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How Lopsided is Manchester United’s Attack?

By Nick Dorrington | July 13, 2020 | Analytics

On a recent edition of the StatsBomb podcast, Ted made note of the lopsidedness of Manchester United’s shot map. There is a pronounced tilt toward the left, from where their two -- pre-Bruno Fernandes -- highest-volume shooters Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford get off the majority of their efforts.

The data suggests a slight shift to the left is normal. For the purposes of this article, we have split the width of the pitch into five equal sections and then discarded the widest zone on each side. That leaves us with three zones that roughly span the width of the penalty area. From left to right we will name them, well... left, centre and right.

Across the last couple of seasons in the big-five European leagues, shots, expected goals (xG) and goals have been distributed like this:

Data PointLeftCentreRight 
Shots24.15%53.66%22.16%
Expected Goals (xG)13.23%74.37%12.40%
Goals13.38%75.16%11.46%

In that time, 52.10% of all shots taken from the two wider zones, left and right, have been taken from the left. This season, 62 of the 98 teams in the big five leagues have taken a higher proportion of those shots from that side. This makes some degree of intuitive sense. The left forward or winger in most teams is a right-footed player tasked with moving inside to get off shots from their favoured foot. Left-footed, right-sided forwards, or at least good ones, are a rarer commodity.

Even within that context, United’s left-sided inclination stands out.

Across the three zones, only six teams take a higher percentage of shots from the left than United’s 30.35%. If we limit ourselves to just the two wider zones, only five take a greater proportion of those shots from the left than United’s 62.39%. It’s also notable that 24.07% of United’s goals have come from that left-sided zone: more than double the average.

The only teams who take a higher proportion of their wider zone shots from the left than United are Nantes, Watford, Real Valladolid, Crystal Palace and Real Madrid:

Karim Benzema aside, only Gareth Bale has taken more than 10 shots from the right for Madrid. Benzema, Toni Kroos, Vinícius Junior, Marcelo and even Casemiro have all hit double figures from the left. Between Bale’s relatively infrequent appearances and Marco Asensio’s absence through injury for the large majority of the campaign, there just hasn’t been any natural shot output from the right. Last season, thet took 57.30% of their wider zone shots from the left; this season, that has increased to 67.95%.

What about the right? There are far less standouts there. Only 36 teams have taken a greater proportion of their shots from the two wider zones from the right hand side. Within that, the highest proportion is Liverpool’s 57.47%. For reference, there are 16 teams with a larger proportional swing to the left.

Partly because they’ve also attempted a higher proportion of central shots than United, it isn't something that clearly shows up on their shot map.

What is perhaps of greater interest is that this tilt to the right, relatively subtle though it is, was also there last season, when 56.75% of their shots from the two wider zones were taken from that side.

The four teams that follow Liverpool in this season’s top five are Bayer Leverkusen, Brescia, Arsenal and Everton. Leverkusen were also up there last season. We can probably name that the Bellarabi effect.

If we broaden our analysis to the proportion of right-sided shots amongst those attempted from all three zones, we encounter a few teams who struggle to create central shots and so attempt a relatively high proportion of efforts from both of the wider zones.

Stade Brestois are the prime example. No team have taken a larger proportion of their shots, generated a larger proportion of their xG or scored a larger proportion of their goals from the right this season. But only 51.08% of their shots from the two wider zones have been from that side. On a proportional basis, no team have taken less shots or scored less goals from the centre.

There are two teams with an almost perfect equilibrium between left and right-sided shots: Bayern Munich and Saint-Étienne. They have that in common, but the eventual outputs of their respective attacks almost couldn’t be more different:

In fact, there is little evidence that the balance between left and right-sided shots has any marked effect on a team’s ability to create chances and goals. The top-10 highest scoring teams in the major European leagues this season display a variety of proportional breakdowns. It appears to be a stylistic indicator inevitably linked to the characteristics of the players out on the pitch rather than something that correlates with top-line outputs.

To finish up, a few tidbits:

- both Bournemouth and Torino have failed to score a single goal from a right-sided shot this season. Torino from 81 shots and 4.82 xG; Bournemouth from 48 shots and 3.16 xG.
- Espanyol are the only side not to have scored a single goal from a left-sided shot. That from 69 attempts and 2.94 xG.
- highest average quality shot from the left: Paris Saint-Germain (0.11 xG/Shot), Barcelona (0.10), Liverpool (0.09), Dijon (0.08), Borussia Dortmund (0.08).
- lowest average quality shot from the left: Mallorca (0.04 xG/Shot), SPAL (0.04), Espanyol (0.04), Genoa (0.04), Granada (0.04).
- highest average quality shot from the right: Borussia Monchengladbach (0.10 xG/Shot), Paris Saint-Germain (0.10), Hertha Berlin (0.09), Borussia Dortmund (0.09), RB Leipzig (0.09).
- lowest average shot quality from the right: Granada (0.04 xG/Shot), Espanyol (0.04), Mallorca (0.04), Genoa (0.04), Leganés (0.05).

Article by Nick Dorrington