MANCHESTER UNITED vs STOKE CITY
United went into this game on the back of perhaps their most rounded performance at the weekend against Hull City looking for another three points to maintain a reasonable gap to Southampton. With a visit to St Mary’s next a fourth straight win seemed to be a must.
In: Herrera and Wilson.
Out: Rooney and di Maria
- In the first half United lost their shape with Fellaini playing deep almost as a double pivot alongside Carrick. After half time he played noticeably higher and the pattern of the game was similar to that seen against Hull City.
- United again enjoyed a majority of the possession, (64% across the whole match). In the first half this was largely in deep areas and only after half time when United had a better shape did they begin to create better chances.
- Stoke defended in numbers in the first half, often in two banks of four. After the break United put them under more pressure. United’s second goal encouraged Stoke to chase the game and it was only then that United began to create clearer cut chances.
- James Wilson had a good busy game alongside van Persie. His pace troubled Stoke particularly as they chased the game. A little more composure would have seen him score or create a goal for his strike partner.
- We all hoped that Robin van Persie’s goal at the weekend would see an upturn in his form, but while he worked hard in this match for long periods of the game he made very little impact.
- David de Gea had little to do in this match, but when called upon he was magnificent again.
- Marcos Rojo has had some criticism from United fans to date but in the last three games he has looked confident and assured as a defender and when looking to combine at the back to start forward moves. He was excellent again here.
It has been reported that United’s shape in this game was 4-2-2-2, but actually they started in a 4-4-2 diamond, much as they had played in the previous fixture against Hull. This shape mutated into a 4-2-2-2 early in the first half. After the game van Gaal stated he was not happy with the first half performance for a number of reasons, one of which was that the team did not retain the correct shape. The point is that several players showed a lack of spatial discipline.
United’s starting formation and how it developed in the first half.
United were on top from the start, passing and moving much as they had at the weekend. Stoke had their own moments, retaining the ball well, but in the most part United dominated possession again and Stoke retreated into two banks of four. United did not create any significant chances early in the game however and this was principally because most of their passing was in deep positions. There is a danger with a possession based philosophy that the focus is on passing and possession without the focus being on the real business of chance creation. Without the pace of di Maria or the drive of Rooney and with van Persie still looking unsure of himself it appeared that this was the case here.
In terms of player positioning what happened is that Fellaini sat deep, almost as a second pivot alongside Carrick. Fellaini was the least mobile player on Saturday and tended to stay deep but here he was even deeper. As a consequence there was space in front of Fellaini and Herrera who was supposed to be playing at the tip of the diamond shuffled over into this space. With Mata often pushing over to the left this transformed the shape into a 4-2-2-2.
This resulted in a game where Stoke sat deep waiting to hit United with the pace of Diouf, N’Zonzi and Bojan when they could. United passed well in the deep but most of this play was in front of Stoke and wasn’t hurting them. When they did look slightly more dangerous was when they pushed forward in wide positions with Young on the left being particularly active as an attacking force. His energy induced Mata to push over towards him looking for overloads. Carrick tended to stay deep, which was his task, but with Fellaini also deep United did not make enough impact in or around the Stoke penalty area.
United’s best chance in the opening period of the game came not as a consequence of good possession football but from pressing from the front. United managed to put enough pressure on the Stoke defence to force Begovic into playing a poor pass to Bardsley. This resulted in a good chance for Herrera who blazed over the bar after van Persie had selflessly squared to him.
Then after 21 minutes, Boom! Fellaini scored. This goal came from a Herrera cross, another example of forward movement on the left. The far post cross was met by Fellaini who ghosted in past a static Assaidi to head home. United merited the lead based upon possession and the nature of the goal was perhaps predictable given the way United were playing.
Nothing changed after the goal although as the half wore on Stoke were slightly bolder in pressing United. Stoke did have periods of the game when they were able to retain the ball and pass around the United midfield and on several occasions they were successful in pressing United in deep positions. This is how the Stoke equalizer came about.
Stoke had a period of possession in the United half but eventually lost the ball. They did not retreat however but pressed United forcing a poor clearance towards Fellaini. He was pressed and lost the ball himself. Bojan picked up possession and ran directly at the United inside right channel. He was dispossessed but the ball ran free to N’Zonzi just outside the United box. He calmly and accurately fired a low shot into the corner of United’s net. Stoke’s willingness to press having achieved a transition in United’s half resulted in several United players being out of position.
That goal came on 38minutes. Between that point and halftime the pattern of the game remained unchanged so the half time score was 1-1.
It was immediately clear at the start of the second half that van Gaal had instigated a few changes to improve the shape of the side. Carrick stayed deep in front of the back four but Fellaini was higher and Herrera more central. The shape was now 4-1-3-2 as seen against Hull at the weekend. United also played higher up the pitch and were therefore asking more questions in the Stoke City defensive third. The game went through a period where United passed and moved well and at a higher tempo than in the first half. United still found it difficult to create clear cut chances but Stoke were now looking stretched.
Then on 58 minutes United got a second goal. Having won a free kick on the United right Mata delivered a cross into the penalty area. Rojo jumped and the ball just cleared his head. It cleared everybody else as well and nestled in the far corner of the goal. Boom!
After this goal United were able to find more space as Stoke began to commit players forward. Their shape became a 4-2-3-1 with the front three looking to press United high up the pitch. Often United were able to avoid this press and find more space beyond it. This was as a consequence of the calm play of United’s players in deep areas. As on Saturday Carrick played a vital role here dropping between the two centre backs as they split into wide areas.
This lead to several chances which United should perhaps have taken. The first such chance fell to Wilson on 69minutes, (freed by Mata he beat four men before shooting wide when he should perhaps have played van Persie in). Then on 71 minutes Wilson again ran at Stoke out on the right and was deliberately fouled by Ireland. This could have been a sending off but that misses the point; Stoke were now pushing numbers forward and looked vulnerable to the break. The next chance fell to Fellaini who blazed wide after Mata had freed him for an overlap on the right.
On 77minutes van Gaal made his first change replacing Wilson with Falcao, a straight swap. This did nothing to alter the shape or pattern of the game. Then on 85minutes Fletcher replaced Herrera, who had just received a heavy challenge.
Stoke were still pushing men forward and United were still finding space behind their press as the game entered time added on and up to this point Stoke had not created significant chances. In extra time Januzaj replaced Mata. In the last two minutes Stoke then had two great chances to save the game. Both came from high balls into the box. Stoke had introduced Crouch after 77 minutes and Arnautovic on 82minutes but it wasn’t until this point that perhaps in desperation they went more direct. De Gea produced two great saves, the second followed up by a goal line clearance by Ashley Young to secure a fourth victory on the bounce.
This was not as good a performance as United had produced on Saturday but nevertheless it was a deserved victory. United had 64% of the possession but did not maintain their shape well in the first half. After the break they had a better shape but squandered chances as Stoke looked to change the game.
One aspect of this performance which followed the pattern seen on Saturday and is increasingly becoming a feature of United’s play is the comfort of individual players on the ball in all areas of the pitch. Players are now prepared to receive the ball in tight areas and look confident in their ability to retain possession. In most instances they do so. Players also look confident in their teammate’s ability to retain possession in tight situations and so are prepared to make early passes to players. This of course makes it far easier for the player receiving the pass to retain the ball because the early pass puts the opposition on the back foot.
This wasn’t a great performance but United got the job done.