Why Manchester United’s penalties are no longer the advantage they once were

United are still winning a lot of spot-kicks but that alone does not explain their potential title charge

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Wednesday 06 January 2021 07:27 GMT
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Manchester United’s strange talent for winning penalties is provoking debate again, thanks in part to Jurgen Klopp.

“I hear now that Manchester United had more penalties in two years than I had in five and a half years,” Klopp claimed after Liverpool’s defeat to Southampton on Monday night, which left the champions only above United at the top of the Premier League table on goal difference.

And Klopp is not the only top-flight manager to have drawn attention to the subject over the past few days.

While pointing out that Son Heung-Min is enjoying a prolific goal-scoring season without the advantage of taking spot-kicks, Jose Mourinho could not help but have a dig at United’s penalty taker and top scorer Bruno Fernandes.

“Some players score 10 goals a season on penalties and I’m not speaking about Harry Kane, by the way,” the Tottenham manager said.

It is probably no coincidence that Mourinho and Klopp chose to highlight the issue on the same weekend that United required a contentious Fernandes penalty to beat Aston Villa and kick-start a potential title challenge.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was reluctant to revisit that decision or involve himself in any mind games on Tuesday morning when Klopp and Mourinho’s comments were put to him.

“I don’t count how many penalties they have, so if they want to spend time on worrying about when we get fouled in the box, I don’t spend time on that,” he said.

He did, however, go as far as to suggest that other managers may be looking to put pressure on referees by drawing attention to United’s penalty record and recalled comments by Frank Lampard before last season’s FA Cup semi-finals.

“Obviously I felt it worked last year in the semi in the FA Cup because Frank spoke about it and we had a nailed-on penalty that we should have had that we didn’t get,” Solskjaer said, “so maybe it’s a way of influencing referees. I don’t know, but I don’t worry about that.”

But whether Solskjaer is willing to engage or not, do Klopp, Mourinho and Lampard have a point? 

Yes and no. Klopp’s specific claim was wrong - Liverpool have won more penalties during his five years in charge than United have during Solskjaer’s two, as you would expect - but the numbers are surprisingly close.

While Liverpool have been awarded 46 penalties during Klopp’s 289 games in charge, United have been awarded 42 in 115 games under Solskjaer.

That’s a little more than one penalty in every three games for United, a quite extraordinary rate of penalty-winning. Around 15 per cent of United’s goals since Solskjaer succeeded Mourinho have come from the spot.

In that respect, Klopp has a point. It is undeniable that Solskjaer’s United have won and converted a lot of penalties relative to their rivals over the last two years.

In fact, they won the most of any Premier League team in both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons - being awarded a record 14 last term alone, three more than anyone else and twice as many as Chelsea, who had the fourth-most.

But this season, any advantage United had over the rest of the league could be levelling off.

The Premier League has seen a dramatic increase in penalties this season. With a little less than half of the campaign gone, there have been 68 spot-kicks awarded compared to 92 throughout the whole of last season.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

United are certainly still benefitting. Their total of six is the second-highest among all Premier League clubs, level with Brighton. But crucially, a lot of others are not at all far behind.

Chelsea, Fulham and Liverpool have won five spot-kicks. Newcastle and Villa have won four, and five other teams have won three. Leicester are the only side way out in front, having been awarded 10 - including three in one game against Manchester City.

United are currently on course to win 14 penalties this season - the same record number they achieved last term - but it seems unlikely that they will finish with significantly more than their rivals again and their record will probably be broken.

Solskjaer has always put United’s knack for penalty-winning down to their abundance of fleet-footed forwards like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood.

He may be right, and if so a spike in spot-kicks could be just around the corner, but the idea that their budding title challenge is benefitting from a lot of penalty decisions is currently a misconception - probably based on the memory of the many that they won last season and those awarded in other competitions.

United are still winning penalties at an impressive rate in general but the good news for Klopp, Mourinho and others is that so is everyone else. 

The bad news? Penalties alone do not explain why Solskjaer’s side suddenly look like potential contenders. This title challenge has more to it than that.

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