Manchester United’s away problems in big games shows Erik ten Hag still has a lot of work to do at Old Trafford
The jury is still out about whether this is the start of a new era of success at Manchester United.
The work Erik ten Hag has done to improve the club from last season’s horror show would point at yes. A six-year trophy drought ended through the Carabao Cup, a FA Cup final appearance to come and a top-four finish on the verge of being secured represents early signs of promise.
But United are not completely out of the woods from the feeling of the disaster campaign they endured a year ago. While consistency from United has improved, a crisis is never too far away.
One area where United are still lacking is their away form against the best top-flight teams.
As they prepare to visit high-flying Brighton on Thursday night, live on Sky SportsTen Hag’s side have only picked up one win away from home against the other 10 teams in the top 12. Even that sole victory saw Alejandro Garnacho score a stoppage-time winner at Fulham.
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But it is not just the results that should concern Ten Hag, it is the variety of problems that have arisen in each of their away matches against the better sides.
There have been seven goals shipped at Liverpool, six at Manchester City, four in the first half at Brentford and two in the first 11 minutes at Aston Villa. Leads have also been thrown away at Arsenal, Tottenham and Crystal Palace, while the loss at Newcastle last month saw them register just one shot on target.
No matter what the context or the environment, United have been consistently sub-par when playing away at the better sides in the Premier League.
“There are emerging signs away from home, in the big games, when you really have to turn up and show that spirit, that fight, that courage to play, and have the quality to play, there is more evidence that they are not good enough in these type of matches,” said Gary Neville after the loss at Newcastle.
“They just don’t turn up,” the Sky Sports pundit added. So where are United going wrong?
There is nothing especially wrong with the basics and how United set up away from home. On average, they have more possessions on the road than at Old Trafford, make more tackles, and press just as much.
But United have still conceded 31 goals on the road compared to just eight at Old Trafford. David De Gea has made zero errors at home but has made multiple away. They have dropped no points from winning positions at home but have shipped seven points from the wrong side of a comeback on their travels.
These stats hints that the pressure of the occasion still gets to these United players on the big stage and Ten Hag – who inherited a side that lost six successive away league games before he took over – believes there could be a deeper mentality issue at the club .
“It is absolutely true,” the United manager said in his pre-match press conference about the away form against the top sides. “But it is to do with personality and character and this is where we need to step up and face this. We definitely need to improve.”
Neville also thinks Ten Hag still needs more surgery in this United squad to breed more winners capable of conquering big games.
“When you look at Manchester United’s season, I am happy overall,” he said after the Newcastle loss. “But you have got to turn up in the big games away from home. You have to know you can play well in the biggest games.
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“[The Europa League draw at] Barcelona away was an outlier. They played really well in Barcelona. But other than that, against the top teams, they have not shown up. There is too much evidence now. If you cannot play in the big games for Manchester United you have no luck.
“Erik ten Hag needs to work out which ones he can take forward and which ones he can’t.”
On the ball, United’s players appear to go in their shell, if the statistics are anything to go by. Despite having more of the ball and the same amount of touches, Ten Hag’s side attempt fewer passes and it leads to fewer through balls, crosses, chances created and a lower Expected Goals rate.
United need to take more risks and play with the freedom and comfort that they do at Old Trafford – which has granted them one of the best home records in the league this season.
Ten Hag’s frustration at his side’s inability to claim a ‘statement away win’ is clear to see. This is a manager who does not believe in “home and away” games.
“For me, it’s no different – the pitch is the same size everywhere, there are three referees, there’s a fourth official, the ball is round, there’s air in the ball,” he said in March.
“So, we have to play and to make it our game and that [winning away at a top-four rival] is the next step we have to make then.”
Thursday night represents United’s last chance to beat a top-half side in the Premier League on their own turf. As Ten Hag continues to learn about his team, this game could define some important players’ futures.
Watch Brighton vs Manchester United live on Sky Sports Premier League on Thursday night from 7.30pm, kick-off 8pm