“We broke them, but we didn’t kill them,” Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag said after the goalless draw with Newcastle on Sunday. His team, who had 15 shots but only two on target, need to find their killer instinct soon or the progress made under the Dutchman will be in danger of stalling.
You don’t need a sophisticated stats model to tell you United are a better team than they were last season. Any nervousness that Ten Hag might not be the right man for the job, prompted by those early defeats to Brighton and Brentford, has been eased by victories over Liverpool (2-1) and Arsenal (3-1) and a steady climb up the table to fifth spot.
But it’s still a work in progress under a manager who has only been in place since the summer, and the big area of improvement is in front of goal. After nine league games, United have scored 13 goals — three of which came against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium when the game, which finished 6-3, was already lost — and following last weekend’s round of Premier League fixtures, the only team in the top half of the table with fewer goals was Bournemouth on 10.
Already a quarter of the way through the season, Ten Hag’s team rank outside the top six in nearly every attacking metric, according to ESPN Stats & Info data. United have had 114 shots (11th in the Premier League) and 29 shots on target (9th); they also rank 11th for Expected Goals (xG) and 10th for touches in the opposition penalty area.
Only Crystal Palace have attempted fewer crosses than United’s 115, while their 31 corners is tied for the fewest in the league, also with Palace. Of the shots United have taken this season, 60.5% have come from inside the box — the fourth lowest rate in the Premier League.
Speaking after the draw with Newcastle, Ten Hag insisted he remains convinced his team will start scoring soon, but it’s not just a case of his strikers taking their chances. Fred and Marcus Rashford both missed huge opportunities to win the game against Newcastle, but across the season so far United only rank 10th in the “big chances missed” category.
“It will come that sometimes you are in a period [where you don’t score] but our strikers will score, will score a lot. I’m confident about that, as long as we keep doing the work in and out of possession,” Ten Hag said at Old Trafford on Sunday. “We score in almost every game. Today we didn’t but in the other games we score. It’s clear it’s about taking responsibility. I am convinced our strikers will take responsibility, but also other players, midfielders and defenders, can also score goals.”
The view on the training ground is that the players are still learning what Ten Hag wants and that, as a result, attacking output has been stunted. In contrast to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s structured method of attacking teams with the pitch split up into strict zones and channels, Ten Hag wants his players to be more flexible and rely more on their own intuition.
They’re encouraged to base their positions and movements on what’s around them rather than being told to be in a certain position during a particular phase of the game and the idea is that they’re unpredictable when they go forward. There’s an acceptance, however, that this way can take longer to master than a style that’s more rigid.
Ten Hag and his coaching staff have held video sessions after games to point out where space could have been created if decisions had been made differently. There is a feeling that, in these early stages of his reign, players are getting in the way of each other rather than making room.
However, Ten Hag insisted on Sunday that it’s just a matter of time before it all clicks. And it’s a view echoed by his players.
“He wants intensity, he wants aggression, he wants us to play high, press high and, of course, when we have the ball, to play football,” left-back Luke Shaw said. “A lot of movements, a lot of playing in between the lines, and I think, of course, we are in a transition. It takes a bit of time, but there are very positive signs at the moment and we, as players, can see that in day-to-day training with him.”
Ten Hag is convinced his style lends itself to building attacking, exciting teams and he needs only point to his Ajax side which scored 98 goals in Eredivisie last season to prove it. United, though, are not there yet and head into the fixture with Tottenham at Old Trafford on Wednesday having scored just once in their last three home games against Newcastle, Omonia Nicosia and Real Sociedad.
Despite this, United will kick off against third-placed Spurs as slight favourites, a sign in itself that progress has been made in Ten Hag’s first few months in charge, but he would still like a few more goals to show for it.