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The Rise Of Luke Shaw and The Decline of Penalties
While Luke Shaw has become an attacking force since the New Year, Manchester United's trips to penalty spot have steeply declined. Are those two things related?
Luke Shaw has been Manchester United’s most consistent player since the calendars changed to 2021. It might have taken a year or seven but Shaw is finally becoming the left back United hoped they were getting when they signed him from Southampton in 2014. (Good news, he’s still only 25!)
Over the last six weeks Shaw has become an attacking force down United’s left flank. His four assists in 2021 are the most in the Premier League. That’s not among just fullbacks, that’s among everyone.
While 2021 has brought United some creativity from the fullbacks that the fans so desperately craved, it’s brought significantly less of a different visual that fans like to see. Bruno Fernandes stepping up for a penalty.
You might not know this, but since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over as manager, Manchester United have won a lot of penalties. I’m serious. You probably didn’t know that because opposing fans, the media, and opposition managers never talk about it.
But I’m telling you it’s true. Coming into this season United had won 21 penalties in 59 Premier League matches under Solskjaer. A rate of one every 2.81 matches. Last season they won (a Premier League record) 14 penalties, about one every 2.7 matches.
It’s not just a Premier League thing. In 2019-20 they won five penalties in 12 Europa League matches, and a total of eight in 23 non-league matches. That’s one every 2.88 matches. About the same rate as they win them in the Premier League.
This season started out more of the same. They won five penalties in the 15 league matches before New Years Day (a slight drop to one every three matches), but won four in six Champions League matches and one in the three League Cup matches played in 2020 (one every 2.67 matches). Since New Years Day they’ve won just two penalties in nine league games and 14 matches in all competitions.
Why the sudden drop off? Is this bad luck or has there been more of a tactical shift recently that has opened the door for Luke Shaw, but closed the door to the penalty spot? Obviously there’s an element of luck when it comes to penalties, but when you’re consistently winning them at such a high rate across multiple competitions you have to be creating your own luck as well right?
I took a deep dive into the numbers to see if we could find an answer.
At the halfway point of last season I wrote about why United were winning so many penalties and asked whether they’d continue to win them at such a high rate in the second half of the season? (At the halfway point they had eight, they finished with 14, so… I’ll call that a win).
I basically looked at three things. Dribbles, touches in the box, and fouls won. United had the third most touches in the box per game, the most dribbles per game, and won the third most fouls per game.
United finished the season fifth in fouls won per game and sixth in touches in the opponents box per game. Nevertheless they comfortably lead the league in penalties and ‘shots from free kicks.’
What can we deduce from that? United’s forwards were the ones drawing the bulk of the fouls. Their forwards liked to run at defenders, therefore they drew a lot of fouls in dangerous areas, some of the times that dangerous area was in the opponents box and thus they won penalties.
In April, Fbref partnered with Statsbomb giving us a mountain of new publicly available advanced stats that we could use to look into this even further. We could now look beyond just how many touches a team took in the opponents box but more importantly, how they got the ball into the box in the first place.
United successfully entered the opponents box 16.29 times per game, 4th best in the league but significantly fewer than third best Chelsea (20.47). But how they got the ball into the box itself was important.
United were not a crossing team. Only four teams finished the season attempting fewer crosses per match than United’s 10.32. Only 8.56 percent of United’s box entries came via successful crosses - the rest came from either carries, through balls, or ground passes - by far the lowest number in the league.
If we strip out the carries and only account for box entries via passes or crosses, only 13.05 percent of their entries came via crosses, still the lowest number in the league. United weren’t entering the box by huffing the ball in the air and contesting a header for it, they were doing it with the ball at their feet, running at defenders. That’s a recipe for drawing fouls, which in the box will be penalties.
The team with the next lowest box entries via crosses? Manchester City, who won 11 penalties, the second most in the league. Maybe there’s something here?
(Remember, this isn’t the be all end all - factor in who gets fouled, who touches the ball in the box the most etc)
This season it’s been a different story. United’s penalty rate is still really good, one every 3.43 games, which is second only to Leicester City, but they’ve dropped in all the other categories. In 2020-21 the Red Devils are sixth in successful box entries per game, fifth in touches in the box, fifth in shots from free kicks, and right smack in the middle 10th in fouls won per game. (Another indication that it’s those pacy forwards who are drawing the fouls in dangerous areas).
What does any of this have to do with Luke Shaw though?
The truth was last season United were a little too over reliant on penalties. Their 1.28 non-penalty xG was tied for sixth best in the league. They needed to improve on that. They needed more creativity, especially if Bruno Fernandes wasn’t on his day. They were too one dimensional last year. They needed more ideas. They needed more width, they needed more production from the fullbacks.
Both Shaw and right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka have answered the call and been much better going forward. But how has that effected how United get the ball into the box?
United’s box entries have risen slightly as have their overall touches in the box. We also see that there’s been a rise in the number of crosses they’re attempting, as well as how many of their successful box entries come via this pathway.
That is no doubt thanks to the contributions of Shaw (and to a lesser extent Alex Telles). As previously mentioned, Shaw has kicked in to another gear since New Years Day.
That 9-0 win over 10 and later 9 man Southampton heavily skewed the data but even if you remove it from the sample the difference is still clear.
(Authors note: From here on out, none of the graphics include the 9-0 win over Southampton in the data)
Shaw’s getting forward more, touching the ball in the box more, and launching, and completing more crosses.
Pauly, you’re saying all this like it’s a bad thing but this doesn’t seem like it’s a bad thing? And it doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten any closer to answering the initial question, does this relate to United winning fewer penalties?
It’s not a bad thing! But it may not be a good thing either. As for the penalties… we’ll get there.
