Manchester United laboured to a disappointing 1-0 defeat at home to Aston Villa on Saturday, displaying many of the issues that have plagued Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure.
For a side that had lost two of their three previous fixtures, an unchanged line-up against Villa from last weekend’s victory drew criticism from sections of the United fanbase. Despite it being the only game of the three that United took three points from, Solskjaer’s side had to rely on a late goal from Jesse Lingard, and a penalty save from David de Gea — his first since 2016 — to leave the London Stadium with a victory.
Over the last four fixtures, Solskjaer has changed the personnel considerably, owing to a Carabao Cup tie that would have always been an opportunity for rotation, but has suffered the same problem in all, a lack of creativity.
You’d assume that a side that boasts the names of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw — a player who has established himself as arguably the most skilled creator from his position in world football over the past 12 months — should not be struggling to create chances for the greatest goalscorer in modern times.
However, United’s primary playmakers are yet to click on a creative front this season.
Except for Shaw, who has not been as outstanding as last season (or Euro 2020, for that matter), United’s stars have had exemplary individual starts to the season. Fernandes scored his first United hat-trick on the opening day, a match where Pogba became one of six players in Premier League history to register four assists in one game.
Since being restored to a left-sided role following a brief spell back in the heart of midfield, the 28-year-old has carried on his excellent form and leads the league’s assist table with seven.
In light of this, and Ronaldo’s impressive start to the season, are United not creating enough chances?
In Saturday lunchtime’s disappointing defeat to Villa, United had 28 shots on goal.
Without context, that statistic might indicate that Villa keeper Emi Martinez played a blinder and was completely essential in Villa’s victory. The truth, however, is that 18 of these shots were from areas that United were never going to score from.
Of that high number, United only registered four shots on target compared to Villa’s three, indicative of a very even match.
Furthermore, the expected goals statistic — xG measures the quality of a chance by calculating the likelihood that it will be scored from a particular position on the pitch during a specific phase of play — suggested United created the opportunities to have accumulated 2.27 goals.
Boosted significantly by Fernandes’ missed penalty (worth 0.7 xG), United’s quality of chances from open play were comparable to Villa’s (1.46).
Overperforming the xG metric has been a trend over Solskjaer’s reign, never starker than in United’s 1-0 away victory against Wolves, who had accumulated 2.01 xG compared to United’s 0.66. Or, in United’s opening day win over Leeds, where Solskjaer’s men delivered five goals from just 1.60 expected.
While this reflects United’s immense quality in front of goal, consistent overperformance of the xG metric is not sustainable and indicates an inability to create quality goalscoring chances.
Take Tottenham Hotspur from last season, for example, who began the campaign in excellent form, owing to the outstanding finishing of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. Eventually, as it often happens, Spurs regressed to the mean, and their form dropped off dramatically.
This is a concern for a United side who appear to be living on borrowed time. Solskjaer can not rely on hot streaks in front of goal from the likes of Mason Greenwood, whose form should not be expected to be sustained.
From an expected goals standpoint, their least impressive display came in the embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Young Boys in the Champions League.
According to the metric, which is admittedly imperfect, United created opportunities worth only 0.52 goals, a stark display of why Solskjaer needs to find a dynamic that brings out the best of his creative players.
On Wednesday, United are back in Champions League action against Villarreal, the side who frustrated them with a solid defensive performance in last season’s Europa League final. Despite the matchup taking place early into the season, it is a tie that could prove to be a must-win, owing to the competitiveness of Group F.
United had control of the game for 70 minutes in Gdansk and finished the fixture with 61% possession. Still, in ordinary circumstances, they struggled to create goalscoring opportunities.
Over 120 minutes of football, United had only one shot on target, which was Edinson Cavani’s second-half equaliser.
They come into the fixture with similar personnel as last season, but United’s new summer signing could be the difference.
Jadon Sancho is yet to arrive at Old Trafford after a £72.9million deal brought him from Borussia Dortmund, where he has shone in previous seasons.
Perhaps overawed by the pace and pressure of the Premier League, the 21-year-old has found himself on the fringes of the action in early weeks and was dropped to the bench against West Ham and Villa.
However, owing to Villarreal’s slower playstyle and deep defensive structure, United will need a player with the ability to pick open a lock. Not blessed with electric pace, Sancho’s game is more technical than physical, proving himself to be an elite creator from the wing with incisive passing and tricky dribbling.
With Fernandes’ direct style of creation, the Englishman’s ability to juxtapose these talents with refined one-touch link-up play, Sancho has the appropriate skills to announce himself as United’s hero on Wednesday evening.
Unai Emery got the better of his Norwegian counterpart last season.
Still, if Solskjaer wants to exact revenge on the Yellow Submarine, he must find a dynamic that can bring out the best in United’s creators.