You can tell that United is a better team than they were last season without using a complex statistical model. Ten Hag’s early losses to Brentford and Brighton may have raised some concerns about his suitability for the position, but wins over Liverpool (2-1) and Arsenal (3-1) and a gradual rise to fifth place have played such concerns.
The key area for improvement is in front of the goal, but it’s still a work in progress under a manager who has only been in place since the summer. The only team in the top half of the standings with fewer goals after last weekend’s round of Premier League games was Bournemouth with 10. United has scored 13 goals after nine league games, including three against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium after the game, which ended 6-3, was already gone.
Ten Hag’s club currently sits outside the top six in almost every attacking category after only one-fourth of the season has passed. United ranks 11th in the Premier League for shots with 114 and shots on target with 29, while they are 10th for touches in the opponent’s penalty area. They also rank 11th for expected goals (xG).
Only Crystal Palace has tried fewer crosses than United’s 115, while United and Palace are matched for the league’s fewest corners with 31. This season, 60.5% of United’s shots have come from within the penalty box, which is the fourth-lowest percentage in the Premier League.
Ten Hag claimed he is still confident his squad would score soon following the draw with Newcastle, but he added that it’s not only a matter of his strikers taking their chances. To date this season, United only ranks 10th in the area of “big chances missed,” as both Marcus Rashford and Fred failed to capitalize on significant chances to help their team defeat Newcastle.
On the practice field, it appears that the players are still figuring out what Ten Hag wants, which has stifled their ability to attack. Ten Hag wants his players to be more adaptable and rely more on their own intuition than Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s organized approach of attacking teams with the pitch divided into precise zones and channels.
The aim is to make them unpredictable as they move forward by encouraging them to base their positions and moves on what is going on around them as opposed to being commanded to be in a specific place during a specific phase of the game. However, it is acknowledged that this approach may take more time to perfect than a more rigid approach.
Ten Hag and his coaching staff have used post-game video sessions to highlight areas where space might have been created if different choices had been taken. There is a perception that during this early period of his rule, players are obstructing one another rather than clearing space. Ten Hag emphasized on Sunday, nevertheless, that all will fall into place eventually. And his players have the same opinion.
Ten Hag is confident that his approach makes it easy to assemble aggressive, exciting teams, and he only needs to look at his Ajax team from the previous season, which led all clubs in Eredivisie goals scored with 98. United, however, is still not there and has only scored once in their past three home games against Newcastle, Omonia Nicosia, and Real Sociedad. The match with Tottenham will take place on Wednesday at Old Trafford.
Despite this, United will face third-placed Spurs as small favorites, which is a statement in and of itself that Ten Hag has made progress in his short time as manager, but he would still like to see a few more goals to show for it.