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Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assessment of Man United’s forwards fair?

by Red Billy

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has admitted that his forwards are misfiring this season, but the reason he has given bears closer inspection.

At the pre-game press conference for today’s tie at home to Newcastle, Solskjaer said:
‘We are the highest scoring team in the Premier League – so that’s something to build on.
‘But it’s fair to say that Mason, Anthony and Marcus – the forwards who scored so many goals last season – haven’t really hit those same numbers this time.
‘They are getting closer, but it’s a case of finding that better finishing.
‘I think we have improved a lot in terms of being consistent, but we need to be more clinical and ruthless with our chances.
‘We do create lots of big chances.’
It is an indisputable fact that Greenwood, Martial and Rashford have not scored as many goals this season as they did last. But is it about clinical finishing and are United really creating ‘lots of big chances’?

The answer is probably yes to the first, but no to the second. Let’s take Solskjaer’s second claim first, that United are creating lots of big chances. This is certainly true in some games, but absolutely not in others. Eight big chances were created against Southampton and Real Sociedad, for example, yet none against lowly West Brom and only one against bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.

Those numbers are unacceptable and Solskjaer needs to look at his team selections or tactics against those weaker sides and perhaps add some more creativity in the deeper midfield positions. It is simply not a case of the forwards failing to convert.

But are all three forwards mentioned by the manager guilty of lacking clinical finishing? Certainly, all three have missed a number of big chances and posted pretty poor goal conversion ratios this season. But comparing those figures with 2019/20, a different picture emerges of the reasons in each player’s case.

BCM = Big chances missed; GC% = Goal conversion %; * = projected from current figures over season (24 > 38 games); Stats derived from www.sofascore.com

Rashford’s picture this season does not look vastly different to that of last. He is on target to miss 14 big chances this season, just one more than last season, and his goal conversion ratio is similar – 20% this term versus 22% last. Conclusion: Rashford is consistently inconsistent in front of goal.

Martial, on the other hand, has come in for a lot of stick for his performances this season. His projected number of missed big chances is a little higher than last season – 13 to 10. But his projected goals is way less, going from 17 to 6. The figures clearly suggest that the Frenchman is missing a much bigger percentage of his big chances this season.

This is confirmed by the fact that the 25-year-old’s goal conversion percentage has more than halved this season, from 29% to 13%. This is not just about missing chances, however. Positional changes have left the Frenchman taking far more speculative shots as well. Comparing Martial’s 2019/20 and 2020/21 heatmaps, we can see that he has spent far more time this season out wide on the left wing. Conclusion: There has unquestionably been a decline in Martial’s finishing this season, coupled with more speculative shooting.

Greenwood’s change in figures is arguably the most startling. He only missed two big chances last season and scored 10 goals – a remarkable achievement. But this term he is on course to miss three times more big chances (six) and score five times fewer goals (two). His goal conversion rate has also taken a nosedive – from an incredible 31% last term to just 5% this term.

Again, comparing the heatmaps between this season and last reveals a major positional change that can to some extent explain the figures. The red area around the penalty spot in 2019/20 has disappeared in 20/21. Coupled with the dip in chance conversion rate, a picture emerges of Mason being forced to shoot from wider angles and not being able to spend the time in the box he did last term.

That, coupled with Premier League defences being more aware of the threat from the 19-year-old and double-marking him on many occasions, and the fact he is not starting as regularly as he was in the second half of last season, has left him with a frustrating situation and as such he is forced to try to do a little too much, grabbing half chances and maybe taking a shot when the odds are stacked against it being successful.

Centre-forward Edinson Cavani has been a successful addition to the squad and has undoubtedly improved the forward line in many ways. But his incorporation into the side has arguably upset the rhythm of the other three. Of course, the fact that the team are scoring more goals this season than last means that all is well, and as long as they are creating chances, perhaps there is less onus on the threesome to provide the finishes. On the other hand, if Martial and Greenwood in particular can improve their ratios again, there are many more goals still to come from this United side.

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