Until the recent disaster in South Wales, Manchester United hadn’t lost an away game since early November.
Being unbeaten on the road for such a long period of time (10 matches to be precise) ought to signify positive aspects to Louis van Gaal’s philosophy. Nobody can argue with Manchester United’s laudable ability to not lose games very often.
However, 8 draws on the road in all competitions and only 16 away league points this season evidences a team that often caves in once they venture away from the cosiness of Old Trafford.
Even when Louis van Gaal’s team does manage to pick up a result away from home it never radiates comfort and ease – far from it – away wins at Arsenal and Southampton, two wins that could prove vital come May, saw Manchester United pull of the good old fashioned ‘smash and grab’ performance. Nothing like the devastating form that is usually associated with Manchester United on their travels.
Manchester United have hardly shown the clinical, bold edge that has seen them romp to 2nd place in the Premier League’s home form table whilst on their travels. If their away record replicated their impressive home record, Manchester United would be on 61 points, 1 point clear at the top of the table.
As it is, Louis van Gaal’s men are in a top four dogfight. With 6 points separating 3rd from 7th, Manchester United’s place in the Champions League next season is far from certain. With tricky games at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Goodison Park still to come there is a real possibility of travel sickness costing Manchester United their place amongst Europe’s elite next term.
Up until the last month of the 2013/14 season Manchester United boasted the best away form in the league.
Despite (rightly) attracting criticism, David Moyes had a team that candidly stopped home teams from getting in behind his back four and patiently picked their moment to turn the screw on opposition.
So why are Manchester United in this current predicament? – Imperious at home, mundane away from home – how did Moyes manage to achieve such an impressive record on the road last season and why can’t Manchester United reproduce their home form once they move away from Old Trafford this season?
It isn’t easy saying nice things about a man who turned a team of champions into a collection of fidgety, confidence-stricken misfits in the space of about 10 months but I’m briefly going to.
Moyes’ defensive pragmatism was a useful asset when his team visited mid-table clubs like Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, and Newcastle etc. the game plan was simple but it worked a treat; let them throw everything at you, stay solid and compact (two banks of four is paramount) pick your moments to go forward carefully and hope that De Gea keeps you in the game.
This worked nicely against weaker opponents. When confronted with good opposition Moyes’ system was blown out of the water by more dynamic, modern tactics – handily executed by stronger, faster players – but the bottom line is that Moyes managed to pick up away results because his team played like the away team every game.
This is where he went wrong at home, the incentive has to change once at Old Trafford, but Moyes didn’t realise this. Anyway, enough about that ginger haired Scottish bloke.
Louis van Gaal’s team have often been praised for their mental solidarity and togetherness – attributes that have helped them tremendously this season – but it’s hard to say the same for their physical solidarity.
An important factor when it comes to being successful on the road in the Premier League is to have naturally steely players who can muscle their way through tricky times. Does Manchester United have this under Louis van Gaal? No. Not at all.
This appears to be the main kryptonite when it comes to assessing why this team struggles in highly charged, physical encounters at places like Turf Moor or the Britannia. On top of the partisan atmosphere generated purely by Manchester United’s presence at habitually apathetic, idle arenas, this environment inundates some players.
This uniquely intense footballing environment has seen Louis van Gaal’s new signings crumble as a result of the sheer ferocity in the Premier League. A perfect example of this came on a horribly wet Friday night in the FA Cup 4th round at the Abbey against Cambridge United; the pitch was bobbly and narrow, the crowd very close to the pitch, the opposition physically imposing. The likes of Di Maria, Blind and Falcao struggled to come to terms with this alien form of football.
The bottom line is this – Louis van Gaal is blessed with a wonderfully gifted group of footballers that have no problem strutting their stuff on Old Trafford’s colossal, smooth green turf in a not-so-intimidating environment. But he is also bounded to field a team which painfully lacks the verve to cope with the animalistic nature of some away environments that the Premier League ultimately brings about.
The answer? Louis van Gaal needs to more compact and less dynamic when playing away from Old Trafford.
Adopting a more businesslike approach in away matches will mean Manchester United will see less of the ball but find themselves in better positions to thwart opposition. Putting more emphasis on bulk in the middle of the park and swift counterattacking would be a much better call than slow, ponderous, possession based football where being hit on the break is likely.
The 1-2 loss at the hands of Swansea saw Manchester United play like the home team and they were punished for it.
Manchester United’s most notable away victory, a 2-1 win at Arsenal, saw Louis van Gaal’s team remain solid in the middle of the park and look lethal on the counterattack. It was a perfect way to curb a team looking to dominate possession and it was more or less the perfect away performance.
Putting more men behind the ball and having less of the possession may not be the Manchester United way, but that extra bulk in the middle of the park could be the difference between Manchester United playing in Europe’s finest competition and playing in Europe’s most irritating competition.
On second thoughts, Eurovision is a far more painful European competition to watch than the Europa League. But regardless of that Louis van Gaal will want to avoid Thursday night trips to Slovenian industrial towns next year. To avoid this he must partially ignore his philosophy and instead comply with the Premier League’s physical demands.