MANCHESTER UNITED vs STOKE CITY
After a brighter performance and a win at Derby, United returned to League action at Old Trafford and a mid-week fixture against Stoke City. This was a key opportunity to not only build upon their previous performance but also to look to push on in pursuit of a top four place.
In: Darmian and Carrick.
Out: Valera and Schneiderlin.
- United played bright and enterprising football, full of energy and at a high tempo to race into a three goal lead. Thereafter they controlled the game.
- Much of the credit for an improved performance should go to Carrick and Mata. Carrick set the tone with early forward passing. Mata was energetic and imaginative at the centre of the front four. His attacking movement and prompting passing was excellent.
- But this performance was a much better team display. United were more positive in all areas. Playing with a high line they pressed Stoke and offered aggressive attacking intent.
- Stoke themselves played well and had a good share of possession, (xx%). They kept the ball well and committed men forward. This helped United who were then able to pick them off on the break. United’s second goal was a classic United counter-attack of old………a throwback.
- Anthony Martial was excellent throughout. Always threatening, always prepared to run at Stoke at pace. He contributed a goal and an assist.
Both teams started this game with 4-2-3-1 shapes. In United’s case the key change was that after playing the last 20minutes or so at Derby Carrick started for the first time in weeks. He was partnered as a pivot by Fellaini. Stoke played with the massive Peter Crouch up front and a number of busy and obviously smaller players around and just behind him.
United’s starting space and the excellent Juan Mata.
United started this game as they finished the game at Derby. They were busy, playing at a high tempo and passing the ball forward earlier in their moves. The most interesting feature at the start of the game was that Carrick played on the left rather than the right and Fellaini played on the right rather than the left. This switching of the usual positions was clearly a deliberate ploy and was probably intended to put the emphasis on attacking more on the left where Martial had such a good game against Derby. If this was the case then it worked.
United did attack more down this side of the pitch with Carrick looking to play the ball early towards Martial and critically in front of the player rather than to his feet. It is worth describing United’s general movement here. Generally United have tended to play fairly flat this season with a great deal of sideways passing. The emphasis has been on feeding the ball from side to side and looking to move the ball towards fullbacks and wingers, (or at least wide forwards as they aren’t really traditional wingers), for a number of reasons this hasn’t worked so well but over the last couple of games the approach has changed.
At the front Rooney is playing a little higher, behind him Mata is now playing as number 10 and is much more fluid in this role than either he or any of the other players who have featured here have been this year. He is also busier. Behind him in the pivot area Carrick has a more natural tendency to play the ball forward quicker. With Rooney occupying the opponent’s centre-backs, Mata occupies the opposition’s pivots by buzzing around like a busy bee and Carrick asking the questions with early testing passes the spine of the team is suddenly playing well, where for most of the season it has played fairly poorly. The emphasis or perhaps the balance between feeding the ball wide and feeding the ball through the middle is better.
When you push at the middle of anything this draws the sides in. Martial and Lingard responded to this emphasis by running laterally inside. Again this is their natural tendency and in doing so they take the opponents full backs with them. This creates a weight of bodies in the middle of the pitch, but crucially leaves space outside for the fullbacks to run into. If they do this and either Carrick or Mata or a combination of the two have the speed of thought to deliver the ball to those fullbacks they can then in turn deliver an early cross to the areas where United the opponents don’t want you to deliver the ball; behind their defence in the six yard box.
So Mata feed the excellent Borthwick-Jackson as Martial and Lingard came narrow. Lingard ran into the six yard box to meet Borthwick-Jackson’s cross, (he never hesitates to deliver an early cross) and Boom! 1-0 with a goal on 14 minutes. United had a first half lead at last.
United were playing well, but so were Stoke. They used the ball well, often using Crouch as an out ball and then looking to play off him as he knocked it on or back to joining players. United looked vulnerable to this at times with Smalling and Blind struggling against Crouch in the air. When Stoke got the ball into the United half they retained possession well and committed players forward. United coped with this but it often took a long time to win the ball back.
