Manchester United have conceded in abundance when playing the Premier League’s top teams away from home this season. Erik Ten Hag’s side have struggled to pick up points on the road against the ‘top six’ with their usual style and tempo not translating as well to games in which there is a more even share of possession.

Opposition on the road

United’s latest away defeat against one of their competitive rivals came against Liverpool at Anfield. Despite arguably being the more impressive team in the first half, United ended up conceding seven goals and offering no reply to Jurgen Klopp’s team. United were also defeated convincingly by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium this season, and the away defeat to Arsenal was a rather similar story. The Red Devils have already won the Carabao Cup this season and a Europa League victory could follow. In a football bet on the competition this season, United are the favourites to win Europe’s second-tier competition at 11/5. However United’s away form has likely prevented what could have been an even more successful season. Ten Hag’s side could have found themselves firmly in the title race if they had taken points off their rivals away from home this season.

The situation at rival grounds

When United play at Old Trafford, or away against weaker opposition, they often dominate possession and are therefore allowed a high level of control of the contest. However, issues present themselves when United play against the top teams away from home who are backed by a raucous crowd. Ten Hag’s United have a very direct style in the sense that they play with a high tempo and attack teams quickly. While this is crucial for allowing opposition defences minimal time for organisation, it poses risks against stronger opposition. Tough away fixtures require strict management – at times retaining possession is crucial to slow the game down and calm the atmosphere. 

United have maintained their erratic attacking style in big away games, and the defensive backtracking of some forward players has been sporadic. As a result, United’s fixtures tend to be games that are almost fully played in transition with the play constantly travelling between each box. There is little build-up from deep on either side and end-to-end contests have been common. These wide-open occasions have not ended well for United when they faced the attacks that the likes of City and Liverpool boast. United also tend to avoid playing out from the back and this has only led to more duels being contested in the middle of the pitch from goal-kicks. This has only added to the unpredictability associated with United’s style.

Ultimately, Ten Hag often sacrifices sufficient defensive cover and control in order to allow all of his players to fully express themselves on the pitch. However, at times individual players need to make sacrifices themselves for the better of the team. Against the strongest teams in the league, United need to defend as a unit and learn to have more patience in the build-up stage as currently, they give up possession regularly. Lengthy periods of possession can allow United to pin back opposition defences which is a much more sustainable method of offensive pressure while maintaining compactness between the midfield and defence. Ten Hag has made a swift transformation at Old Trafford so far but he certainly needs to rethink his tactical setup in future encounters away to top opposition.