Earlier this campaign, Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag dropped some knowledge on the press with some statistics. “Pressing, we are quite good. We have the most ball regains and the most middle regains in the whole Premier League.”
At the time of writing, United has lost more games (12) than they’ve won (11) in all competitions this season. They finished at the bottom of their Champions League group. They conceded a record 15 goals in their six games. For context, Chelsea conceded 15 goals across the entirety of the 2004-2005 Premier League season.
And the effect of all this high regaining on United’s goalscoring is similarly opaque. At the time of writing, they sit sixth in the Premier League. Their 18 goals scored make them the fifteenth most potent attack in the league. Which begs the question, what’s the point of all the ball regaining?
GET ME THOSE NUMBERS, STAT!
Gone are the days of Keys and Grey summing up a game by desire or personality. Television coverage is now littered with discussions and onscreen graphics relating to the minutiae of the game. Fans have had to embrace concepts like Expected Goals (xG), Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), and, yes, high regains.
The saying goes that a little knowledge is more dangerous than none at all. That’s true when fans, pundits, and under-pressure managers start focusing on metrics and statistics without considering their relevance.
So let’s look intelligently at Erik ten Hag’s claims. First off, when he made the statement, it was true. United were top of the league for high turnovers. They were even ahead of Ange Postecoglu’s notoriously high-lined and high-paced Tottenham Hotspur, with 10.42 per game. That’s impressive to win the ball in your opponent’s third roughly ten times per game. But why do teams do this?
CONTEXT IS KING WITH STATISTICS
At the time of writing, 16% of United’s high turnovers result in a shot. That makes them tenth in the league for the ratio of high turnovers to shots. Despite seemingly perfecting the art of winning the ball near the opponent’s goal, United sees little attacking benefits. It is a boilerplate instance of empty statistics.
What this actually means is that when United’s press doesn’t work, opponents can just waltz through the center of the pitch and score goals.
Manchester United has conceded 13.83 shots per game inside their own box. That’s the highest figure since the days of Jose Mourinho in 2017.
By taking a closer look at the numbers that ten Hag brought up, a new question arises: So what? United are pressing well. They are (were) top of the league for high regains and middle regains. SO WHAT?
EYES ON THE PRIZE
I’ll put my cards on the table. I am the tactics guy at American Scouser. I love football tactics and analysis. Trawling through the data between games brings me joy. But the thing I love most is watching the game.
It’s easy to be influenced by day commentary or lazy punditry when forming your opinions on the game. One of the counterpoints to that is to seek out tactical and statistical analysis. But such analyses can be just as easily manipulative, biased, or plain wrong.
As we become more literate and informed about the game we love, it’s important to stay connected to what we see and hear during the actual game. Knowing the numbers is useful and fun. But statistics are no replacement for your eyes and ears.