTICIAN.ORG.UK

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