Manchester United finished Erik ten Hag’s maiden season in charge with a third-place finish and a trophy, but where can they improve in their quest to become realistic title challengers again?
Erik ten Hag’s first season as Manchester United manager must generally be seen as a positive one. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but beyond the grim batterings handed out by Manchester City, Liverpool and Brentford (!), and the dreadful Europa League collapse against Sevilla, there were undoubtedly signs of progress.
Even if you ignore the actual football for a moment, Ten Hag showed backbone by dropping players like captain Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo. The latter’s exit also reflected well on the manager because the once-great Portugal forward had become a problem in terms of his output, attitude and remarkable outburst on the eve of the World Cup. The Dutchman also did what at the time seemed unthinkable and dropped the in-form Marcus Rashford over a disciplinary matter.
Of course, the optics on those situations would’ve been far worse had United not shown signs of improvement along the way. Granted, some might suggest they secured Champions League qualification in a poor field given the largely disappointing seasons of Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham, but United accumulated 17 more points (75) than the previous year. Their total made it the club’s second-best campaign since Sir Alex Ferguson left (behind 81 in 2017-18), and let’s not forget they also ended a six-year trophy drought with League Cup success.
However, they still finished the Premier League campaign 14 points adrift of Manchester City. So, yes, they made progress, and that’s not up for debate. But this isn’t the end game. There remains much work to be done for United to be considered realistic challengers to City, and potentially even Arsenal.
A certain, iconic Man Utd tweet comes to mind when thinking about areas for improvement at Old Trafford, but we’ll ask the question anyway…
Where can United improve ahead of next season?
Building From the Back
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Analysis of United’s passing habits out of defence has been a hot topic throughout the season, but it’s worth highlighting again because this is arguably an area they can make significant gains in without even doing much.
Okay, that might be a slightly simplistic perception of what it takes to buy and integrate a new goalkeeper. Most experts and United fans would agree it’s probably time to part with David de Gea, though; Roy Keane reckons they should “move on from him quickly”. They’ve even got an opportunity to do so without paying him off or making future wage contributions as his contract is up at the end of June.
All the noise from Ten Hag before now suggested he’s keen to keep the experienced De Gea, and perhaps they will thrash out a new contract and persuade him to take massively reduced terms. But they should still bring in a new goalkeeper who’s more comfortable with the ball at his feet anyway.
De Gea tallied 735 passes in his own half this season, of which 12% failed to reach a teammate. That might not sound alarming, but the Premier League’s average was 11% (goalkeepers with at least 1,000 minutes played). And for further context, Alisson (5.8%) and Bernd Leno (4.8%) had the best records this season.
Among the same group of goalkeepers, as many as 12 averaged a shorter pass length than De Gea (29.75 metres). This highlights the fact he still has tendency to go long despite Ten Hag clearly instructing his players to try and play it out from the back. It became quite common to see De Gea ignoring riskier short passes particularly after scares or errors.
That isn’t to say going long or direct can’t bring danger. United recorded more direct attacks (102) and goals from such situations (nine) than any other team in the Premier League this season, so there are certainly reasons to get the ball forward quickly on occasion. But their output in this regard had more to do with their midfield ball-players and the likes of Rashford than it did De Gea.
So, who could United go for? The one they’ve been most strongly linked with is Diogo Costa of FC Porto. The Portugal international is certainly a front-foot goalkeeper, averaging 0.6 keeper sweepings every 90 minutes, which ranks him 24th among the 158 goalkeepers to play a minimum of 1,000 minutes in the top seven European leagues last season. He also finds a teammate with 92.4% of passes in his own half, which is a decent improvement on De Gea despite actually averaging more long passes per 90 minutes (14.9 to 13.7).
However, Costa wouldn’t be cheap – likely costing over £60million – and he’s currently playing at a level lower than the Premier League, so it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions. Another option could be Inter’s André Onana, who played under Ten Hag at Ajax. The Cameroon international has been strongly linked with moves elsewhere in England, namely Chelsea, and is rumoured to be available for about £50m. The Athletic claimed on Friday that United are considering the 27-year-old.
Onana takes risks but is a bona-fide ball-playing goalkeeper. Among the same group of keepers mentioned previously, only 15 could better his 93.8% pass accuracy in his own half, and just three of those attempted more on a per-90-minute basis (27.0). Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola singled him out for praise before the Champions League final, saying: “[Inter] have done really well with the shape, it’s not just how good they defend. It’s how good they are in transitions and linking with the strikers. They have a real good process, starting from Onana, an exceptional goalkeeper in the build-up – one of the best in the world right now.”
Onana’s bravery and confidence were then features of his performance in that contest, showing remarkable belief on a couple of occasions when slicing passes through the City press. Onana’s style isn’t for everyone, hence why Cameroon coach Rigobert Song sent him home from the World Cup after a disagreement about the goalkeeper’s tendency to take risks. He could be a gamechanger for United, however.
