This chaotic version of Manchester United is simply not sustainable – The Athletic

By Mark Critchley6h ago

What a difference a fortnight makes. Well, sort of. Certainly, the euphoria of that FA Cup quarter-final before the international break will feel like a distant memory to Erik ten Hag now.

But just as the fast, furious performance against Liverpool was the best that can be expected from United in their current guise, this hugely fortunate 1-1 draw at Brentford was the flip side of the same coin, displaying many of the worst traits of their chaotic, uncontrolled approach.

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A few United players cut dejected figures at the final whistle as they absorbed the blow of Kristoffer Ajer’s 99th-minute equaliser to cancel out Mason Mount’s strike just three minutes earlier. Really, they should have been grateful for a point gained rather than lamenting the two dropped.

Aside from Mount’s first goal in a United shirt, one Rasmus Hojlund chance was all they mustered against a deep-set Brentford back five missing much of their first-choice defence.

Deprived of space to play in behind, United were blunted. In the opening 15 minutes, the only period of the game when they were remotely on top, spells of possession on the edge of Brentford’s box petered out before looking in any way incisive.

Mount’s first United goal was a rare positive (Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

But more eye-catching and concerning was what was happening at the other end of the pitch.

Brentford hit the woodwork four times, saw a goal disallowed for offside and had 31 attempts in all, finally scoring with their last of the evening.

If this was a one-off, it would not be so troubling. Yet United have now conceded 254 shots in the last 12 games across all competitions at a rate of more than 20 a game. The 197 shots United have faced in the Premier League alone since the start of the year is the most of any top-flight club.

Remarkably, Brentford’s 31 attempts were not the most United have faced in a single game this season. That was the 34 at Anfield in December. But the Gtech Community Stadium — a ground where Brentford had won only four of their 14 games this season — is not Anfield.

And yet United were forced to put up the same dogged but desperate rearguard action as they did away to Liverpool before Christmas. They now join basement-dwelling Sheffield United in the dubious distinction of having conceded 30 or more shots in a single game twice this season.

There are caveats.

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Ten Hag has argued that the shots United are conceding are generally low-quality chances. It is not an argument without merit. Going by the underlying data, United could expect to concede from one in every 10 chances they have given up this season, one of the better rates in the Premier League.

But, on this occasion, that logic was undermined by the most eye-catching statistic of all from this game. Brentford’s 85 touches inside United’s penalty box was the most by a team in any top-flight match over the last three seasons. That’s hardly keeping an opponent at arm’s length.

When asked if he was concerned by the number of shots his side are conceding, Ten Hag brushed it off. “As long as we get results, no,” he said, explaining that he had instructed his players to defend deep due to Brentford’s direct style and rightly praising the performance of Andre Onana.

“I think our results are quite consistent from January on. We concede shots but we don’t concede many goals,” Ten Hag added.

In fairness, he can point to the fourth-best defensive record in the league with 40 goals conceded. But United’s xG conceded now stands at 51.5 — the sixth-worst in the top flight and comfortably the highest defensive overperformance.

Is this sustainable? Almost certainly not. But then United do not need to sustain their current level. They need to improve upon it.

Despite this apparent ‘overperformance’, they are still sixth, with a dead-zero goal difference, eight points adrift of fifth and 11 away from fourth. All of which prompts the question of just how much progress is being made. The parallels with the 4-0 defeat on the same ground last season, right at the start of Ten Hag’s reign, are easy to draw. Even though the result was nothing like as bad, there is an argument that this performance was worse.

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That day, Brentford ran into their four-goal lead through several egregious, even freakish individual and collective errors: David de Gea’s fumble, calamitous attempts to play out from the back, disorganised set-piece defending.

This display was of a different character, without as many disastrous moments but with United looking decidedly second-best. Rather than being blown away inside 35 minutes, they were outplayed for the best part of 90.

Ajer celebrates scoring Brentford’s equaliser with their 31st attempt at goal (Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)

Ten Hag has put some of this season’s disappointing results down to being on the wrong side of fine margins — Alejandro Garnacho’s disallowed goal at Arsenal in September, the penalty shouts at the Etihad earlier this month — but the same certainly could not be said this time.

And the truth is, United live at those margins. No Premier League side has won more games by a single goal, as was also the case last season. Only three wins this season have come by two goals or more, home and away to Everton and at home to West Ham United. Even then, United were comfortably out-shot in all three of those games.

Most touches in an opposition’s box

Date Team Opponent Season Touches
26/07/2020 Manchester City Norwich City 2019-20 87
02/11/2019 Manchester City Southampton 2019-20 87
30/03/2024 Brentford Manchester United 2023-24 85
17/02/2024 Manchester City Chelsea 2023-24 79
07/12/2019 Manchester City Manchester United 2019-20 79
04/03/2023 Arsenal Bournemouth 2022-23 78
28/12/2023 Arsenal West Ham 2023-24 77
13/05/2012 Manchester City QPR 2011-12 76
09/03/2024 Bournemouth Sheffield United 2023-24 75
26/10/2019 Manchester City Aston Villa 2019-20 74
21/04/2023 Arsenal Southampton 2022-23 74

“I don’t think any of us can explain why football is like this sometimes, why some teams are more lucky in a season,” Thomas Frank said in his post-match press conference when discussing his own side’s misfortune in not securing the win they deserved.

“It’s luck and margins if they constantly have lower xG than the opponents and constantly get points. You definitely can’t continue like that as a team over time because they will really show your true level.”

Frank was not talking about United but he could have been.

Ten Hag can bemoan his luck in many aspects of how this season has panned out — certainly on the injury front — but on the pitch, his side leaves plenty to chance.

This was not the first time recently United have come away with a result their performance has not warranted. And worryingly, with hopes of a return to the Champions League next season receding, those results have still not been good enough.

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(Top photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Mark Critchley is a football writer for The Athletic, covering Manchester United and Manchester City. Mark joined after five years as The Independent’s northern football correspondent. Follow Mark on Twitter @mjcritchley

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