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Andy Mitten: Manchester United’s away form is the key to launching a serious title challenge

Football journalist, author and United aficianado Andy Mitten on the cold war with Real Madrid & why Louis van Gaal must get the Red Devils' form on the road up to speed this season.

by Andy Mitten | August 12, 2015

Manchester United and Real Madrid. The stand-off continues.

The two giants desire each others’ players, but there’s more at stake that the mere trading of talent. Ego and status come into play with Madrid top of the transfer food chain, yet United wanting to show otherwise – or at least take the sting out of the Spaniards’ perceived arrogance.

In 2013, I asked Ed Woodward: ‘Would United lose a Ronaldo to Madrid in the future?’

We won’t lose on price. I don’t like the fact that we miss him (Ronaldo) as a player, he was phenomenal. I’ll always remember him at Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final. I saw some Arsenal fans applaud him off the pitch. That guy was a genius, an absolute top, top player.

Unlike then, when Sir Alex Ferguson talked of a lack of value and the Glazers’ transfer policy was based on parsimony, United can compete with Madrid for wages and the club’s commercial revenues are higher than those at the Bernabéu.

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What’s another year?

United use various indicators when attracting a myriad of sponsors to show how they’re the most popular team in the world. Selling their best players to Real Madrid, who also claim to be the most popular, hardly reinforces that.

But it’s tough for the Reds to keep hold of a Madrid-born goalkeeper such as David de Gea, who wants to return to his home city. United are standing firm; Madrid, with the help of their pro-club media, the same. They claim that they can wait a year and get him for free, and their fans are fine with that.

United think that by that time they would have had De Gea for five years and, given that he only cost £17.8 million, the club will have had excellent value from one of football’s best goalkeepers. Of course they would like to get the shot-stopper to sign a new contract and to sell him for the profit reflecting his market value, but the Spaniard has shown no inclination to sign the huge deal put in front of him.

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Naughty step

He also indicated that he was ready, able and happy to play against Spurs, though his manager, Louis van Gaal (above) thought otherwise. Van Gaal was largely satisfied with replacement Sergio Romero’s debut in the 1-0 win over Spurs on Saturday, making two key saves as Spurs pushed for an equaliser.

Sergio saved us twice but we have to improve his building up.

When asked if he could see De Gea playing for United again, Van Gaal replied:

Of course I can see David de Gea playing for United again. The position of goalkeeper is where you need the highest concentration. We have observed that. It was not the same David de Gea – and he felt the same – as last year. When the situation is cleared after September 1 then we look again.

De Gea doesn’t actually concur, but Van Gaal – whether he’s right or wrong – he has the courage to go by his convictions. If a player isn’t doing what he wants them to do then they don’t feature.

Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Victor Valdes and De Gea have already been on the naughty step this season for various perceived misdemeanours, four baffled Spanish speakers hoping the situation changes.

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Cold war

Will there be others? Van Gaal also told his players that he anticipated Sergio Ramos (above) joining in the summer. Ramos’s agent/brother also told Madrid that Sergio wanted to leave for Old Trafford. This now looks improbable as United and Real Madrid scowl at each other from afar in their own Cold War.

United are still chasing Barça’s Super Cup hero Pedro – without so far meeting his €30 million buy-out clause – Van Gaal seems set on a 4-2-3-1 formation – though United fans remain sceptical.

They will be patient, but they also want to be thrilled. As with much of last season, there was scant entertainment on Saturday and Van Gaal admitted his side had been lucky. He also feels that they’ll improve and the players purchased have been welcomed by the United faithful.

Memphis had a quiet debut after signing from PSV and needs to adjust to English football. Ditto Bastian Schweinsteiger. They’ll get time. Morgan Schneiderlin was another debutant who Van Gaal said was too eager and too passionate.

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Home discomforts

United are not as comfortable at home as they were under Ferguson (above). But while Old Trafford doesn’t appear as impenetrable and the football is as about as exciting as that once seen under Dave Sexton (1977-81), Van Gaal has made United hard to beat at home again.

Only three of 19 visitors managed it last term and, psychologically, Van Gaal built up the importance of winning to his players last Saturday after the opening day defeat to Swansea a year ago.

He admitted post-match that he’d put too much pressure on some of them to win, but it was crucial that United triumphed after he got everything his way pre-season.

The slender victory gave the manager reason to smile as he sang a line from the Beatles ‘When I’m 64’ on his 64th birthday. Scoring more than the 64 goals that David Moyes’ team managed in the league would be a start, but as Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino pointed out, United managed one shot on target in 94 minutes.

Through good fortune and good goalkeeping, United kept a clean sheet against Spurs and the defence was tight enough last season to compare with the league’s best teams, but it’s still an area of concern.

LVG brought in Italian international full-back Matteo Darmian and he’s been the best of the five new acquisitions so far, rarely losing the ball and his positioning pleases his boss. Darmian looked fine in a defence on Saturday where Chris Smalling also performed well.

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Away the lads

But United had two significant weaknesses last season: the lack of away wins and a scarcity of goals.

Despite improving their league position to a fourth-placed Champions League play-off place they only hit the onion bag 62 times, two less than the horrendous season under Moyes (above) when they were also-rans for much of the season and finished 7th.

The top three of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal won 10 or 11 times on the road, while United – despite the league’s best away support – managed only six victories. Southampton, Swansea and Crystal Palace in 7th, 8th and 10th all won more times away. The top three drew four or five; United drew eight.

Turning those draws and defeats into wins will be imperative if United are to mount a serious title challenge.

And it starts with a police-enforced trip to Aston Villa on Friday night. United didn’t win away from Old Trafford until the end of November, yet they then beat Arsenal. They also defeated Liverpool at Anfield, Southampton at St Mary’s, Newcastle at St James’ Park and Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park – all difficult places to take three points.

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Stroll in the Park

In 1993, United played an August away game under the lights at Villa Park. It was one of the best performances in one of the greatest season’s in their history, with Lee Sharpe (above) scoring twice in a 2-1 win against the team who’d pushed United for the title months earlier.

Villa have never been close to being the team they were back then, United are not close to the level of the team which won the domestic double in ’94, a team whose first XI was a given.

With 25 players currently jostling for position and Van Gaal still talking about philosophy rather than personnel, United’s chances of success this season may rest on finding that much-needed, settled line-up, sooner rather than later.

Andy’s Match Prediction:

Villa 1 United 1 @ 6/1.  Rooney to score first @ 4/1 or first for his team @ 13/5.

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