Much has been made during this season’s early analyses of United’s lack of creativity and attacking impetus. This has been mainly attributed to van Gaal’s dogmatic emphasis on safety and structure, and on Rooney’s decline as a goal-scoring force. United’s slow, predictable play and lack of goalmouth excitement was a theme throughout LVG’s first season here, and there seem to be few signs of improvement in this respect so far in this campaign. But how new is the blunter, less trigger-happy United that’s now drawing such flak?
We’ve won the Premier League title 5 times in the last 9 seasons, with some incredible contributions from the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and RVP, but looking back from 2006/07 onwards, the picture is one of a team in long-term attacking decline – the rot appears to have been setting in since well before Fergie stepped down.
I have looked at the stats for shots-per-game and goals-per-game for both United and City from 2006/07 to 2015/16 to help put the long-term trend in context (figures via PremierLeague.com).
SHOTS PER GAME
The graph below shows how United’s average shots-per-game has been dropping pretty steadily, with consecutive drops for the last 5 seasons including 2015/16 so far. We have gone from an average of 14 shots-per-game across the three title-winning seasons from 2006/07 – 2008/09, to a measly low of 8 shots-per-game this season, but the trend has been one of gradual decline over the last decade:
By comparison, Man City have increased their shots-per-game numbers from 2006/07, peaking at 13.89 in their 2011/12 title-winning season, and maintaining at 12 or more shots-per-game from that point onwards.
GOALS PER GAME
Obviously shots alone don’t win games, just like possession and control are ultimately meaningless without a cutting edge to back it up. So how do United’s goals-per-game stats look over the 10 seasons to 2015/16? From 2006/07 to 2012/13, we averaged 2.14 goals-per-game – not too shabby at all. Then things took a real dive post-Fergie, dropping to 1.68 goals-per-game under Moyes, 1.63 goals-per-game in LVG’s first season, and just 0.75 goals-per-game so far this campaign.
Comparing with City again, you can see the difference – there have been some dips here and there, but the overall picture is of a team becoming progressively more lethal.
By dividing goals scored by number of shots, we can see how clinical each team has been over the years. This really comes down to the quality of the strikers at your disposal, and highlights the importance of having a true predator leading the line. You can see that United were at their most clinical in 2012/13, when Van Persie netted 26 league goals and fired United to the title.
City were at their most clinical in 2013/14, when an imperious Toure scored 20 times, whilst Aguero and Dzeko got 17 and 16 goals respectively. Ominously, their form so far this season has seen them convert 1 in 5 shots on goal – if they continue in this vein, this may end up being their most clinical season to date.
Wayne Rooney hasn’t scored more than 20 league goals in a season since 2011/12 – he managed 17 in 2013/14 and 12 last year. His ponderousness on the ball to allow Ashley Williams to make the tackle in United’s last game against Swansea exemplified one of United’s big problems – we no longer have a clinical striker with the killer instinct to ruthlessly turn chances in to goals. Could 19-year-old Anthony Martial solve this fundamental problem? With Hernandez gone, we need to be grateful for any striker we can get at this point, but it seems hugely unrealistic to expect the French youngster to instantly contribute 20+ goals.
It has been argued that United don’t in fact need more goals from Rooney or another striker; they just need their midfielders to score more. But do we have anyone who can storm forward from deep and terrorise teams like Toure did back in 13/14? Nope.
It is certainly a concern that we now lack clinical goal-scorers – we all know how they can make the difference in tight games and ultimately win titles for the club. Combine that with a team that is shooting less and less, season after season, and one has to ask what’s being done to arrest this decline.
Hungry for data? Check out our Manchester United stats guide which lists all the best sources available.