Is Manchester United’s attacking inefficiency the root of their problems?

Wayne Rooney

Manchester United are winning games, but do not look convincing.

The Red Devils secured a 3-1 win over Burnley on Wednesday evening, moving them into third place and just five points adrift of Manchester City.

The victory also means that United have suffered just one defeat in their last 18 games in all competitions, and just two in their last 23 - a run that makes them look a formidable opponent. However, they have registered five draws in that run, and even their victories have been hardly convincing.

Despite dominating possession against Burnley, with 57% to the Clarets 43%, the Red Devils registered two fewer shots than their opponents, and this has been a characteristic of much of United’s season.

The reserved system head coach Louis van Gaal brought in following the 5-3 defeat to Leicester has seen United play sterile, dominating play, often switching play to the flanks and struggling to find a way through the final third.

  Average PossessionTotal Long BallsTotal Sideways Passes
Man Utd 59% 1960 3944

They have played an incredible 3944 sideways passes - the second highest in the league - although they are often found to cross play from full-back to full-back, with the majority of their attacks coming through the centre.

Despite this sterility of their play, United are struggling to create chances even though they are dominating the ball. Their average possession of 59% is also the second highest in the top flight, although they only take 12.6 shots per game, the 10th highest - and only 2.4 per game more than bottom placed Hull City. Their ratio of getting shots on target is respectable, with just under half their attempts hitting the target.

  Shots per GameShots on Target per GameAppearances
Man Utd 12.6 4.7 25

The slow and turgid build up play has been criticised, but it has also been the fault of the forwards for the attacking inefficiency shown this season. Wayne Rooney - arguably United’s best forward on his day - has been thrown into the midfield and ended the Burnley game in a deep-lying defensive role, and Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie have shown that they cannot play together. Neither is workmanlike enough to offer an outlet for his striking partner, and there have been calls for Rooney to be reinstated in the front line to offer a different type of player - especially considering his ineffectiveness in midfield.

Such calls came to the fore following the victory over Burnley, courtesy of a van Persie penalty and a brace from Chris Smalling. Despite the wealth of attacking talent on show, Rooney, Falcao and van Persie registered just one shot between them - with the lone chance being the penalty which was converted.

  MatchShotsShots on Target
Falcao Man Utd vs Burnley 0 0
Wayne Rooney Man Utd vs Burnley 0 0
Robin van Persie Man Utd vs Burnley 1 1

Despite United’s impressive form, there are serious questions being asked of their style of play - mostly focused around the bad application of a wealth of attacking talent. Players are being used out of position, and Marouane Fellaini has become something of a key striker due to his height and physicality in a team willing to play long ball to clinch results. Louis van Gaal might be praised for his admiration of the system and philosophy, but he has seemingly got things all wrong since starting work at Old Trafford.

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