EPL

Ten Hag keeps up Man Utd positivity, but did his Arsenal claims stand up to scrutiny?

By Sports Desk January 26, 2023

Erik ten Hag is talking an excellent game, even when his Manchester United team perhaps let their standards slip.

It is a manager's duly to keep the confidence high, so when Ten Hag said United's defending was "unacceptable" after Sunday's 3-2 loss to Arsenal, he sought to qualify those comments the next time he spoke in public.

Ten Hag returned to the theme in a press conference before United's midweek EFL Cup semi-final win at Nottingham Forest, and this time his message was overwhelmingly positive.

"In general, Arsenal we defended very well," Ten Hag said. "I don't think they had clean shots. There was only one time, it was from a free-kick.

"For the rest it was only shots, cutbacks, shots from distance where a lot of defenders from us were in between the ball and the goal and that's what I meant after, all the goals were avoidable."

This is all about the power of positive thinking, with the Dutchman finding a way to infuse critical feedback with praise, but Opta's Arsenal game data firmly debunks the idea the Gunners rarely got close to the United goal.

Across the Premier League season to date, only once has a team had more shots inside the penalty area than the 20 that Arsenal had against United.

Manchester City, with 21 shots inside the area in a 3-1 victory at Leeds United in December, topped that, but for Ten Hag to suggest Arsenal rarely got close to the United goal is on the face of it misleading.

United's expected goals against (xGA) tally of 3.25 against Arsenal was the seventh-highest incurred by a Premier League team this season.

United also have number six on that list – with a 3.3 xGA total in the 6-3 thrashing by Manchester City in October.

These are the games where they have leaked chances in bulk, and good chances to boot.

It is worth saying such games stand out as being atypical of United this season.

Overall, United have done well in limiting chances in the Premier League, with their next two highest xGA totals being the 1.61 and 1.5 they conceded to Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion in their opening two games of the campaign.

Last season, United conceded xGA of above 2.00 in 12 Premier League games, so there are clear signs of major improvement.

The Brentford and Brighton games both resulted in defeats, but United have been a team transformed since August. In 10 of their 20 Premier League games this term, they have conceded under 1.00 xGA, majorly limiting the opposition's opportunities.

They went under that 1.00 mark for five consecutive league games before the Arsenal defeat.

Perhaps Ten Hag is working on the principle that if you say something firmly and assuredly enough, it will become a reality.

Against Forest in the EFL Cup on Wednesday, United were far more like their usual selves.

Forest had nine goal attempts from inside the United penalty area, but the xGA was a mere 0.65.

United's win at the City Ground has put them on the brink of the final, ahead of the Old Trafford second leg, with Ten Hag looking to guide the Red Devils to a first major trophy since the 2016-17 EFL Cup and Europa League triumphs under Jose Mourinho.

Among United's rivals for Champions League places, Manchester City and Newcastle United have built around defensive sturdiness this season.

There have been eight occasions when teams have faced three or fewer shots (including blocks) in Premier League games this season, and Newcastle have had three of those and City four. Brighton had the other, against Forest in October.

There have also been 11 occasions when a team have not faced a single shot on target, which can be put down to a mix of good defending and poor finishing.

Newcastle have had the most such games, with four of their opponents not managing to hit the target.

The fewest shots on target Manchester United have faced, curiously, is the one that Manchester City managed in January's derby. United also faced just five shots in total in that game - their fewest this term, again, and a sign Ten Hag is turning his team into a well-drilled unit, even if there continues to be the odd aberration.

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