EPL

Man Utd have stopped scoring against the big sides – that must change at Liverpool

By Sports Desk January 16, 2021

Manchester United's record against the so-called 'big six' of the Premier League this season reads zero wins, two defeats and two draws.

They have conceded seven goals, six of them at home to Tottenham, and scored just once – a Bruno Fernandes penalty two minutes into that 6-1 hammering in October.

Fernandes scored their previous goal in these encounters from the spot, too, in a 1-1 draw at Spurs last June. In fact, you have to go back to March 2020 and their 2-0 win at home to Manchester City, the last Old Trafford game played in front of a crowd, for the previous occasion that they scored a goal against a big-six team that wasn't a penalty.

They might be top of the league heading into Sunday's showdown with Liverpool but, for a manager that made an early habit of extracting big performances against the best sides, that stat should be of serious concern to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

 

BIG ZERO SIX

Since the end of the 2019-20 shutdown, United have played seven games against the big six and won none of them, if you include domestic cup losses to Chelsea and City.

In league football alone, they have drawn against Tottenham, Chelsea and City and lost to Spurs and Arsenal, with just two Fernandes penalties to show for it. All their previous three such games were at home and they have not scored in any of them.

In their first 14 league games against these sides under Solskjaer, United won six times and lost only four, scoring 16 goals and conceding 13 – a decent record given their real problems with consistency.

The strange thing is United's winless run against the best has coincided with a general upturn in form since the previous season restarted last June. Taking only results in that time into account, United have played 26, won 17, lost just three, scored 56 goals and conceded 30. That's the best record of any side in the league and seven points better than Liverpool.

In fact, narrow that down to results against teams in the top half of the table in the same time frame, and United have lost the fewest games (two) of any side, with 21 points taken from 13 games, just three behind Jurgen Klopp's side.

So, why the recent drop-off against the very best?

Solskjaer's most dependable attacking weapons have been Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all three of whom will almost certainly start at Liverpool, barring injury.

They were all involved in their last big-six contest in the league, a 0-0 draw at home to City in December. Rashford managed only one shot all game and created no chances for anyone else; Martial, a late substitute, created one chance but had no shots himself. Fernandes, ever the fulcrum of United's attack, had four shots and created two chances.

The previous game was a staid goalless draw with Chelsea that made the derby look positively thrill-a-minute. That day, with Martial banned, Rashford was more involved, with three attempts at goal and two chances created; he was outdone by Fernandes (three shots, four chances created).

They don't exactly look like imperious figures, but they actually fall in line with their per-90-minute numbers for this season. On average, Rashford attempts 2.7 shots per game and creates 1.3 chances; Martial has 2.9 shots and creates 1.2 chances; Fernandes musters 3.6 shots and creates 3.4 chances.

Put succinctly, based on this season's performances, Fernandes should be expected to create between three and four goalscoring opportunities in every league game he starts for United. In other words, he was bang on his average against City and Chelsea. Rashford's numbers are similarly close to the mean.

United's best attackers, then, are keeping their performance levels consistent against the big six. They're just meeting greater resistance. That becomes clearer looking at expected goals.

In their most recent three league games against these sides, United have had xG of 0.6 against City, 0.7 against Chelsea and a lowly 0.4 in a 1-0 loss to Arsenal. In those same fixtures in 2019-20, those figures were 1.6 (in a 2-0 win against City), 2.2 (in a 4-0 win over Chelsea) and 0.9 (in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal). Interestingly, though, Chelsea and Arsenal had higher xG numbers in those games last season, even though they suffered worse results, and City's only increased this term by 0.7.

This reflects a general balancing out in these matches. They are, for the most part, more attritional and less unpredictable affairs settled by fine margins – exactly the sort of contest you'd expect between true heavyweights. United are not significantly under-performing each time; they're just not quite tilting the odds in their favour.

How, then, might they change that against Liverpool? There is one simple way.

SLAB EXPERIMENT

United have one particular weakness, regardless of opposition: set-pieces. This season, they have conceded 11 goals from set-plays; only Wolves (12), Brighton and Hove Albion (14) and Leeds United (16) have a worse record. They have shipped four goals from corners, the same number as Liverpool, but the champions have only conceded eight times from dead-ball situations overall.

At the other end, United have scored 10 goals from set-pieces, a tally bettered by just four teams: Aston Villa and Southampton (11), and Chelsea and Liverpool (12). Only Chelsea (34) have created more dead-ball chances than United (31).

There is an argument to say they should have more set-piece goals than anyone else. It's an argument that centres around their captain – the man who might be the very thing United need to get back to scoring against, and winning against, big-six opposition.

Since the start of last season, Harry Maguire has won 73 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League. That's the best rate of anyone who has contested at least 300 in that time. In fact, he has lost only 98 of the 341 he has been involved in, which is the lowest number of losses across the same period within that elite group.

However, in an attacking sense, the world's most expensive defender doesn't seem to have his head on straight. Since the start of 2019-20, he has attempted 27 headed shots, hit the target with just nine of them, and scored with two. Of players with at least 20 headed shots in that time, only four have hit the target less often.

On Sunday, Maguire will face a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip. He will rarely have a better chance of stealing a march at set-plays and, if he does, he could well end United's wait for a goal – and a win – against the best. Sometimes, those fine margins are the width of a forehead.

