STOKE CITY VS MANCHESTER UNITED
02
.02.2014

Following an encouraging midweek win against Cardiff, United travelled to Stoke looking to win again in an attempt to make up ground on the teams above them in the battle for a Champions League place. This was the middle of what looked like three winnable games against middle or lower table sides before a tougher assignment at Arsenal later in the month.

PERSONNEL

In: Carrick, Cleverley and Rooney.
Out: Rafael, Giggs and Valencia.

KEY POINTS

  • This was a disappointing defeat. Circumstances in the form of injuries conspired against United, but that shouldn’t mask shortcomings both in approach and performance.
  • The response to the injury to Jones was questionable. Why move Rooney back into a deep midfield position when a midfield player in Fletcher is available on the bench. This decision didn’t work. Rooney and Cleverley were usually too deep, leaving space between the central midfield pair and the front four.
  • In terms of performance Stoke away is a cliché in English football for a test of character. Conditions, the ground is exposed and often windy, and the robustness of the home teams approach are often rightly or wrongly seen as an examination of whether a team has the mentality and determination to be a successful side as well as ability. Early this season in worse conditions United passed the Stoke test, here they did not. Why?
  • Mata was employed in a wide right position, although both he and Young played narrow. Mata was at his most influential when he moved to a more central position including his assist for United’s goal. Is there a lesson in this?

FIRST HALF

We are going to depart from our usual format for this report. We will set out the basic facts of the game and perhaps make a couple of tactical points, but we want to take a look at a few general issues which seem pertinent in view of the way things have been going for United lately.

The bare facts of this game are that we lost a match and so lost three points in the competition for a Champions League place. It doesn’t mean that United won’t make that fourth place, but obviously United do need to start winning games if they are to make up ground on those teams above them. As such this result was a significant setback, especially after a win in midweek. That win, the signing of Juan Mata and the return of Rooney and van Persie from injury made many a little more optimistic, this defeat left everyone feeling flat.

It has to be said that there were a number of mitigating factors leading to this defeat, conditions, injuries and disruption during the match itself. All these are factors and any team can win any match, but what we want to do here is pick out a number of general issues which are contributing to United’s current malaise.

starting 11       1st half reorganisation

United starting formation                 United first half reorganisation

The facts of the first half are as follows:

  • United started the game with Smalling at right fullback and Evra on the left. Jones and Evans were a central defensive pair with Carrick and Cleverley in front of them. Juan Mata started on the right with Young on the left. Rooney started deeper than Young. After 11 minutes United were forced to make a change after an injury to Evans. The change was logical; Rafael was introduced at right back with Smalling moving into the middle to partner Jones.
  • After 38 minutes Stoke scored when an Adams shot from outside the box took a deflection off Carrick and beat De Gea.
  • After 39 minutes Jones was injured and had to leave the field. United introduced Welbeck and moved Rooney into midfield and Carrick to centre back. United ended the half trailing 0-1.

Morale and confidence within the side are reportedly low at the moment. The team does seem to have  a lack of self belief. Any setback; conceding a deflected goal, injuries during a game, present problems that the side doesn’t seem to have the belief to overcome. Stoke is always a challenge, an awkward difficult fixture, in front of their own fans they are combative and show their own resilience. You have to match that whatever the situation – sink or swim. United didn’t exactly sink here, this was a fairly even game but lacked the conviction and belief to assert themselves and overcome both difficult circumstances and the opposition.

This brings us to the second key point, United currently lack natural leaders in the side. In situations where you suffer a few setbacks you need a leader to rally the troops, encourage or scold. Vidic is a natural leader, but age and injuries prevent him playing as often as required these days. Looking to the future he can’t be that leader. Rooney can lead by example, but his recent chequered relationship with the club might undermine that status in the eyes of many. Jones appears the natural leader of the future. The word around Manchester is that he could start an argument in an empty room and Sir Alex famously signed him after he gave a performance against United for Blackburn in which he failed to give in and accept the inevitable defeat when all his teammates had thrown in the towel.

Ideally United would like more than one leader on the pitch and Jones needs to establish himself as a top class automatic choice in a settled position. That would be centre-back but unfortunately circumstances have prevented this so far. He needs this for his leadership to have the gravitas which comes from excellence and reliability.

On to the third point then; United’s have a significantly unbalanced squad. The use of Jones out of position at right-back or in midfield is a classic example of this. This applies across the squad, but even in particularly areas of the team we have too many similar players. This means that United have a limited flexibility to play different strategic approaches, but also that there is often a need to play players away from their usual and best positions, (Carrick here for example). Sir Alex was as guilty of this as David Moyes in truth, but recent results have thrown the spotlight on this issue and it isn’t Sir Alex’s problem to sole now. In most cases players are not as confident when played out of position, which points back to the first issue we raise here.