Although it is a known area of weakness for United, many people may not be aware quite how poor they were at set-play situations this season. Being effective at set-pieces may not be fashionable like incisively playing out from the back, or choking opposition with a suffocatingly intense high press, but they can obviously be a crucial source of extra goals.
Thirteen of the 20 teams in the Premier League last season managed to score at least 10 goals from set-pieces. United’s haul was just five, the worst record in the top flight.
Their expected goals (xG) at set-plays was a fair bit higher (9.8), so there was at least a hint of wastefulness and you’d hope that would level out over time. However, 9.8 xG was still the fourth lowest in the Premier League, so the chances they created in these scenarios weren’t particularly great.
Further to that, just 14% of their total xG came from set-plays, which again was the worst record of all teams in the division. All but four teams reached at least 20% in that metric, so Ten Hag’s side carried far less threat than in open play.
They weren’t much better defending such situations either. United had 14.3 xG against (xGA) from set-pieces, which was the eighth highest. So, that could’ve been much worse; however, this accounted for 28% of their overall xG conceded, with only Crystal Palace (31%) coughing up a higher proportion of good opportunities outside of open play.
The 10 goals United did concede at set-plays was 4.3 below their xG, which suggests De Gea had a positive influence here, but it cannot be a coincidence that Ten Hag’s men were underwhelming at both ends of the pitch at dead-ball situations.
A more commanding goalkeeper and a potential centre-back reinforcement could have an impact defensively. In attack, United might benefit from putting more thought into who takes their direct free-kicks. They weren’t the only team not to score from one, but they did register the second most shots (20) via direct free-kicks, so were one of the most wasteful.
The Supply Line
This section is two-fold. Firstly, United need to do better at making the most of the creativity already at their disposal, i.e. scoring goals. For example, their xG for the season was 68.7. That was the lowest of the teams to finish in the top six, meaning United simply failed to create high-quality opportunities at the rate of their rivals.
Worse still, they underperformed their xG by 10.7, which meant only Chelsea (-12.1) and Everton (-11.8) were more wasteful than United. This can be illustrated most by their record in Opta-defined ‘big chances’; opportunities they’d be expected to convert. They failed in 64% of such situations, with only four clubs holding poorer records at the end of the season.
We’ve already touched on their underwhelming output at set-pieces, but the biggest discrepancy came from open-play chances. In those situations, only City (59) boasted more xG than United (56.6), so creativity wasn’t a big issue. However, that only translated to 48 goals for Ten Hag’s side. The champions managed 69.
It shows the true value of a genuine number nine. It’s no wonder, then, that most media speculation seems to suggest United’s priority in the transfer market is a new striker. A signing of Erling Haaland‘s calibre is pretty unlikely, even if Kylian Mbappé is supposedly available; Harry Kane seemed to be the primary target, but the latest reports make his arrival look out of the question. The other names frequently mentioned in recent weeks are Atalanta’s Rasmus Hojlund and Randal Kolo Muani of Eintracht Frankfurt, but there’s an argument they need at least two strikers given Rashford’s preference to play from the left.
And that leads us on nicely to the second point of this section; whoever United sign up top, they could do with spreading the chance creation around the team a little more.
Bruno Fernandes enjoyed an exceptional season individually, getting back to his very best after underwhelming in 2021-22. The Portugal star had a claim to being the standout midfielder in the Premier League. Kevin De Bruyne might have led the way with 16 assists, twice as many as Fernandes, but the United man’s 14.0 xG assisted from open play was 2.0 clear of the Belgian and comfortably the highest of anyone in the top flight. Poor finishing by teammates seemingly let him down.
Otherwise, though, United had precious few reliable creators, making their pursuit of the adaptable Mason Mount even more understandable. Jadon Sancho ended the campaign with a decent output after missing a huge chunk of the season. His 0.26 xG assisted per 90 minutes was bettered by only five players (minimum 1,000 minutes played) in the competition, evidence of him making good decisions in the final third, though fans are still expecting more from him.
Fred was United’s next most creative player in terms of xG assisted per 90 (0.19) which, considering his role as a back-up player who’s likely to leave, should provide a little concern. Then came Antony (0.14) and defensive midfielder Casemiro (0.13).
Antony in particular has been disappointing with respect to what he’s offered in attack. While he has scored some spectacular goals and he works hard, you can’t blame supporters for expecting a little more from someone who cost roughly £100m – his 0.14 xG assisted per 90 was bettered by as many as 47 players this season, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of United’s first-choice right winger when ‘Zones of Control’ data shows they have more of the ball than their opponents all up that flank in the attacking half.
But we come back to that word from earlier: progress. Ten Hag has brought progress as a collective and also inspired it on an individual level. Rashford, Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelof and Alejandro Garnacho have all progressed this season, and there’s no reason why others – Sancho and Antony; Facundo Pellistri, perhaps – can’t continue that theme next term.
The uncertainty around the ownership isn’t ideal, particularly as it could be delaying their movements in the transfer market. But for the first time in a long while you get the feeling the manager is suitable, worthy and progressive.