Premier League away form only complaint for United

Throughout the 2010/11 season Manchester United have had to battle against the claim that this team is not a vintage United side. Despite the fact they have claimed an historic 19th league title, the 12th under Sir Alex Ferguson, the detractors still remain.

Looking at the current Premier League standings United are champions with 77 points, with the potential this will hit the 80 point mark with a win over Blackpool on Sunday. If they gain this total they will still be five points worse off than they were at the end of last season, when they finished runners up to Chelsea. The last time they won the league, in 2008/09 they did so by securing 90 points, and the two seasons before that were also crowned champions with 87 and 89 points respectively. Looking at the bare facts this would suggest that maybe this team is not as good as previous teams and when examining the goals scored and against it seems to provide more evidence to prove this.

This season they have scored 74 goals so far, 12 less than the haul they managed last season. They have also conceded more so far this season (35) than they managed in the entirety of last season (28). These factors will certainly point to why the points tally is so low, but if this is the case, how have United managed to finish the season as Champions?

Home form has been key throughout this campaign for Ferguson’s men. From the 18 home league games this season they have dropped just two points – in the 2-2 draw with West Brom coming courtesy of an uncharacteristic mistake by Edwin van der Sar. They have beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham at Old Trafford which has gone a long way to securing them the title.

Of the 77 points already amassed, 52 of these have come at Old Trafford. If a team is this good at home and has seen of all their nearest challengers then it is difficult to argue they are not a great side. In fact, Ferguson has only managed to go an entire season unbeaten at home twice in his United career, in 1995/96 and 1999/00. The United teams that managed those feats were undoubtedly two of Ferguson’s best so if this is the yardstick to measure the greatness of a United side, then it would appear that at home this current side is certainly up there.

Then it comes to the away record which sees United become the first team since Liverpool in 1976/77 to win the league having won less than eight games on the road. In fact United have only won five which is the same number they have won on their travels in the Champions League this season. Ferguson himself has described his team’s form on the road as “ordinary” feeling that the criticism of their away form is justified as he himself has not been happy with it.

The five teams that United have defeated away from home this season are West Ham, Wigan, West Brom, Blackpool and Stoke City; all with the exception of Stoke are in the bottom half of the table. Three of those teams currently sit in the bottom three and one is already relegated. This means that United have failed to beat 8 of the other 9 teams in the top half of the table away, losing to Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. This is extremely poor and would have been much worse without some spirited comebacks. This is clearly a United team of contrasts – unbeatable at home, but poor away.

Much has been made of this being a team in transition, but when looking at the playing staff this remains a difficult point to prove. Undoubtedly last season they were recovering from the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, relying too much on the exploits of Wayne Rooney. This season, however, Rooney only came alive from March onwards but they still finished top of the tree – a difficult task for a team in transition. It was not only the loss of Rooney that United had to cope with throughout this season as the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park have been missing for huge chunks leaving the squad at times threadbare. When these four players were missing, players who may in the past have been on the margins of things came to the fore.

Nani currently has 10 goals and 18 assists to his name and Dimitar Berbatov has 20 Premier League goals. For both of these players form came earlier in the season, tailing off in the latter months, when the likes of Rooney and Valencia came back into fitness and form, but they did the job for the team when they were desperately needed. Javier Hernandez has scored consistently throughout the season, currently sitting on 20 goals in all competitions and once Rooney has come back to form has starred in what could be one of the best striking partnerships ever witnessed at Old Trafford. In the absence of Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic has dominated teams and the emergence of Chris Smalling after his impressive outing in the Manchester derby has been a real plus for this season. Once Ferdinand was back to full fitness he slotted back into his spot alongside Vidic to reform arguably the best centre-half partnership in Europe.

With strong partnerships at the heart of the defence and attack and a deep squad it remains curious as to why the form away from home has been so poor. On many occasions this has stemmed from an inability to dominate teams in the midfield, which has come from a lack of a first choice partnership in the engine room. Michael Carrick has featured all season, but has only recently found his form with strong displays home and away against Chelsea in the Champions League and away at Schalke in the semi-final. Before this however, he was hit and miss. Paul Scholes has struggled to really impose his game on opponents when in the side and Darren Fletcher has missed much of the second half of the season with a virus. Ryan Giggs may have taken the plaudits for his evergreen displays and flashes of brilliance, but when playing in a withdrawn role he may be able to turn the game, but at no point does he run it. The top United teams of old had midfields which bossed every team they played against and that is what this team is lacking. A purchase of one or two midfielders this summer could make all the difference.

The away performances in the Premier League may have been below standard, but when featuring in the Champions League United have been a different prospect. They conceded just one goal in the group stage winning all of their away matches and won away in both the quarter-final (Chelsea) and the semi-final (Schalke). They have also kept a clean-sheet in all of their matches away from Old Trafford on their way to reaching a third final in four years. It is simply impossible to label a team with this record a poor side.

United’s Premier League form away from home may have been ordinary, but that is the only thing ordinary from this historic season. Home strength, squad depth and European resilience have all been shown throughout a season which could well be one of Ferguson’s best ever.

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