West Ham have beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City away from home this season, which is typical of a wider trend
You might not have noticed, but something strange is happening in the Premier League this season. All across the country, away teams are winning more frequently than home teams, and it’s stopping any single club from gathering maximum momentum.
Everton’s 3-2 win at West Brom on Monday was the 26th victory by the visiting side, while hosts have won just 24 fixtures. This pattern has kiboshed the belief that it’s hard to pick up points on the road and made the notion that home teams have an advantage look like a myth. That in turn is encouraging sides to be braver when playing away.
The psychological element is very important in football, yet there are also key tactical and personnel factors in operation. It’s no great secret that working hard in defence and breaking quickly works, but players now understand better how to play the counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 formation that has become de rigeur in the English top flight.
Better coaching may have contributed to that, and so has a higher quality of player. It’s no coincidence that the teams who have had the most success with this approach have bought well, and the vital attribute that scouts are increasingly being told to prioritise is pace. It is vital to this tactic, as it allows midfielders to break at speed and the formation to change from 4-5-1 to 4-2-3-1.
Manchester United top the Premier League after seven matches (Source: Getty)
Crystal Palace are a good example of a team that other sides are wary of because they play that way, using the pace of Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon and Bakary Sako. West Ham, who brought in pace and guile during the summer, have had great success, winning at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, while Everton’s win at the Hawthorns means they have eight points from four away games.
The reason it works so well is because the pressure is on home sides to score first. If the hosts miss two or three chances, the crowd can become tense and the players anxious, and that plays into the hands of the away side. The longer the visitors can stay in the match, the more the home team will try to force the issue, sometimes trying too hard or taking too many risks, and that’s when gaps appear for away sides.
How, then, can home teams counteract the counter? Tactics are less important, as the hosts will likely play on the front foot, whether it’s a 4-3-3 or another formation. Instead, it boils to down to simply being clinical. If home teams can get their noses in front, they undo their opponents’ strategy. If they don’t, they become susceptible, so the first half of matches is all-important.
Manchester United have been the most consistent club in the Premier League this term, and find themselves top of the table after trailblazing Manchester City ran aground. United have hardly waltzed to the top; they have ground their way there in dogged fashion using a restricted formation. Yet they have been clinical, and all the signs suggest that quality will decide who sits in first place come May.