On the road with Manchester United: a journey in 19 acts. As with most road tales, the largest query round United’s file unbeaten away run is whether or not, for all the enjoyable, the jazz, the poetry, the roman candle pyrotechnics, it’s really main them anyplace.
This can be a bildungsroman that may head again to its begin level as soon as once more on Sunday afternoon. It’s virtually precisely a 12 months since United set off on their magic bus tour with a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge. These 19 Premier League away matches with out defeat have minimize throughout two seasons, the combined and various delights of pre- and post-Covid soccer, plus one disorientating midsummer overspill. From right here United face two quick checks: Chelsea after which Manchester Metropolis’s title-bound cavalry cost at the Etihad every week later.
Get by means of these two with the chassis intact and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s crew will discover themselves 4 winnable video games from a whole Premier League season unbeaten away from house – a run that may, on present standings, nonetheless get them nowhere close to really profitable the factor.
It’s in line with the uncanny nature of the soccer 12 months that it’s nonetheless laborious to get a correct take a look at this achievement, to interpret it in any wise method. Is that this an indication of one thing tangible, progress made in the direction of an finish level? Or simply an oddity of the plague soccer occasions?
Residence benefit has all the time been a puzzling factor, primarily based in emotion, ritual, mythology, noise. There isn’t any dispassionate cause why one sq. of grass, one bus journey, one group of shouting people ought to have such a profound impact on a choreographed athletic efficiency. And but the historical past of all soccer ever performed confirms that that is very a lot the case, an affirmation of the position of emotion, of how a footballer feels in the method the video games play out.
Residence and away kind was all the time more likely to converge when gamers are basically performing in entrance of plastic and cobwebs. Solely Chelsea of the high 9 Premier League golf equipment have misplaced extra away video games than they’ve at house.
With United, nevertheless, that is one thing else, a straight flip between the two. The away file (W14 D5) is the stuff of an imperious, title-winning romp. At Outdated Trafford over the identical interval United are Europa League also-rans. The final time they misplaced this many house video games (4) was 2013-14, the Moyes Interlude, when Outdated Trafford was a spot of sorrows and mischievous energies.
Look carefully and there’s no nice thriller right here. This isn’t about mentality, or being spooked by the empty stands. United are a distinct crew away from house as a result of they’re actually a distinct crew.
Although the stadium is empty, Solskjær has continued to choose totally different XIs and totally different formations for house and away. One near-constant in the away crew is his use of that gristly two-man defensive midfield pivot. Scott McTominay has performed in 16 of these 19 away video games. Fred has began 12 of them, and been lacking for all however one among the house defeats.
On the different hand Solskjær has tended to play a extra attacking hand at house, typically beginning with 5 overtly attacking gamers on the pitch. Paul Pogba has began each house league sport wherein United have dropped factors this season, bar the 0-0 with Chelsea the place he got here on for the final 32 minutes.
Examine these variations and the thriller of United’s inverted kind is not any thriller in any respect. Solskjær isn’t simply selecting a extra defensive crew away from house. He’s selecting a simpler one. That pared again, double-pivot “away” formation is United’s greatest self proper now. Solely Stuttgart have scored extra counterattacking objectives in the entire of Europe this season. This can be a perform of the identical forces. The midfield pivot provides the platform to be snug with out the ball, to permit an opponent to be drawn ahead.
Then, as ever, there’s Bruno Fernandes. The beginning level for all this, that win in opposition to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in February 2020, was additionally Fernandes’s first Premier League away sport. Searching for a register of 1 man’s inventive affect? United’s 19-match run has spanned Fernandes’s total United profession so far. 13 of his 23 league objectives have come away from house.
The away crew, the away form: all of it simply appears to suit a bit of higher. The very best of this crew has been Fernandes lurking in these half-spaces, with licence to take dangers, to search for a degree of incision each time, with Marcus Rashford (this season: house objectives three, away objectives six) haring off into area forward of him.
It’s, after all, a self-fuelling course of. Fernandes has spoken about “the perception” United really feel away from house. That road-trip spirit looks like one thing strong and galvanising at a time when soccer can appear imprecise and half-formed. Earlier than the 2-1 win at Fulham in January – sport 17 – it was putting how fiercely bonded the gamers checked out kick-off. There are all the time hugs and backslaps. These have been hugs and backslaps with feeling.
United gained at Craven Cottage with one other late objective, one other three factors gained from a dropping place. This has been the sample lately, with 4 attracts and three victories by a single objective of their final seven away video games. It’s a run that will probably be examined to the full on Sunday by opponents in a robust swell of kind.
That is the different level of fascination, a gathering of second and fifth, that additionally pitches Solskjær in opposition to Thomas Tuchel, the man who oversaw United’s ejection from the Champions League in December. That night time at Outdated Trafford it was Tuchel’s redeployment of his Paris Saint-Germain frontline after half-time that tipped the sport. Tuchel additionally loves a double pivot. He loves a tactical puzzle.
United aren’t only a good away crew: they’re a very good crew once they play a sure method. Extending that run to twenty on Sunday afternoon would affirm that this road story actually does have some substance to it.