For a second consecutive season since the departure of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, the mighty Manchester United finds themselves scrapping for a top four finish. United are certainly in a much better position to claim that spot this season rather than last season under the much maligned David Moyes.
After the acquisition of big name stars such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao fans were a lot more optimistic of claiming European football once again. It must be said however, that it isn’t as straightforward as we’d have liked. The team doesn’t seem to be linking up as was expected despite victories away to Southampton and Arsenal as well as a 3-0 hammering of Liverpool at Old Trafford. The problems seem to lie in the inconsistent away form which has resulted in United claiming a paltry 23% of wins away from home according to Statto.com. This puts them eighth in the away table while being second best only to Chelsea in terms of home form. Sky Sports reveal that United have only scored 16 goals away from home while conceding the same amount and dropping 23 points on the road. This is in stark contrast to last season where Moyes’ team were the best side on the road yet lacked incisiveness at home.
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) February 23, 2015
Louis van Gaal’s side again seems to lack that incisiveness which United fans came to love under Sir Alex even though these problems mainly lie away from home. The inability to kill off or dominate games at Leicester City, Burnley, Sunderland, Swansea City, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, West Ham United and Stoke City have led to crucial points being dropped and allowing Arsenal and Liverpool to close in on the top four. Despite the abundance of attacking options apparent on every team sheet put out by the Dutchmen, the lack of creativity and sharp attacking play embedded in the Manchester United DNA seems to evade the players.
Possession football and patient build-up play out of the back is expected from a Van Gaal side, yet the latter seems on the face of it to be the main issue causing the lack of potency upfront. The first issue that raises attention is the indecisiveness playing out from the back. When playing out the back the fullbacks push up the pitch, the centre halves split and the holding midfielder drops in alongside them. This eliminates the option of playing the ball into midfield, instead bypassing it and either resorting to long balls or spreading the ball wide where the fullbacks find themselves alienated. Playing out the back is a lot easier at Old Trafford where the pitch is generally bigger and wider than opposition grounds. There’s more space for the ball to be played out at home and the opposition find it harder to close down.
Away from home, teams find it a lot easier to put pressure on the defence and hamper the attacks starting from the back. Surprisingly Chris Smalling has a better pass completion rate away from home according to Whoscored.com as he completes a fantastic 89.8% of his passes away while he completes 89% of his passes at home. These stats need to be put in context though as Smalling averages a meagre 20.8 passes away and more than triple that at home as he averages 71.2 passes at home. Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo both average more passes at home, 55.3 and 75.3 respectively with a better pass success rate as well, again indicating that United find it a lot easier playing out the back at home than they do away from home.
Secondly the build-up play is far too slow, the goal Ander Herrera scored against Swansea this past weekend was possibly the best bit of play shown by United all season. It was a result of moving the ball around a lot faster and slicker than what we’ve seen this season. Patient possession football still requires a burst of explosive quick interchanging football from the attacking players which hasn’t always come to the fore this season. Players such as Di Maria, Rooney and Falcao amongst others need to provide that spark upfront which unlocks the opposition defence in an instant but we’ve only seen glimpses of this. Barcelona are a side that are very good at playing possession football with patient build-up play. Watching them play at the Etihad this week, the movement of the players off the ball was fantastic which is something I feel United lack at the moment. When players are in possession their options seem to be limited and it ends up slowing the play down.
Van Gaal deserves credit for taking all three points in games that his side don’t always look like winning but United are a side that should be playing a brand of football that is a lot more attractive. A big effort is needed from the team to secure a top four finish and the away form certainly needs to be addressed to ensure Champions League football next season.
This article was researched and written by Raees Naik. You can follow him on Twitter.