Manchester United's home form had catapulted them into the top four of the English Premier League for the first time in almost two years, but it is the away form that has allowed them to slip back down out of the coveted Champions League spots.
Thus far, Louis van Gaal's side has had a disappointing away campaign. Draws against Burnley and West Brom, and a memorable loss to the hands of Leicester, have epitomised Manchester United's substandard away form.
For a club that spent circa £200 million in the transfer market, losing to mid-table and relegation battling sides is both disappointing and embarrassing. But why have they been finding their travels so difficult? Although it is easy to point to defensive woes, the answer might not be so simple.
The centre of defence is an obvious concern for Van Gaal's side. The lack of a leader to provide some assuredness for the back four has led to opposing striker's taking advantage of the naivety in the squad.
For Leicester it was Leonardo Ulloa and Jamie Vardy who capitalised on poor defending, and for West Brom it was the clinical Saido Berahino who found the back of the net. But the back four, and in earlier cases back three, are of the same personnel as home matches. Why are they playing so poorly on their travels, when at home they look like studs?
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One reason seems to be the volatile environments of away venues. Especially in Leicester; the fans could sense a weakened Manchester United team, and without a leader in the defence, players like Vardy and Ulloa could take full advantage of that.
The spirit at home for the opposing teams helps them exert that extra ten percent which can lift them above normal play to get a precious result against a side laden with multi-million dollar stars. The exuded confidence and desire leads to more tackles and headers won. Compared to other teams, these sides will play up for Manchester United. Their reputation makes them a more than desirable team to beat, but their reputation may have surpassed their actual ability.
Lack of control
But another possibility is that Manchester United simply cannot control the game as they are used to doing, and this may be a result from lack of space on the pitch.
Regulation sizes for football grounds are given in a range. Better teams tend to build the grounds to the higher areas of the range, giving them more space to use their talented players; while teams to the lower end of the table tend to use smaller pitch sizes, because smaller pitches allow them to congest the middle of the park.
Their lack of control over games might simply be down to the fact that there is less space on the field, and they have yet to figure out how to adapt their style of play to compensate for the lack of space.
United struggling on smaller pitches?
Blind, Herrera, and Di Maria all like to roam inside the middle of the park, allowing room for the full backs to overlap. At Old Trafford, the side can build up play through these three and advance the attack progressively; however, these three players can also congest the middle of the park. In smaller sized fields, it is easier for opposing sides to tighten their defense, intercept passes, and hit Manchester United on the counterattack - as occurred during Leicester's famous 5-3 victory.
Last season, Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini faced a similar away dilemma towards the beginning of the season, but their home form bailed them out, and as they progressed through the season they figured out how to win on their travels.
While it seems unlikely Manchester United will mount a serious title challenge, they will be very reliant on their home form to secure a top four position. Otherwise, figuring out how to win away from home will be imperative towards making it back into European football.
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