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Erik ten Hag thinks that Manchester United are unlucky, but he is only partly right



Erik ten Hag thinks that Manchester United are unlucky, but he is only partly right

You may have seen Manchester United reach their second FA Cup final in as many seasons by the leather of Haji Wright’s left boot and considered it a lucky escape that didn’t deserve their 3-0 demise to Championship opposition.

However, Erik ten Hag did not think United were lucky. At the post-match press conference he was most passionate when discussing his side’s setback, particularly Coventry City’s stoppage time penalty, claiming it was an “absolutely crazy” decision to award a handball to Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Ten Hag used much the same reasoning before United’s last Premier League appearance against Bournemouth. While he accepted that “as a minister” he will bear ultimate responsibility for the results, he could not help but regret that his party had been unlucky in the past eight months.

“It’s huge. We’ve had a lot of disappointments this season,” he said. And although United’s setback is not limited to refereeing decisions in Ten Hag’s eyes, that is where he trained his focus.

“You see that all the penalties we got last week (against Chelsea and Liverpool) could have ended in a different way. You think over the course of a season sometimes you get one, sometimes you get one against. This season it feels like we’re just giving in.”

United have been awarded five penalties and conceded 11 this season, four of which were given away in the first four games of the Champions League group stage. While most of the players in Europe have not been particularly controversial, many of the Premier League’s six goals have sparked debate.

Some were soft – Rasmus Hojlund and Casemiro’s concessions against Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers in particular – and others were more questionable. None of this, it should be noted, led to the officials responsible being withdrawn for the subsequent round of matches, as happened after Wolves were denied a penalty at Old Trafford on the opening weekend of the season.

However, all these decisions are a matter of opinion. Apart from offside, most refereeing decisions are subjective in nature and, as the era of VAR has taught us, there are varying definitions of what constitutes a clear and obvious foul.

Ten Hag has more substantive grounds for complaints about perhaps the biggest reason for United’s problems: player injuries and forced absences. The revolving door of United’s treatment room has seen all but four of its senior team members – Bruno Fernandes, Andre Onana, Diogo Dalot and Alejandro Garnacho – pass through this year.

The 2-2 draw at Bournemouth was the first time United had announced an unchanged line-up since the first two games of an injury-plagued season. According to data from transfer marketUnited’s squad has been sidelined for a combined 1,710 days since the start of the season.

Ten Hag said last week that he has not been able to choose his ‘favourite’ line-up since the 2-1 win over Manchester City at Old Trafford in January last year. Just as United’s injuries appear to be subsiding, new concerns have emerged.

Fresh problems for Willy Kambwala, Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat saw United’s absentee list grow to double figures again ahead of the semi-final, while Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay both looked to be in trouble when substituted at Wembley .

Marcus Rashford walks off after injury at Wembley (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

The absence of one of his first-choice left-backs for most of the season has had a material effect on United’s ability to play the way he wants, according to Ten Hag. Lisandro Martinez’s unavailability has robbed him of a player who had a transformative effect during his first year at Manchester.

But is it all a matter of luck or can certain things be done differently? United have started restructuring their medical department since the appointment of head of sports medicine Gary O’Driscoll. Sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships, believe there have been noticeable improvements since the arrival of the former Arsenal club doctor and the restructuring is continuing.

Ten Hag’s training methods are also under scrutiny and can be intense, especially for those not involved in competitions, who undergo tough sessions the day after the match to maintain a consistent level of physical strain across the squad to enforce. The fast, direct and often chaotic style of play that has been adopted this season must also be considered part of that equation.

Everyone knows by now that United get a lot of shots on target: 574 shots in total in the Premier League this season. No top team has experienced that many per match, but in the context of recent history that figure only becomes more remarkable.

Since 2016/2017, eight of the fifteen top clubs that faced more shots than United have been relegated. No one finished higher than 15th. At the current pace, United will overtake all fifteen of these teams, but even in the worst-case scenario they cannot finish lower than fourteenth.

Ten Hag has defended United’s apparent willingness to give up shots, saying they are largely low-quality chances and he has a point. The average shot United have conceded in the league this season had a 10 percent chance of resulting in a goal.

Andre Onana has been busy this season (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Brentford and Newcastle have the worst records in this regard, with the average shot having a 13 percent chance of being scored. The difference between a chance of 13 percent and 10 percent is small but significant. A marginal gain, if you will.

But if you concede at least twenty shots per game, as United have been doing regularly lately, and one in ten shots goes in, you need to score three to win. The eighth worst attack in the league cannot count on that with only 47 goals in 32 league games.

United’s 47 goals are equal to those of Luton Town and also in line with expected figures. Defensively, Ten Hag’s side conceded 48 goals – one of the better records in the Premier League – but from an expected total of 59.8.

Take one from the other and United’s expected goal difference stands at -12.2, the fifth worst in the league. Suddenly that actual goal difference of -1 doesn’t look so bad after all.

But nothing can change the perceptions and narratives surrounding a team that is better than a favorable run of games, at least in the short term. United now face the bottom two of the Premier League at Old Trafford in four days.

It doesn’t need to be said, but United are in every respect a better team than both Sheffield United and Burnley. They don’t need luck to prove it.

(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)