Opinion: We're better than our position suggests
Manchester United go into the September international break with five points from the opening four Premier League games, but I feel there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic after our start.
The 4-0 opening-day victory over Chelsea was, obviously, a brilliant way for us to begin the campaign, while we came away from a tricky trip to Molineux with an encouraging 1-1 draw.
A home defeat to Crystal Palace and Saturday’s point at Southampton may have been frustrating, but a look at some underlying numbers suggests that the Reds have a decent platform to build on once the players return from national-team duty.
In each of our four matches so far, United have significantly outperformed our opponents in terms of xG, or Expected Goals, a metric created by data specialists Opta which is also used by the BBC in their post-match analysis.
xG is designed to assess the quality of a goalscoring chance, based on a number of factors, including the angle the shot is taken from, how far the player is from goal and the positions of the defending team and goalkeeper.
Based on analysis of hundreds of thousands of shots, each attempt is assigned a numerical value between 0 and 1 - the higher the number, the higher the likelihood of the opportunity being taken.
I've updated the expected goals league tables I introduced last week - explanation via the link (where I'll also update the Premier League table after tomorrow's games) https://t.co/9AzwTUVvpd pic.twitter.com/lB23BKIPQz— Ben Mayhew (@experimental361) August 31, 2019
Below is the combined xG data for each team in our matches so far (the xG for each shot taken is added together to give a final value which, according to the metric, is the number of goals a team should score with the chances they have created):
United v Chelsea – 2.37 v 1.10
Wolves v United – 0.31 v 1.14
United v Palace – 2.24 v 0.68
Southampton v United – 0.77 v 1.90
As you can see, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have regularly created better chances than our opposition – indeed, only Manchester City have a better record in terms of chance creation so far, according to Ben Mayhew, head of data analysis at PA.
Although, through a combination of bad luck and superb opposition goalkeeping – think Rui Patricio’s excellent save from Paul Pogba’s penalty in the Wolves game – our dominance hasn’t been reflected in the final scoreline. But these numbers suggest to me that Ole has us playing a positive brand of attacking football that should start to pay dividends sooner, rather than later.
There are a number of other reasons to be optimistic for the return of club football on 14 September, when third-placed Leicester City visit Old Trafford.
Each of our summer signings has had a clear positive impact on the side, with Daniel James the headline act after scoring three goals in his first four games for the club.
Defensive additions Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire have been ever-present in the Premier League, with the former Palace man recording a league-high 26 tackles and Maguire slotting in effortlessly alongside Victor Lindelof in the centre of defence.
The form of our forward line has also been encouraging, especially considering the feeling among many that the sale of Romelu Lukaku left us light in attack.
Marcus Rashford struck twice against Chelsea and has registered 16 attempts on goal, more than any other player except Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino.
The 21-year-old has also showed that he can provide for others, setting up Anthony Martial – who also netted against the Blues – for his 50th goal for the club at Molineux.
Yes, chances have been missed, but when everything clicks the Reds could be extremely lethal.
James, meanwhile, heads the club’s scoring charts and has made a big impression since being signed from Swansea City in the summer.
The winger equalled the manager's record for fastest-scoring Premier League debutant and has regularly shown just how quick he can be. He’s also proved that he can play on both the left and the right flanks, the latter of which has been a problem position for us in recent years.
While it’s easy to be negative whenever points are dropped in the league, a look at the bigger picture suggests that, in the long-term, Ole’s young team are starting to come together.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.