Once again, a Bruno Fernandes penalty made the difference for Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side required extra time and Andreas Bjelland wrestling with Anthony Martial in order to overcome a stubborn Copenhagen side in Cologne on Monday night and reach the Europa League semi-finals.
It was the 21st spot-kick that United have won in all competitions this season – more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues – and the 17th that they have converted. Seven of Fernandes’ 11 goals since his arrival in January have come from 12 yards out.
Predictably, ‘Penalty FC’ and riffs on a similar theme were trending on Twitter by the time the final whistle sounded. Supporters of rival clubs have a duty to scoff, arch an eyebrow and invent all kinds of conspiracy theories to explain United’s strange knack for winning spot-kicks given how many there have been but the vast majority have been correct calls, checked and verified with VAR in operation.
Of all 21, a couple – like Daniel James’ away to Norwich in October, which Marcus Rashford subsequently missed – were at all contentious. A few may not have been given by VAR if not already awarded them in the first place, due to there being no ‘clear and obvious’ error, but no more than a few. Only Fernandes’ award at Villa Park last month was a blatantly wrong decision, as the Premier League later admitted.
And rather than poring over every United penalty to decide whether they should have been given or not, there are more interesting and important questions to ask about this strange phenomenon. How reliant are United on scoring from 12 yards? Why do Solskjaer’s players win so many spot-kicks in the first place? And perhaps most importantly of all, will they keep winning them?
The first of those questions is simple to answer. Of United’s 110 goals in all competitions, around 15 per cent have come from penalties. Eight of their 17 penalty goals have been decisive, either turning a draw into a win or a defeat into a draw. If you count the final day win at Leicester – a 2-0 win to secure Champions League football, with Jesse Lingard adding to a Fernandes penalty in the last minute of stoppage time – that figure rises to nine.
The second question is more difficult to answer. There are several theories on why United are so adept at winning penalties. One of the more popular ones is that it is down to the nimble movement of Solskjaer’s attacking players – Fernandes, Rashford and Anthony Martial in particular – and this explanation is the one that Solskjaer subscribes to himself.
After a 1-0 win over Leicester, which was decided by a Rashford penalty and would ultimately prove crucial in the race for a top-four finish, Solskjaer said: “I think it’s the type of players we’ve got. They’ve got quick feet, good skills and most of [the penalties] haven’t even been debatable.” It is a persuasive, intuitive argument. Then again, United do not have a monopoly on fast, agile forwards.
The Premier League’s second-highest penalty total this season was Manchester City’s 11 – three short of United’s record-breaking 14. This would appear to support Solskjaer’s case but Liverpool are no slouches either and managed only five. Bayern Munich earned six in the Bundesliga; Barcelona won seven in La Liga. What’s more, Rashford and Martial were also members of Jose Mourinho’s 2017-18 United runners-up, who won just three that season.
It is more likely to be a consequence of how United attack. If Solskjaer has stressed one thing during his 18 months in charge, it is the importance of passing and moving quickly. Watching United’s 21 penalties back, it is startling how soon they happen once the player enters the box, usually after a successful one-two, through ball or dribble. Many of the 21 penalties appear to come when the opposition defence is suddenly stretched and overloaded. Only three have been given for handball.
If this is a tactic that Solskjaer has deliberately employed, it is working. His preferred style of play may just be well-suited to win penalties. It is worth nothing that – while nowhere near as effective as this season – United were awarded a total of 15 spot-kicks in all competitions during the 2018-19 season, split between Mourinho and Solskjaer as manager. The majority of them – nine, to be precise – came on Solskjaer’s watch.
This brings us back to the third question: can United keep winning penalties? Perhaps, but the numbers are unconvincing. For example, it is strange that despite being awarded the most of any team during a single season in Premier League history, Solskjaer’s side had far fewer touches inside the opponents’ box than City, Liverpool and Chelsea. United’s number of passes into the penalty area was relatively better but closer to Brighton’s than either of the two title contenders.
Over the course of a season, the ability to win penalties will help you pick up a lot of extra points and progress further through cup competitions. It is an incredibly hard skill to repeat, though. Crystal Palace topped the Premier League’s charts for penalties won in 2017-18 and had the second-most behind United the following season. Very little has changed at Selhurst Park over the years in question in terms of personnel and manager but this past season, they were awarded just three.
United should revel in this special knack of winning penalties that Solskjaer has helped develop but they cannot afford to become dependent upon it. History suggests it seldom lasts forever.