Manchester United were crowned English Premier League champions in 2013. Since 2013, United had just one top four finish. In the Premier League era, beginning with 1992, United have not previously endured such an extended spell of struggling to challenge for the league title.
Under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, only on three occasions out of 21 seasons, did the club finish outside of the EPL’s top two spots. Each time, Manchester finished third. United’s league performances have witnessed a visible decline following Ferguson’s departure. The Scotsman had an innate ability to inspire his team to victory, even when his players were not performing close to their best. There were a few examples of that during his final season at the club.
Whereas second place Manchester City (and despite beating United 2-1 at Old Trafford) lost away games against Sunderland, Southampton, Everton and Tottenham, not to mention a disappointing 0-0 draw with last place Queens Park Rangers, United showed more resolve on their travels. They did not lose a single away fixture during the second half of the season.
Narrow victories over Fulham, QPR, Stoke and Sunderland earned United the points which were ultimately vital in winning the title. A steely determination, instilled by an inspirational manager was one of the main catalysts for United’s uncanny ability to win tricky away fixtures. All has changed since Ferguson’s departure with United struggling for away wins.
Of 57 away games, United have lost 21, with several of those defeats coming against mediocre teams and not just their biggest rivals. The away struggles were particularly magnified when United was managed by Louis Van Gaal. A significant number of draws throughout the Dutchman’s first season in charge, eight in total, was followed by a disastrous away form during the next campaign. Swansea, Bournemouth, Stoke, Sunderland, West Brom, Tottenham and West Ham, all defeated United, to dent the club’s chances of qualifying for the Champions League. United eventually failed to do so as goal difference ruled in Manchester City’s favor.
Although they performed much better on their travels during the 2016-17 season when Jose Mourinho improved an insecure defensive line which had conceded 26 goals away from Old Trafford during the previous campaign, United once again finished outside the top four. The reason for that was disappointing home form, winning less than half – eight – of 18 games. Only one surprise away defeat, a 3-1 loss to Watford, was endured.
Mourinho’s art of setting his team up to contain and prevent opposition teams from playing, made United a far more balanced side. They have continued to improve this season. Their progress has however been slowed by a surprise defeat to Huddersfield. United’s away form so far has been less than convincing. Mourinho appeared to settle for a dire 0-0 draw at Anfield by setting up his team in a defensive manner before even kicking a ball against hosts Liverpool.
To challenge for the title, United will have to run some risks, in particular away from Old Trafford. The question is whether Mourinho will opt to play a more adventurous lineup, perhaps demand from his players to attack in bigger numbers, or if he will resort to negative tactics such as “Park the Bus” as infamously terms by his detractors.