Related items

  • Zidane hopeful on Benzema availability for blockbuster Madrid derby Zidane hopeful on Benzema availability for blockbuster Madrid derby

    Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane is hopeful his leading marksman Karim Benzema will be available to return from injury in Sunday's huge LaLiga derby against leaders Atletico Madrid.

    Benzema is Madrid's top-scorer this season with 17 goals in all competitions but has missed their past three games due to an unspecified knock.

    The France international's finishing touch was missed in Monday's 1-1 draw with Real Sociedad, which leaves third-placed Los Blancos five points behind Atletico having played a game more.

    "We hope he can be with us, but we have to wait and see because he still hasn't trained with the team," Zidane said.

    "We'll assess the situation tomorrow. He's OK. Karim's injury is much better and we'll take a look at him."

    In Benzema's absence, Madrid have collected two 1-0 wins plus the 1-1 draw with Sociedad, so his attacking prowess has been missed.

    Highly rated 20-year-old Brazilian winger Vinicius Junior came off the bench to rescue a point for Zidane's side against Sociedad, scoring in the 89th minute for his third league goal of the campaign.

    "I’m pleased he got the goal," Zidane said.

    "We picked up a point and now we have to move on. It's the result of his hard work and effort. That's what we all have to keep doing."

    Zidane remains bullish about Madrid's title hopes, with Atletico having stumbled in recent matches, collecting eight points from a possible 15, while they were also beaten by Chelsea in the Champions League last week.

    Barcelona moved past Madrid into second with their 2-0 win at Sevilla on Saturday.

  • Dias ominously points to Man City's 'infinite ambition' Dias ominously points to Man City's 'infinite ambition'

    Manchester City defender Ruben Dias says the mentality within the squad is like nothing he has ever experienced before, ominously pointing to an "infinite ambition" to win. 

    City are 12 points clear in the Premier League title race, while they are also still alive in the Champions League, FA Cup and EFL Cup as they pursue a possible four trophies in 2020-21. 

    Portugal international Dias, 23, joined City from Benfica in September and has been a key figure in their outstanding campaign, making 32 appearances in all competitions and scoring in Saturday's 2-1 win over West Ham. 

    "What makes the team is all of us," Dias said. 

    "Everyone brings a special attribute, but the team survives because all of us are good and have the right mentality. 

    "We have that infinite ambition of all of us wanting to win. I have never seen this in any team or club like I am experiencing now. 

    "This desire of everyone wanting to be a part of it and wanting to be on this top level and win more and more and more, that is what makes this team."

    He also pointed to the influence of manager Pep Guardiola, who has revived City this season after an underwhelming 2019-20 campaign where they were Premier League runners-up and won only the EFL Cup.

    Dias said Guardiola's experience and knowledge had helped instil City's winning mentality.

    "Pep is definitely one of the most important roles in all of this," Dias said.

    "The way he makes us believe in each game, the solutions he gives us so we can achieve more than our opponents and that will always be a turning point; the quality of the players in our team, if they are smart enough to understand what he is saying, what he wants.

    "But major credit to him and to see what he sees in our opponents to give us the way through."

    City are at home to Wolves in the Premier League on Tuesday.

  • Zidane accepts half-time changes may have cost Real Madrid Zidane accepts half-time changes may have cost Real Madrid

    Zinedine Zidane held his hands up and accepted his half-time tinkering may have cost Real Madrid in their 1-1 draw at home to Real Sociedad on Monday. 

    Madrid were the more threatening of the teams in the first half at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, with Mariano Diaz hitting the crossbar from close range in a lucky escape for the visitors. 

    But, seemingly unhappy with his team's performance, Zidane altered his setup at the interval to go with a back three, only for Portu to ghost in at the back post to head in a Nacho Monreal cross in the 55th minute. 

    Zidane reverted to a back four soon after and eventually Madrid got their equaliser in the 89th minute through substitute Vinicius Junior. 

    But the Frenchman seemingly felt his half-time changes may have backfired. 

    Speaking to reporters after the game, Zidane said: "I changed it [at half-time] because I wasn't happy with our pressing. 

    "It was those 10-15 minutes and we changed it again and we were better playing a 4-3-3. Our substitutes did well after coming on." 

    Zidane was then asked again if he felt he made a mistake with his initial tweaks, to which he replied: "If you've asked me, and that's now three times, then yes, maybe. 

    "We had to change things because, after an hour, the team was a bit tired. Sometimes we have to change things. In the end, you try to find things to change the dynamic." 

    While Vinicius' late equaliser likely prevented Madrid from suffering a massive psychological blow ahead of a potentially pivotal derby clash with Atletico Madrid at the weekend, in the grand scheme of the title race it did little to improve their standing. 

    Either way, the pressure on Madrid going into the weekend is greater than if they had beaten La Real, as they stay five points behind the leaders having played a game more, yet Zidane insists Monday's result changes nothing. 

    "We have to remain calm," Zidane added. "We had a good game and we had three or four chances [to score]. 

    "Patience, calm and rest. We were up against a team that creates chances against you. We have to carry on. 

    "It doesn't change the way we go into the derby. We have to go there to have a great game." 

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.