Manchester United: Still an Attacking Force?

In their glory years, Manchester United were the symbol of free flowing, attacking and entertaining football. At present, they are largely stereotyped as a ‘Mourinho’ team, favouring physical prowess and countering other team’s strengths to win games. On the other side of Manchester, Pep Guardiola is providing a constant reminder of what could have been. Do the statistics back up the common view from pundits that Jose Mourinho is playing effective but less attacking football?

Expected goals (xG) is becoming more main stream, making appearances on Match of the Day, and it is a metric that assesses every chance and whether a player should have scored from the opportunity.  For example, a shot from 8 yards has a higher value than a shot from 18 yards, and a shot directly in front of goal has a higher value than one from a tight angle. This then creates a statistical value of how many goals a team should have scored correlated to the types of chances they had.

Understat.com has analysed over 100,000 shots across Europe’s top 5 leagues. The teams stereotyped as playing attacking, attractive football during 2016/17 by the media and pundits are as follows:

Team Games played xG Actual Goals Difference
Manchester City 30 73.56 85 -11.44
Paris Saint German 29 74.68 91 -16.32
Barcelona 28 67.78 72 -4.22
Real Madrid 28 69.05 67 +2.05
Bayern Munich 26 56.27 65 -8.73

xG shows that Manchester City (-11.44) and Paris Saint Germain (-16.32) are performing well above expectations in actual goals scored, which is no surprise with forward lines compromising of Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar and Edison Cavani. Surprisingly, Real Madrid (+2.05) have underperformed even with the attacking talents of Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, which partially explains their decline in league form leaving them 3rd in La Liga some 14 points off Barcelona.

Team Games Played xG Actual Goals Difference
Manchester United 30 50.17 58 -7.83

If the media tag of ‘boring Mourinho’ was to prove true we would expect xG to be higher than goals scored. In fact, the above tables show that Manchester United (-7.83) are above both Barcelona (-4.22) and Real Madrid (+2.05) when you compare goals scored against xG. If you were to interpret this statistic as converting chances then Manchester United’s attacking record is better than both Liverpool (-5.33) and Tottenham Hotspur (-0.49) who have been praised in the media for their attacking play.

The difference between xG and actual goals scored may reflect Jose Mourinho’s ability to get the best out of his players and doesn’t always correlate to style of play but xG is helping to dispel the myth that Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United are playing unattractive, reactive football.

About the Author

James Curran
I'm a keen football enthusiast supporting Manchester United and love to write about tactics and analysis.