A quick glance at the numbers before and after New Years Eve suggests that the rise in Shaw’s form is partially down to some tactical tweaks. United want him to get forward more and they’re making more of an effort to get the ball out on the flanks, which shows in how they’re entering the box.
Since the new year United are successfully getting the ball into the box more but there’s a much larger amount of crosses coming in. It’s good to have diversity in your attack, but crosses typically don’t end up in the back of the net (only about 2-3% of open play crosses result in goals per Statsbomb). They lead to - at best - headers directed toward goal.
Now it would be really bad if the crosses were increasing but the successful box entries and touches remained the same. That’s not the case here. United are still getting into the box with the ball at their feet pretty often. The difference between before and after new years comes in the breakdown of who is touching the ball once it’s inside the box.
In the first half of the season, Shaw was only amounting to 2.93 percent of United’s total touches in the box (in matches where Shaw featured). Since the new year, Shaw’s been getting much more involved, now taking almost 10 percent of the touches. With Wan-Bissaka increasing himself just a tad United’s full backs are taking a combined 15.05 percent of the team’s touches in the box. That’s less than one in every seven touches!
Since we’re talking about a percentage of the total number of touches, the increase of the fullbacks means there’s a decrease somewhere else. United’s front line rotates pretty frequently but the two mainstays are Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes. As you can see, they’re getting significantly less touches in the danger area.
In a (probably) related story, the two have combined have for just two non-penalty goals and two assists in the Premier League in 2021 (minus the Southampton match).
And now we can circle back to the main question of ‘is the rise of Shaw related to the drop the drop in penalties’ and give an answer of, “probably.”
Look at the breakdown of United’s box entries before and after Jan 1 again. Notice how the number of fouls has stayed almost exactly the same, but the shots from free kicks has almost doubled (back to the level it was at last season).
United’s forwards were always the ones wreaking havoc and drawing fouls with some ratio as to how many were in the box for penalties or just outside the box in shooting range. They’re still getting fouled at the same rate but now that they’re touching the ball in the box less often (and less often with their feet) that distribution of fouls is skewed all the way towards outside the box.
The dribblers who like to run at defenders aren’t getting into the box anymore. Instead it’s the fullbacks, specifically Shaw getting those touches. Shaw isn’t going to beat you on the dribble - especially not in a tight area - he’s not a shooting threat. When Shaw gets the ball in the box he’s looking to do one thing and one thing only, pass. That makes it a lot easier for defenders to defend him.
That’s not to say he’s not good at passing once in the box or that it’s not effective. The reason United want Shaw getting into the box more is so they could score more of the ‘Man City goals.’ Those pullbacks to the middle that Manchester City so often score from.
We’ve seen this pattern several times over the past month (Burnley, Liverpool, Arsenal) but it’s only worked once (Southampton, which was Greenwood who did the cutback - and you can argue West Brom but that was more of a cross). It’s in development but it’s just not there yet.
This isn’t the fault of Shaw. His development has been fantastic and he’s putting the ball where it needs to be. It’s more attributed to United not having forwards who are great with their heads, or great at making runs to get on the end of the ball. This is probably best characterized by Rashford failing to anticipate - or move for - this Mason Greenwood cross at the back post last week.
That’s what makes you wonder, is this actually effective? In 2021 United are completing a higher percentage of their crosses, their touching the ball in the box more often, but they’re not actually turning it into goals.
Aside from the Southampton match United have 10 goals in eight Premier League games in 2021. Only seven of those goals have come from open play and three of those came from outside the box.
The remaining three did come from crosses, and Cavani’s goal against Fulham came from a rebound off a cross, which is great, but begs the question of efficiency. In the first half of the season United were taking 9.67 shots per game with an NPxG per 90 of 1.42. That’s an xG per shot of 0.15! That’s not exactly sustainable but since New Years their taking 11.63 shots per game with an NPxG per 90 of just 1.2. That 0.09 xG per shot. More shots, but not nearly as many good shots.
That 1.2 xG per 90 is the same number that they were at last year. And wouldn’t you know United are starting to develop the same problem that they had last year. Their inability to break down low blocks.
In the first half of the season this wasn’t a problem. United played five games where they’ve had the bulk of possession (>55%) against what can be characterized as ‘low blocks.’ They won four of them with the lone loss coming on the opening day of the season when United had no preseason. Since New Years they’ve played six games (not including Southampton) where they’ve had the bulk of possession. They’ve won just two of those games - both thanks to Paul Pogba shots from outside the box - and dropped points to relegation sides Sheffield United and West Brom.
United needed to add more width and threats from the flanks this year to be better at breaking down these teams. They brought in a true no. 9 in Edinson Cavani who’s movement and aerial ability in the box has already helped United turn more crosses into goals than we saw all of last season.
But Cavani didn’t start any of those matches against low blocks in the first half of the season. He started all but one of those since New Years (the lone exception being Sheffield United, where Alex Telles, who doesn’t match the style of play of the Martial-Rashford-Greenwood front three got the call, odd). Cavani’s lack of buildup play, his lack of wanting to turn on the ball and run at defenders has seen United go in the other direction. Rather than looking devoid of ideas against a low block, they now have one singular idea. Get the ball wide and cross it in.
As such, we’re seeing Shaw get much more involved in the attack. He’s delivering quality service that we want to see from a fullback. But with only one legitimate option to get on the end of those balls, it’s becoming too one dimensional for United and they’re no longer doing as much of the things that they’re really good at.
There is a relation to the rise of Luke Shaw and the decline in penalties. It’s not so much because of Shaw than it being a change in tactics.
United needed to move away from being so reliant on penalties as they were last season. They’ve now gone too far in the other direction but in doing that, Luke Shaw has answered the call and shown them what he can bring from the outside.
Now they just need to find a happy medium between the two extremes.