Fortunately when they did win it back they seemed to have remembered how to counter-attack and one such situation lead to a second goal. United worked the ball away from their penalty area on their right hand side. Carrick feed Lingard who played a pass to Rooney, he touched the ball off to Darmian who played an early ball to Mata higher up the pitch. Mata quickly shimmied between two players and pushed the ball inside to Rooney who had advanced. He looked up and played an early cross switching play to the right. The ball reached Martial who controlled in space looked up a curved a delicious shot into the far corner beyond Butland. Boom! This was a delicious goal. United moved the ball forward quickly and with great purpose. 2-0 after 23 minutes.
United were on top now but seemed to ease off a little. After 30 minutes Mark Huges was forced to make a change as Matrial was terrorising Wollscheid on the Stoke right. He was replaced by Phil Bardsley. United continued to probe on the left and always looked bright but their play in the final third was a little disjointed at times.
Some words about a number of players who had performed very well in the first half; Lingard did okay but was perhaps one of the causes of the disjointed play in the final third. He ran inside, presumably as part of the plan and that left space for Dramian. Darmian quietly had his best game to date in a United shirt here. Solid in defence he also pushed forward when he could and always kept the ball alive when he got into the final third. Rooney worked very hard. He occupied the Stoke centrebacks but also found time to occasionally interchange with Mata. Carrick and Mata as previously highlighted were excellent.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half were much like the last fifteen of the first half. United were playing bright enterprising football but the edge had gone out of their game, of course with a 2-0 lead they could afford to wait for chances to arise. Stoke continued to play well when they had the ball and retained the ball well. The problem for Stoke was that United scored again in the 53rd minute.
This goal was another example of United pushing down the centre to create space out wide. This time Blind played the ball forward down the centre of the pitch to Mata who feed the ball wide to Martial in space. He rolled the ball across the box for Rooney to stroke home from close range. This was a great goal with sharp, quick passing, a good tempo and a positive forward movement. Boom! 3-0 – game over.
With a three goal lead even more of the edge went out of United’s play and in fact much of their play resembled the steady cautious play United have become associated with this season. Strange then that the crowd did not become restive as they have in other games, or put another way amazing what a three goal lead can do. United simply controlled the game for a while but then seemed to have gone to sleep being second to virtually every ball. They had also become a little predictable in their play always seeming to attacking through Martial. Perhaps this prompted the changes.
On 79 and 80 minutes Van Gaal made a couple of changes withdrawing the excellent Martial for Memphis first and then Fellaini for Herrera. In terms of the positional shape this remained unchanged with both changes being straight swaps.
The game was fairly even now and seemed to be petering out. On 88 minutes Pereira came on for Mata.
This was a much better performance, perhaps United’s best display of the season. United played the game at pace, with good energy and positivity. Carrick and Mata were the key players down the spine of the side with invention and craft. Rooney was very mobile and Lingard and Martial provided pace and a threat in wide areas often ably supported by Borthwick-Jackson and Darmian, (perhaps Darmian’s best game in a United shirt?). United were busier in a game than they have been for quite some time.
They were helped however by Stoke, who were prepared to take the game to United at times. They did not park the bus and this allowed United to pick them off with quick counter-attacking moves after the transitions. The real test will come when United come up against a team that sets up to defend in a low block, but if United show the level of energy and positivity they showed here there is every chance that they will be, certainly more chance than they would have played as they have played over the last few months.
Perhaps Stoke under-estimated United, perhaps Stoke over-estimated themselves. Since the game several members of Her Majesty’s press and a couple of players have suggested that the difference in the last two performances is that they have been playing with greater freedom. The journalists seem to be suggesting that Van Gall might have granted the players this extra freedom. This is nonsense. The Van Gaal structure and method is still clearly there for all to see, the difference is that players themselves are taking more adventurous options rather than being over cautious safe and slow as they were before. Put another way good players in key positions are now playing well whereas before they were playing poorly. The method hasn’t changed.