Data and charts courtesy Lee Chunhang.
David de Gea did not want to take that penalty. His face was tense, run-up short, and his kick neither had power or precision. Penalty shoot-outs are challenging for the takers; downright cruel for a goalkeeper who hasn’t effectively saved a penalty in five years, is enduring a disaster of a penalty shoot-out himself, and now has to score to keep his team breathing in a European final.
This 2007 study by the Journal of Sport Sciences discovered that stress and anxiety have more influence in penalty-kick conversion than human agency. From recent memory, there are enough examples of elite footballers fluffing their lines: Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi, Andrea Pirlo, David Beckham, Roberto Baggio. You get the drift.
De Gea kicked, Geronimo Rulli saved, and Villareal erupted. Manchester United’s season, promising rosy hues at kick-off that evening, was now shrouded in disappointment. The Europa League could have provided a coat of shiny paint to a season that could never properly take off.
But what if United wrapped up the penalty shoot-out before it came down to David de Gea’s kick?
In TV studios, which are always curiously packed with ex-Manchester United players, pundits spoke about progress and direction but bemoaned the lack of a trophy. Rio Ferdinand, winner of many titles as United player and captain, said, “this was the night”.
In psychology, this is known as Outcome Bias, where results are given disproportionate weight compared to the decisions and processes that led to that point. Manchester United’s season, as with most things in life, should ideally be judged over a long-term corpus, patterns which have emerged over time, and not merely a dance of luck that is a penalty shoot-out.
Progress can loosely be defined as upwards movement from the last point of evaluation. To measure United’s season and check whether they have progressed, we lined up some of their season metrics with previous season’s.
Manchester United created fewer chances and took fewer shots this season compared to the last. They were the second-best goalscorers in the league but nearer to mid-table when it came to quality and quantity of chances. The five more goals from a similar per-90 expected goals metric points to better shooting. To be more precise, it points to Edinson Cavani.
Cavani is ahead of even Harry Kane and Dominic Calvert-Lewin when it comes to shooting efficiency. However, compared to the other two United forwards to have played enough this season, he is on a different planet.
Even when put through a European lens, Cavani manages incredible numbers. He is in the top ten percent of strikers in terms of quality of chances and goal-scoring. A high non-penalty xG means he is getting into great positions. You begin to realise just how precise his attacking movement is when you match that with his low penalty-area entries.
His chance creation metrics – xA and Assists – highlight his quality as a complete forward. And then there is the work rate, measured through Successful Pressures, which is among the top twenty percent of all forwards in the top five European leagues. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are incredibly talented footballers, but they could learn a bit about effort and efficiency from the 34-year-old Uruguayan.
United fans should be grateful that the club has managed to secure Cavani for the next season. In a team still searching for its edge, his importance cannot be overstated.
United use the middle zones to circulate the ball and press opponents. Scott McTominay and Fred are United’s most accurate passers from midfield, with completion percentages as high as 87 and 88. Fred doubles this up with a high success rate for pressures (31.3%).
Both McTominay and Fred are also frequent with their final third entries. Only Bruno Fernandes has more carries into the final third from the United midfield.
Speaking of Bruno, he deserves an entire dashboard to himself. He is amongst Europe’s elite attacking-midfielders at goal-scoring and chance creation. His defensive work rate makes him indispensable. Ole and United must take care of him, but good luck benching someone with numbers that would fit a video game player-edit screen.
United have some serious soul-searching to do in defence. Far from the tales of progress, they have actually regressed. They are fifth-highest for goals conceded and fourth for clean sheets in the Premier League this season. In addition, they are committing the same number of errors leading to opposition chances but allowing more shots on goal. Last season, they were among the best in the league for errors; this year, they have moved to mid-table territory.
For a team that doesn’t press hard, this should trigger some warning sirens within their coaching staff. Early in the season, Brighton and Crystal Palace highlighted those flaws before Mourinho’s Tottenham blew them away in a display of staggeringly inept defending.
Their number of clean sheets this season can be attributed to the high amount of interceptions, for which they deserve credit. Defensive intelligence can be underrated and United would want to build on the good work.
On the left side of defence, Luke Shaw has been an absolute revelation. Since his return to form, his consistency in defence as well as chance-creation has been as good as any other full-back in the league.
The problem for United has been the unforced errors. They are passive in pressing and tackling, which should ideally suggest an easier transition in the defensive phase. For all the talk about Harry Kane and Jadon Sancho, United will be in the lurch next season if they don’t get a good centre-back to ease the load off Harry Maguire.
The Goalkeeping Situation
The terrible penalty shoot-out performance aside, United have endured a problem between the posts. Shot stopping has been David de Gea’s most significant strength over the years. You could argue he has carried United and won them points when the rest of the defence was remarkably average. This season, his decline has been unmissable.
His post-shot xG differential – a metric for quality of shots faced versus goals conceded – is among the bottom 20% in the Premier League. Dean Henderson hasn’t quite wrapped himself in gold either, averaging just a touch higher than de Gea. United will hope a longer run of games will bring him closer to the league-leading numbers he racked up last season for Sheffield United.
Dean’s short and medium distribution is excellent too. Given United are trying to build a style of playing the ball out of defence, he will fit right in.
De Gea hasn’t done too poorly with his feet, but his glovework has blown a major hole through his case as the United’s main man in goal. He may or may not stay at United, but if he does, it would take an unbelievable pre-season for him to find a way back into the starting lineup at the season opener in August.
It is a tragic thought that the last memory of David de Gea in a United shirt could be him missing a penalty that cost a European trophy. But that’s what happens when you fail to build systems that can, on most days at least, stop an innocuous set-piece from being bundled in.
It is also amazing that United did not substitute Henderson for de Gea before the penalties against Villarreal. Henderson saves one-third of the penalties he faces. It would have been a risk to replace an experienced keeper for a relative rookie, but it would have been backed by objectivity and numbers.
This is the kind of passive decision-making that has let Manchester United down this season. Forget the outcome; trust the math.