It was a failure to adequately deal with a crossed ball into the box that led to Mbaye Diagne’s opener on Sunday, and that goal ultimately cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side all three points in a game that his team put simply should have won.
It’s not the first time United have been done in a similar vein, with goals from crosses and set-pieces becoming an unwanted regular occurrence this season.
In fact, in terms of the latter, only three sides – all of which are in the bottom half of the table – have conceded more goals from set-pieces than United.
This ongoing issue has been put to Solskjaer in the past, and he’s blamed an inability to win the initial header from these deliveries as one of the crucial reasons behind their poor record.
“It’s something that we have addressed that we need to do better at. We seem to suffer when we don’t get the first contact, we have been punished quite severely and more often than anyone else,” he said.
Obviously, to win these initial contacts, players need to be the dominant figure in most aerial duels they contest.
To gauge the competency of United’s defenders in this area, below is the averages of Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelöf and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in terms of aerial duels won and how that compares to other defenders from across the Premier League.
As we can see, Maguire shows well in this area. Of the 120 defenders who have played 700+ league minutes, he aerial duel success rate of 70.77 per cent ranks in the division’s top five per cent.
Worryingly though, his regular partner Lindelöf ranks just about above average in this area, whilst wing-backs Shaw and Wan-Bissaka rank inside the bottom 25 per cent.
Even if we remove centre-backs and isolate their success rates against just wing-backs in the Premier League, their average still ranks below the league average for that position.
Obviously, the wing-back role is just as crucial in attacking phases as it is in defensive ones, particularly in the case of Shaw who has once again solidified himself as one of the best in the league in this position when going forward.
Yet, both wing-backs are often needed to tuck in with centre-backs to defend crosses or mark players and zones from set-pieces, therefore not being able to defend aerial duels to an adequate level can often be to the detriment of the team.
It’s unclear whether this is something that can be improved on the training pitch, or whether upgrades might be needed.
Solskjaer would prefer to former rather than the latter, but either way, it’s an area in which the team need to improve if they’re to truly progress into a side capable of competing for league titles again.