Look away now, Manchester United fans. Erik ten Hag’s team are about to travel to a Premier League top 10 side when they face Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday, and everything points to it being another 90 minutes of away-day misery.
Leaving aside the fact that United haven’t won a Premier League game at the north London club since December, 2017 — United have lost four and drawn one of their last five visits — their overall record against teams that have finished in the top 10 of the table has gone from bad to worse since Ten Hag took charge last summer.
It’s true that the former Ajax coach has restored United to the Champions League, and that he also ended the club’s six-year trophy drought by winning the Carabao Cup. But United’s goal of becoming realistic challengers to Manchester City’s domestic dominance could be derailed by Ten Hag’s failure to end his side’s road troubles.
Arsenal, who finished as runners-up under Mikel Arteta last season, seem the most likely to dethrone City again this time around, thanks in large part to how they’ve combined strong home form with equally impressive results away from the Emirates. Last season, Arsenal won five, lost three and drew one of their away games against the top half of the table. They scored 22 goals and conceded 13 in that sequence and although defeats at City and United — and a 2-2 draw at Liverpool — ultimately cost them the title, they were at least able to sustain a title challenge because of points amassed away from home.
It is a different story with United, as their grim away-day record of 2021-22 under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick — when the club recorded their worst-ever Premier League campaign — actually deteriorated under Ten Hag.
In 2021-22, United lost six, won two and drew one of their away games at teams that finished in the top 10. Worse yet, they scored 10 and conceded 22 goals over that run, with Leicester, Liverpool, City and Brighton all scoring four times. Last season, United managed just one away win against top 10 opponents — a 2-1 victory at Fulham in November when Alejandro Garnacho scored the winning goal in stoppage time at the end of the game.
Aside from a 2-2 draw at Tottenham in April — United even led 2-0 at half-time, only to concede twice in the second half — Ten Hag’s team lost the other seven games away to top 10 opponents, with a 7-0 hammering at Liverpool, a 4-0 defeat at Brentford and 6-3 loss at City. (United scored 10 and conceded 29 goals in those games.)
So what is the problem that Ten Hag has been unable to fix? And having lost 2-0 at Tottenham already this season, we can say that the United manager hasn’t fixed it.
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The numbers tell you everything. Last season, they were outscored at a rate of almost three goals to one in games away to the top 10, while the year before, it was just over two goals to one.
During the 2020-21 season, United went the entire Premier League season without suffering an away defeat and by the time they finally lost on the road, 4-2 at Leicester in October 2021, their 29-game unbeaten streak was the all-time record in English football, eclipsing the 27-away game unbeaten run set by Arsenal’s “Invincibles” in 2003-04.
But by the start of 2021-22, Solskjaer had changed the make-up of his team by adding Cristiano Ronaldo, who made a grand return to the club after nine brilliant years at Real Madrid and three difficult seasons at Juventus. With Ronaldo in, the harder-working Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood dropped out or were moved to accommodate the superstar signing, and United lost the ability to both defend from the front and hold the ball in attacking positions. As a consequence, United became easier to play against, their defensive positions were more exposed and stretched, and a rot that began in 2021 continues to impact the side today.
Even without Ronaldo for much of last season, the limited defensive work-rate from players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Antony ensured United remained a soft touch away from Old Trafford. Ten Hag tried to address the problem with the January loan signing of Wout Weghorst, but while the Netherlands forward never lacked for effort, he was nowhere near the level United needed to make a difference.
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This summer’s £72 million signing of Rasmus Hojlund from Atalanta is regarded as a key piece of the jigsaw, but having arrived from the Italian club with a back problem, the 20-year-old has yet to step onto the pitch for Ten Hag. Sources have told ESPN that a central factor in Ten Hag identifying Hojlund — even ahead of Harry Kane and his exceptional strike rate — was the Denmark international’s incessant work-rate and readiness to press opposition defenders high up the pitch.
Ten Hag wants his forwards to replicate the work-rate of those at City and Liverpool, but none have been able to do so as yet. Hojlund is not yet fit to do the job he’s been signed to take on, but he will be expected to do more than simply score goals. Ronaldo did that, as did Rashford last season, but goals are no longer enough.
However, without Hojlund at Arsenal on Sunday, the same old problems are likely to trouble United again. They don’t work hard enough without the ball in the attacking third and it gives the opposition a free pass to push forward.
It’s an obvious flaw, but until Ten Hag’s solution gets on the pitch, United will struggle to end their dismal run away from home against the top teams.