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The alarming Manchester United trend that should leave Erik ten Hag worried

Big numbers surround Manchester United. They did long before Friday’s announcement of a task force to assess whether to rebuild or redevelop Old Trafford. It might cost the club some £1bn, though the overall project will prove still more expensive, with talk of local-council investment in infrastructure, public-private partnerships and other funds.

None of which should concern Erik ten Hag. The big numbers, the ones he tries to shrug off or to argue are a product of the plan, are 23, 27, 16, 17, 22, 23, 22, 15, 17 and 16: the shots United’s last 10 opponents have had. Which, as it includes League Two Newport – who had 17 – is still more ignominious than it sounds. United have faced 134 shots in the last six league games; three of those were against probable bottom-half finishers. They have conceded 20 or more shots in 10 league games this season, including five of the last six. In all competitions, they have only had five games all season when opponents had fewer than 10 attempts at goal; the most recent, Wigan, are in the bottom half of League One. “I have never had that many chances away here,” said Sean Dyche after Everton’s 23 efforts merely brought them a 2-0 defeat. Now only Sheffield United have faced more shots this season than another United.

Whichever way the facts and figures are assessed, they represent an indictment, especially of Ten Hag. Some of the romance of United stemmed from a reputation for entertainment, but it wasn’t supposed to mean theirs was the goal getting peppered. United’s results can fluctuate but the closest thing to a guarantee is that their opponents will have something between 15 and 25 opportunities to score. There is the strange possibility that Andre Onana’s chequered first season at Old Trafford will end with him both keeping the most clean sheets and making the most saves in the Premier League.

Bruno Fernandes scored from the penalty spot on Saturday to give his side the lead (AP)
Bruno Fernandes scored from the penalty spot on Saturday to give his side the lead (AP)

All of which suggests a problem with Ten Hag’s strategy. Not that he would concur. “We are defending low-quality chances,” he said on Saturday. “Sometimes we are defending very low and we can do that very well.”

And if there is a truth to part of that, if Jonny Evans and Raphael Varane are fine penalty-box defenders, with their reliability and reading of the game, United can be dragged deep by having some slow centre-backs. For much of the season, it meant they were far too open in the middle of the pitch – scarcely helped by the way Ten Hag left his defensive midfielder exposed and swamped – before a recent shift to be more compact and to protect them from counter-attacks, but in turn it has dragged the rest of the team deeper. That may have been a private acknowledgement that a form of anarchy, that gave the freedom of Old Trafford to such eager runners as Wolves’ Matheus Cunha and Fulham’s Alex Iwobi, was damaging.

Ten Hag is yet to accept that United’s overall record is. United defended well in the rearguard action at Anfield, when Liverpool had 34 shots, and for most of the match at the Etihad Stadium, where Manchester City had 27. But for most of the season, they have not.

Erik ten Hag hailed the defensive discipline of United (Getty)
Erik ten Hag hailed the defensive discipline of United (Getty)

Even 20 low-quality chances still brings the risk of conceding; that feels like a statement of the obvious. The contrast comes at the top: between them, the top four had conceded 20 shots in a top-flight game three times this season.

And while Ten Hag talked about expected goals on Saturday, they illustrate that not all the opportunities United allow can be dismissed as long-range, highly optimistic efforts. United have restricted their opponents to an xG of under 1.1 in just two of their last 16 league matches. Everton have amassed an xG of 4.32 against United while losing both matches without scoring. United have the seventh-highest expected goals against in the division.

There are mitigating factors. The ever-changing back fours, largely due to injury, mean there has been no continuity while pivotal players are missing. United are without a specialist left-back, as they have been for much of the season.

Manchester United needed two spot-kicks to come out on top against Toffees (Getty Images)
Manchester United needed two spot-kicks to come out on top against Toffees (Getty Images)

And yet since January, United have had Casemiro back and fielded a duo of defensive midfielders, in the Brazilian and Kobbie Mainoo: the earlier experiment of positioning two No 8s too far upfield was abandoned. But in their eight starts together, United have conceded 166 shots. Ten Hag complained United’s win at Villa Park was like a tennis match, but nearly all of their games are: they cannot shut them down or control them. It is a reason why leads can look insecure. Their relatively low share of possession – barely 50 per cent both on Saturday and over the season – means opponents have the ball more than used to be the case against United.

Then there is the question of Ten Hag’s tactics; there is something confusing about the chaos in many a United game and, whatever he insists, surely the plan was not for so many efforts to rain in on their goal. For the manager with a number in his surname, Ten Hag was not supposed to stand for 20 shots per game for the opposition.