STOKE CITY vs MANCHESTER UNITED
United entered this game with their unbeaten run intact but with stuttering momentum, this was particularly so in away games; they have had 5 of their 6 draws away from home. In comparison to last season’s form United are 8 points worse off but are better placed in the league. Historically United do well against Stoke, winning 11 of the 14 Premier League meetings.
In: Shaw and Smalling.
Out: Valencia and McNair.
- The tempo of United’s play was too slow, passing was indirect and played into the hands of Stoke’s back five; di Maria who was missed could have drawn Stoke out of their defensive shape.
- United’s wing play wasn’t as successful as it could have been, Walters in particular subdued Shaw effectively..
- Set pieces were a poor, not just for United but Stoke too. The lack of authority when defending them was United’s downfall.
- 2 shots on target from United is not enough. Much is made of our firepower but that stat is just not good enough.
- This was United’s third draw in four games.
Barely enough time had passed to assess the shape of both teams when Stoke took the lead after a set piece which was badly defended. Nuisance Crouch heading a ball down rather than onto an unmarked Shawcross who did well technically to guide the ball into the United net. 1-0 down after a minute.
Whether it was in Stoke’s game plan to sit back we cannot be sure but their formation following the goal was a solid 5-3-2 which had a good spread about it but when they got the ball up into United’s final third they were light in personnel. This was why United looked comfortable when defending and when coming forward with the ball from the back, Stoke were clearly following Villa’s lead of pressing when approaching the middle third/halfway line. United’s other options, out wide, was stifled through the impressive Walters and Arnautovic who weren’t as close to their full backs as they had been in Stoke’s game against Chelsea.
Rooney, again in his deeper role was clearly getting frustrated as Whelan and N’Zonzi screened. There were few options for him even though United appeared in control, enjoying a great deal of possession but the early phases showed that United needed to do better, Shaw with a poor header and a van Persie flick were early examples of poor ball retention. Yet it was the solidity of Stoke’s back 5 which demonstrated United’s need for greater penetration and ball retention in and and behind the defence. Van Persie as the lone striker, in comparison to the more industrious Falcao, should have done more to open up the channels.
Boom! Falcao scored from a set piece; a messy affair which saw him stab home from close range. No team has conceded more from set pieces this season than Stoke; the Tony Pulis Stoke are long gone. It was most surprising that this was Carrick’s first league assist since Boxing Day 2012.
In United’s 3-5-2 Falcao and van Persie didn’t position well against each other. There are hints of Tevez about Falcao with his willingness to work hard, not as erratic as the Argentinean but he covers the ground and perhaps because of this the link between him and his fellow striker does suffer. It’s good that van Gaal is fitting both strikers and Rooney into his team but greater cohesion is needed between the two. What will happen when di Maria returns will be interesting?
The defending from set pieces did not improve as the half came to an end and de Gea was being urged by his defenders on a number of occasions to come and take the ball either in the air or on the edge of the box. It was concerning that this hadn’t been improved upon from the game at Old Trafford where the same issues with set pieces happened, that time as van Gaal noted post match, United were lucky.
The pattern of the game did not change significantly after half time so that the first thing to note in this half was the substitutions; Falcao and Shaw off for Januzaj and Herrera after 62 minutes. This saw Rooney push up to partner van Persie and Januzaj was a straight swap for Shaw, except that the Januzaj for Shaw swap meant far greater uncertainty when defending. Van Gaal wanted the win! Did van Gaal see a Rooney and Falcao combination as players of similar movement as a negative? The number of touches both players had for the time they were on the pitch made interesting reading, van Persie 17 to Falcao’s 40. It would have been interesting to see van Persie come off and attempt to increase the tempo in United’s play. The lack of pace needed to be addressed, Young wasn’t significantly but pulled his hamstring on 73 minutes. This was a shame as you could have imagined Wilson coming on to inject pace instead of Rafael who was needed to replace Young.
It was clear that United lacked something when Falcao was replaced and this saw Stoke push much higher than before yet still maintained their shape especially when defending.
The set piece confusion continued, seeing the diminutive Herrera marking the bigger Stoke players. Despite Stoke only having two shots on target the defence and goalkeeper needed to be more commanding and as the half petered out you could imagine this United side becoming a class unit if the defence receives investment or existing players develop more belief and solidity. Hopefully, it’s the latter but this seems unlikely.
Stoke didn’t take this game to United they sat back. When Stoke played Chelsea they enjoyed much more possession and statistically came out on top but Mourinho’s Chelsea are prepared to sit back more than van Gaal’s United, he wants 90 minute dominance every game.
United’s inability to break Stoke down was frustrating; Stoke’s back 8 were robust and this led to a poor United performance. To overcome this United needed more pace to draw Stoke players out from their defensive shape; di Maria was missed. The space and time United had was given to them rather than earned. United need to be more direct, at times there were too many extra touches which failed to come off.
Van Gaal wasn’t happy with the performance, two shots on target isn’t good enough and the away form needs to improve if any kind of title challenge is to be forthcoming; top 4 seems more likely.