Erik ten Hag talks about an excellent game even when the Manchester United team perhaps lowered their standards.
It’s a manager’s job to keep confidence high, so when Ten Hag said United’s defense was “unacceptable” after Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Arsenal, he tried to qualify those comments the next time he spoke in public.
Ten Hag returned to the topic at a press conference before United’s midweek EFL Cup semi-final win at Nottingham Forest, and this time its message was overwhelmingly positive.
“Overall we defended Arsenal very well,” Ten Hag said. “I don’t think he had clean shots. There was only one shot, and that was a free kick.
“For the rest it was just shots, cuts, long shots where a lot of our defenders were between the ball and the goal, and that’s what I meant after that, all goals could have been avoided.”
It’s about the power of positive thinking, with the Dutchman finding a way to infuse critical feedback with praise, but Opta’s Arsenal game data conclusively refutes the notion that the Gunners rarely come close to their United goal.
In a Premier League season so far, a team has taken more shots inside the box than Arsenal’s 20 shots against United.
Manchester City surpassed that with 21 field goals in their 3-1 win over Leeds United in December, but Ten Hag’s suggestion that Arsenal rarely come close to United’s goal is ostensibly misleading.
United’s (xGA) expected goal of 3.25 against Arsenal was the seventh-highest scored by a Premier League team this season.
United are also sixth on this list – with an overall xGA of 3.3 in Manchester City’s 6-3 win over October.
These are the games that they leak in bulk and have good luck to boot.
It’s worth mentioning that such games are not unique to United this season.
Overall, United have been successful in limiting chances in the Premier League, with the next two highest xGA totals 1.61 and 1.5, which they conceded to Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion in the opening two games of the campaign.
Last season, United admitted xGA was over 2.00 in 12 Premier League games, so there are clear signs of a major improvement.
Both Brentford and Brighton games ended in defeats, but United have been a transformative team since August. They have conceded under 1.00 xGA in 10 of their 20 Premier League games this term, greatly limiting the opponent’s opportunities.
They dropped below that 1.00 point in five consecutive league games before Arsenal’s defeat.
Perhaps Ten Hag is working on the principle that if you say something with enough certainty and certainty, it will come true.
United against Forest in the EFL Cup on Wednesday looked a lot more like their usual.
Forest had nine goal attempts from inside the United box, but the xGA was just 0.65.
United’s win at City Ground has brought them to the brink of the final ahead of the Old Trafford second leg, and Ten Hag are looking to take the Red Devils to their first major trophy since their 2016-17 EFL Cup and Europa League victories. Jose Mourinho.
Manchester City and Newcastle United, which are among United’s Champions League rivals, have built on defensive solidity this season.
There have been eight occasions when teams have faced three or fewer shots (including blocks) in Premier League games this season, with Newcastle taking three and City four. Brighton took the other against Forest in October.
There were also 11 instances where a team did not hit a single shot on target, which can be reduced to a mix of good defense and bad finishing.
Newcastle played most such games and their four opponents failed to hit the target.
Curiously, the least shot on goal Manchester United faced was Manchester City’s hit in the January derby. United also faced just five shots total in that game – again this season’s lowest shot and a sign that Ten Hag has turned their team into a well-prepared unit, even as odd deviations continue to occur.