EPL

Man Utd vs Tottenham: Is Rangnick or Conte making better progress in the Premier League?

By Sports Desk March 11, 2022

There really isn't much to split Manchester United and Tottenham right now.

Ahead of Saturday's game at Old Trafford, the Red Devils are two points better off in the Premier League table but having played two matches more. Just a single goal separates them in the goal difference column, too.

They have each won three of their past seven league games, they are heavily reliant on two players scoring the vast majority of their goals, and even their managers, although on very different contracts, are facing uncertain futures. If you stood between the dressing rooms prior to kick-off, you wouldn't be surprised to hear "Lads, it's Tottenham" and "Lads, it's United" bellowed simultaneously behind the closed doors.

Of course, this could be a hugely important fixture beyond deciding which team is playing slightly less mediocre stuff. The top-four race in the Premier League looks likely to run into the deciding matchdays in May, and a win this weekend for either side would give them a huge boost.

It could also offer some clues as to which of Ralf Rangnick and Antonio Conte has so far done a better job, because that, too, is a very difficult question to answer.

Since Rangnick replaced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as interim manager in late November, United have played 14 in the Premier League, won seven, drawn five and lost two, giving them an average of 1.86 points per game. They have scored 21 goals and conceded 14.

Their victories have come against Brentford, Brighton and Hove Albion, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Leeds United, Norwich City and West Ham. Just two of these teams are currently in the top 10 in the table.

Roughly a month earlier, Conte stepped in for the sacked Nuno Espirito Santo, who lost his job after Spurs were beaten 3-1 at home to United. 

In 16 games under the Italian, Spurs have won nine, drawn three and lost four, averaging 1.88 points per game. They have scored 31 times and conceded 16.

Their wins have come against Leeds United, Brentford, Palace, Everton, Leicester City, Manchester City, Norwich and Watford. Just two of these teams are currently in the top 10 in the table.

We told you it was difficult.

Such distinctly average form has not helped to paint a clear picture of either manager's efforts. Spurs will go into this game in a better mood, of course, given they just thrashed an awful Everton side 5-0, while United were humiliated in a 4-1 loss to Manchester City. Still, it's only been a couple of weeks since Conte suggested he might have to resign as he just couldn't handle the thought of more defeats, while United had just scored six across consecutive wins over Brighton and Leeds. Inconsistency is the only constant where United and Spurs are concerned.

There have been definite improvements, though. For one thing, despite Raphael Varane's injury troubles and the overbearing scrutiny on Harry Maguire every time he draws breath, United's defence has got better since the shambolic final weeks under Solskjaer.

In their opening 14 league games this season, United conceded 22 goals – the fifth-most in the division – and kept only two clean sheets. Under Rangnick, they have let in 16 goals – four of those coming at City last weekend – and kept five clean sheets (we are excluding own goals here). They are facing a similar number of shots, roughly 13 per game, but their expected goals against figure has improved from 21.43 to 18.35, suggesting that, under Rangnick, they have limited opponents to more speculative attempts. They have also cut down a deeply worrying number of mistakes: before Rangnick, they committed a league-high 12 errors leading to shots, which has fallen to just three since the German took charge.

Defensive improvement has not been quite as clear under Conte. Although they have conceded as many goals (16) in Conte's 16 matches in charge as they did in 10 under Nuno, Spurs' xGA figure has increased from 15.48 to 19.01, indicating that their seven clean sheets have owed something to Hugo Lloris and a little luck (again, that figure ignores own goals). And while United's error count has dropped, Spurs have committed 11 leading to shots, the second-worst figure in the Premier League since Conte's return. It would be enough to make the former Chelsea boss tear his hair out, if... no, we won't go there.

What about at the other end? A much-discussed issue under Rangnick, and the reason behind all those draws, has been United's inability to take chances. Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, has only scored one goal in 2022. The numbers highlight an obvious problem: in the league under Solskjaer, United exceeded their expected total this season by just over four (excluding own goals); under Rangnick, they have underperformed by 4.4.

Yet their problems in attack are not for the want of opportunities. Since Rangnick's arrival, only Man City and Liverpool have created more chances and attempted more shots in the Premier League, and only Man City and Spurs have generated more 'big' chances. The problem is that only 68 of United's 208 most recent shots have been on target, and only Liverpool have attempted more from outside the box in that time. When the going gets tough, the shooting gets desperate.

Over the same period, they are fourth for xG and expected goals on target, which measures the quality of an attempt itself. However, the difference between the two is nearly 4.0, and 3.03 if you exclude penalties. Only relegation battlers Burnley (3.53) have had a worse such difference during Rangnick's time in England, which tells you a lot about the standard of United's recent finishing even before you take the opposition goalkeeper's performance into account. They can at least make the argument that, should they keep creating chances at this rate, their luck should begin to turn... eventually.

Spurs' attacking fortunes have felt a bit mixed under Conte. In their past five matches, they have scored three at Man City, four at Leeds and five at home to Everton but drawn blanks away to Burnley and Middlesbrough.

Excluding own goals, they have scored 28 times in the league under Conte from 30.4 xG, giving them pretty similar figures to those under Nuno (eight goals from 10 xG). The average xG value of their shots has increased a touch, though, so they can argue their attacking play is sharpening up.

That's a good sign given Spurs are chasing a couple of milestones at Old Trafford: they could score at least four goals for the third league game in a row for the first time since February 2004, while Harry Kane needs only one away goal to match Wayne Rooney's competition record of 94.

It would be quite the result if Spurs could beat both Manchester clubs away in the same season, and it would give their Champions League hopes a significant shot in the arm. As for which side is showing the best progress... well, perhaps we should let this top-four chase run its course first.

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