Only three teams have faced more shots than Manchester United in the Premier League this season. Why is André Onana being kept so busy and how much of a problem is it?

Manchester United are conceding a lot of shots this season, and they face the short trip to the Etihad Stadium to face rivals Manchester City on Sunday. Those two facts will probably make you picture Erling Haaland with a knife and fork in his hands and a napkin around his neck.

After Jamie Carragher picked apart United’s defending in their 2-1 defeat to Fulham on Monday Night Football, Erik ten Hag was not happy. The Dutchman said at a press conference: “Some analysts are very objective in their comments, very good advice, some are very subjective.”

So, let’s get very objective and look at Manchester United’s defending this season.

On Wednesday night, they bounced back from that Fulham loss with a narrow 1-0 victory at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup fifth round thanks to Casemiro’s late header.

It wasn’t a bad performance and United probably deserved the win, but once again they saw the opposition pepper their goal more often than most fans would feel comfortable with. Forest had 16 shots at the City Ground. It was an exact continuation of their 26 Premier League games so far this season, in which they have faced an average of 16.0 shots per game.

That said, Forest’s shots built up an overall expected goals (xG) total of just 0.88. So while United faced a lot of shots, those efforts were not all that threatening in the main.

nottingham forest 0-1 manchester united fa cup stats

And that has been a bit of a theme for them this season.

United have had a mixed 2023-24 season so far. It has undoubtedly been a drop-off from last season’s impressive debut campaign from Ten Hag, when they won the EFL Cup and finished third in the Premier League. His side currently sit in sixth place, eight points off the top four and 14 points off third place heading into Matchday 27 in the Premier League.

Results have picked up recently, though, barring last Saturday’s defeat to Fulham. Since the turn of the year, United have played nine games in all competitions, winning seven (D1 L1). It shows there is still quality and substance in a team that has been roundly criticised this term, largely due to their inconsistency that seemed to rear its ugly head again with the late loss last week to Marco Silva’s side.

One thing that has been consistent about Man Utd this season though has been the number of shots they have been facing. It began with their opening Premier League win over Wolves, where the visitors recorded 23 shots at the home goal, though failed to score. This was the most that United have allowed opponents in a league game at Old Trafford since Chelsea’s 25 in November 2005.

Only Sheffield United (447), West Ham (434) and Luton Town (428) have faced more shots than Man Utd (417) in the Premier League this season. United have faced at least eight shots in every league game this season and have faced at least 16 shots in more than half of their games (14). By comparison, Arsenal have not faced more than 15 shots in a single league game this season.

Of the teams above United in the Premier League, none have faced 16+ shots in more than seven games.

Teams facing more than 15 shots PL

It hasn’t been much different in cup competitions either. In the UEFA Champions League group stage, they faced 19 shots away to Bayern Munich, 16 shots in both games against FC Copenhagen and another 16 away to Galatasaray. They even faced 17 in their 4-2 win at League Two side Newport County in the FA Cup. Newport have only had as many shots in four of their 34 fourth-tier outings this season.

Despite that, eight Premier League teams have allowed their opponents a higher xG total (xG against) than United’s 43.3, while another eight have faced more shots on target than their 132.

On top of that, Ten Hag’s side actually have the sixth-best defensive record in the Premier League this season, having conceded 36 goals. Only four teams have faced fewer big chances (a chance from which the attacking player would be expected to score) than United’s 53.

What is going on, then?

It hasn’t been a trend from Ten Hag’s whole time at Old Trafford, though. Last season, 11 Premier League teams faced more shots while only two conceded fewer goals. They faced 12.7 shots per game, so they’re facing more than three more in each game this season.

Injuries haven’t helped, particularly in defensive positions, where team selection has had to be inconsistent. Lisandro Martínez has only made 10 appearances in all competitions, Luke Shaw has made just 15, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has made 17, while Casemiro – who made such a difference to United’s midfield last season – has only recently returned and has played in just 19 of their 37 games in all competitions.

Overall, United have had 11 different central defensive partnerships across their 26 Premier League matches this season. No side have had more than this, while they’ve not had a single central defensive pairing start more than four league games in 2023-24.

Man Utd Defensive Partners

As mentioned, they aren’t conceding as many goals as you might expect. Part of that is down to goalkeeper André Onana, who has sometimes come in for some criticism in his first season in England, but in the Premier League in particular he is in some sense showing his worth.

Only five goalkeepers have made more saves than his 93, while he’s outperformed his expected goals on target (xGOT) conceded so far, conceding 35 goals from 38.5 xGOT (he’s also conceded one own goal, which doesn’t count towards xGOT totals), suggesting he has ‘prevented’ 3.5 goals with his saves.

Onana xGOT Feb 2024

Carragher surmised that United are conceding too many chances because of the gaps in midfield. We’ve recently written about the impact of youngster Kobbie Mainoo, and how he hasn’t been getting much help from his more senior teammates.

As you can see from the graphic below, United might be conceding more shots per game than a lot of teams, but the quality of those chances is also comparably low. Only Everton (0.098 xG) and Arsenal (0.084 xG) have been facing lower-quality chances – measured in terms of xG per shot faced – than United (0.103 xG).

Shots against v xG against PL

It appears they are limiting the opposition to low-quality chances, but that doesn’t mean just restricting them to long-range efforts. The average distance of shots faced by United in the Premier League this season is 16.6 metres, the same as Man City, and closer to goal than seven other teams (including Arsenal – 18.2m, and Everton – 16.9m). They are instead restricting their opponents to difficult chances from tight angles and with lots of defenders in the way. Only three teams have conceded more headed shots – which will have a lower xG value as they are more difficult to score – than United (64).

Man Utd xG against 23-24

There have been games recently that have raised eyebrows because of the number of shots United have faced, but in many of them it hasn’t stopped Ten Hag’s side getting a result. The 3-0 win over West Ham at Old Trafford in early February felt like it was relatively comfortable, but the visitors had 22 shots, almost twice that of United (12). Aston Villa had 23 in United’s 2-1 win at their place, while Luton mustered 22 at Kenilworth Road as Ten Hag’s side held on to another 2-1 victory.

However, arguably the perfect example of United’s resilience was the trip to rivals Liverpool back in December. Jürgen Klopp’s title challengers were frustrated by the visitors that day at Anfield, with United becoming the first team to stop Liverpool from scoring this season despite facing 34 shots (10 more than United have faced in any other game this season). The hosts’ xG amounted to 2.38 (0.07 xG per shot). It was the most shots by any team in a Premier League game without scoring in more than seven years.

With all this in mind, and a trip to Man City coming up on Sunday, it is worth asking whether United can repeat the trick? It’s a big ask against the reigning champions.

Pep Guardiola’s side may have struggled for goals in the league more than usual of late – scoring just three times in their last three league games – but Tuesday’s 6-2 win at Luton in the FA Cup fifth round was an ominous sign for United. Erling Haaland bagged five goals, Kevin De Bruyne collected four assists and City hit the target with a whopping 15 of their 17 shots at Kenilworth Road.

The defending champions also had 21 shots against United in the reverse fixture in October, collecting an xG of 4.0 as they won 3-0 at Old Trafford. Those numbers speak to the fact that if you allow your opponents a lot of chances, there will be the odd game when they get too many good ones and they score a few goals.

The Forest game suggests United’s openness at the back isn’t going away any time soon.

But like an older gentleman on his future son-in-law’s stag do, United do not yet need to fear the volume of shots, just as long as they broadly remain in control of the situation.

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