In defence United started this season with five centre-backs, but often two of them are played at right-back where we have only one established player. After the signing of Mata we have three players who have played either most of their football as a Number 10 or seem a natural for that position, as well a young player in Januzaj who will probably play there in the future. We lack both creative players and box-to box players in midfield and all our wingers are inverted wingers who tend to come narrow and leave space outside for overlapping full-backs. This point returns our attention to a weakness at full-back, (numerically at right-back, and in terms of performance at left-back). Buttner our second choice left back is a former winger, he is perhaps the best crosser in the club, but other aspects of his game are a concern. We love Evra, but he appears to be well past his peak.

SECOND HALF

So we start with the basic facts of the second half:

  • United scored an equalizer in the 47th Minute. Van Persie made it two goals in two appearances. A ball was directed forward to Welbeck, who was offside. It was intercepted but the clearance was easily picked up by Mata and he found van Persie with a simple but intelligent pass through the middle. Van Persie finish was typically efficient. Boom! Would United now push on?
  • No, on 52 minutes Adams scored with a great strike from distance. From United’s perspective this was too easy for Stoke with defenders standing off and allowing player’s time to develop the move without pressure on the ball. You can’t let people have easy possession around your penalty area.
  • On 78 minutes United removed van Persie and replaced him with Hernandez. In terms of position a straight swap.

2nd half United in the 2nd half

David Moyes decisions in response to Jones first half injury seem a little strange. Moving Carrick to centre-back was perhaps necessary, but why did he bring on Welbeck rather than Fletcher? Moving Rooney back into a deeper midfield position alongside Cleverley did not work and it highlighted another general issue.

David Moyes likes his teams to press. This was evident at Everton and in his early games at United. But it’s the front four who he asks to press, the rest aim to get back into shape in deeper positions. The theory is that the front four might win the ball early in a high position when the opposition are out of shape. You then benefit from a quick transition to use the jargon. The problem is that if you don’t and the opposition beat your press there is suddenly a lot of space between your defence and the two deep midfield players who you have asked to sit and screen the defence and the forward players. This has been a very noticeable feature of United’s games this year and has been a weakness both when we have the ball and when we don’t. When we have the ball there is too much space between the midfield players and the forward line. The midfield players sitting deep have to pay longer balls forward which are often picked off by the opposition. When we don’t have the ball, having beaten the press, (and we aren’t pressing as much anyway these days), the opposition are able to hold the ball and can retain possession, take the pressure off and eventually assert themselves coming forward. In countless games this season when teams realise that after an initial attempt to win the ball back we are going to sit off them they are then emboldened and take control of the game. This has happened on many occasions at Old Trafford when after a promising high tempo start the opposition come into the game, have at least an equal share of possession and as United wilt they score.

At Stoke this was evident with Charlie Adam having a lot of time and space. Both his goals came from shots taken from that area in front of United’s screening midfield players and both came after periods when Stoke had relatively uncontested possession or put another way when United’s back six were concentrating more on keeping shape and covering space than challenging for the ball.

“It’s the midfield stupid!” as Bill Clinton actually meant to say. How do you close that gap? In this game Rooney sat incredibly deep and was too far away from Mata and Young. Both Cleverley and Rooney concentrated on trying to thread forward passes to the front four. Occasionally this worked, but not often enough. United’s best moment came when Mata moved into the midfield gap in the middle, most obviously evidenced by United’s goal, (two games, two assists now for “the special Juan”). But what United actually need is a box-to-box all round creative midfield player, (or two), who can get up and down into this space, screen in the deep and create and link in higher positions. They must be a ball winner as United simply do not break up the oppositions play often enough. This type of players would bring the best out of other areas of the team. United must break the bank for this type of player in the summer. This is an absolute must.

The final point we would make is that faced with “the midfield gap”, United tend to move the ball wide. We have made the point earlier about the narrowness of our wingers and the inability to stretch the opposition out across the pitch. Teams are able to compress space and defend narrowly against us, but the other point here is that our crossing is incredibly poor. Plenty of other people have quoted statistics on successful crosses and whilst a cross is often a 50/50 ball the challenge is to improve your crosses so that they become 60/40’s. This is about the quality of the crossing, but also getting bodies into the box. That is difficult when the two midfield players start in such deep positions but also isn’t helped by poor movement. This applies both in and around the box and in general. We will leave the issue of poor movement for another day.

CONCLUSION

The points made here aren’t all a criticism of David Moyes, morale is low and he has perhaps made a few strange decisions. But he is learning about his players and many of the issues raised were pre-existing before he came to United. The midfield and crossing have been an issue we have highlighted for over two years and Sir Alex failed to address them satisfactorily in that time.

We have a few problems at the moment, but making the right key decisions and buying the right type of players in the summer may see a significant improvement relatively quickly. And in the words of the Fat Controller “patience is a virtue”.