MANCHESTER UNITED vs STOKE CITY
After a mid-week Europa League win United went into this game looking to win their fourth match in succession and go into the second international break of the season on a positive note.
In: De Gea, Blind, Valencia and Herrera.
Out: Romero, Rojo, Fosu-Mensah and Fellaini.
- United controlled the game and had lots of chances, but they failed to take them. A combination of poor finishing, good saves and the woodwork thwarted them. From a total of 24 shots on goal you would expect to score more than one goal.
- Whilst this was a better performance than in the last Europa League game and perhaps as good as the performance against Leicester United still generally played too slowly and their passing was too deliberate at times.
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic has played well in the last couple games but here he struggled to impose himself up front against Shawcross who constantly fouled him. He got little protection from the referee. His movement was good, as was that of the other front platers; if they can combine that movement with a higher tempo of passing this would be significantly more effective.
- The balance of the midfield did not feel right in this game. Pogba and Mata were often too high leaving Herrera deep. Herrera is a busy player but does he have the vision and range of passing to direct play from the deep? Pogba deeps to drop deeper at time to help build up play and win the ball back.
- The introduction of Martial’s pace, but more importantly his directness, made a significant difference and led directly to the goal.
Jose Mourinho made four changes from the team that played in the Europa League game three days earlier but this was in fact a reversion to the eleven that started the last Premier League game against Leicester. That meant Pogba and Mata in a midfield three ahead of Herrera as the holding midfield player. Opinion seems divided as to whether this is a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1; were calling it as a 4-3-3 because in these last two league games Pogba has generally played in such an advanced position but we would acknowledge that when United are in defensive phase he drops back, as do the wide attacking players making the shape more of a 4-2-3-1 at that point.
United’s first half shape and Ibrahimovic with a double chance early in the game
The defining characteristic of the play over the last few games however has been the fluid nature of the front four, five if you include Pogba. Ibrahimovic and Pogba will move up and down the pitch, whilst Mata will play laterally across the line and Lingard and Rashford will generally come narrow across the line but will also occasionally switch positions.
United started the game positively with an early double chance and it would be easy to allow this review to become a list of chances spurned both in the first half but in truth across the whole game. Mourinho is right in his post-match statements that this could have been a “fat result” as he put it. These chances when they came were as a consequence of the movement described which was good and some intelligent passing in high areas. United didn’t score in the first half because they didn’t get enough of their shots on target and when they were on target they were not clinical enough. It’s fair to say that the Stoke keeper, Lee Grant, played well but there were a number of instances where United should not have really given him any chance to save at all.
Ibrahimovic, 6 shots, 4 on target. Pogba 6 shots, 1 on target.
To list the chances then. Ibrahimovic had a double chance in the second minute when played in by a beautiful Pogba pass. Then Pogba pulled a shot wide after clever interplay between Ibrahimovic and Lingard. Mata was unlucky with a chip from the edge of the box when there wasn’t really a chance at all and Pogba missed a free header from a corner. Lingard then saw a near post flick saved from a low cross fired in by Ibrahimovic on the left. For balance Stoke had a couple of half chances and they generally retained the ball well to relieve pressure.
The other factor which conspired to keep the score at 0-0 was the pace of United’s passing. As described the movement was good but often the passing was a little too slow and deliberate; players simply took one touch too many before releasing the ball. Add to this that United did not often win the ball back quickly and this meant that they did not generate a sustained period of intense pressure. All the chances described above, with the obvious exception of Ibrahimovic early double chances were spread fairly evenly across the half. United were on top, controlling the game but this meant that it didn’t feel as if Stoke were about to be overwhelmed.
As has often been the case this season Mourinho did not make any half time changes and United started the game in much the same way as they ended the first half. They were on top without overwhelming Stoke. In fact at the start of the second half the chances seemed to have dried up and consequently Mourinho made his first substitutions on 66 minutes.
United’s shape after the double substitution and substitute Wayne Rooney
This was a double change with Rooney and Martial replacing Lingard and Mata. Effectively this was a straight swap with Rooney occupying a roughly similar position to that occupied by Mata; Pogba dropping back a little. The shape was now closer to a 4-2-3-1. Rashford switched sides to the right with Martial occupying the space wide on the left. The change resulted in a goal within a couple of minutes. It wasn’t just the introduction of the new players however; Pogba dropping slightly deeper also made a small difference.
In the first half with United on top and looking for that breakthrough goal Pogba and Mata were often a bit too high. This did two things. Firstly it meant that Stoke could easily drop back into two banks of four but it also meant that a lot of United’s play was across the pitch rather than up and down. In this sense the balance of the play was not quite right. The second issue was that when Stoke won the ball they were able to find players moving into the space in front of the deeper Herrera. That allowed Stoke to retain possession and relieve pressure more easily as there was only Herrera in front of the centre backs to pick up players or the loose ball. Pogba dropping deeper changed this as he was able to help out and so win the ball and return the ball more quickly to United’s efforts.
In terms of the goal itself Martial made the difference. From the moment he came on he showed a willingness to run at the Stoke defence, cutting in diagonally from the left; but it was his pace made the difference. Running in from the left at such pace he is always going to draw players to him and as he entered the box three players confronted him. He laid the ball off to Rooney who hesitated allowing a Stoke defender to nudge the ball away from him. Unfortunately for the defender the ball ran back to Martial who curled a shot first time into the far corner. A great finish and ironically one of the harder chances United had enjoyed in the game. Boom! 1-0, 68 minutes played.
For about five minutes after this goal it looked like United would overwhelm Stoke and score more. Now their football did show urgency, the pace of their passing increased and with Pogba in a slightly deeper position they did win the ball back quickly. Further chances in this period fell to Blind and to Ibrahimovic. But Stoke held on and after that 5 minute period began to build in the game. Needing to score to get anything from the game they were now more adventurous. The fulcrum for them was Allen who had been playing well throughout and was now combining well with substitute Walters.
It looked like United were still in control but unfortunately a goalkeeping error let Stoke back into the game. On 83 minutes Glen Johnson was allowed time and space to run across from a wide left position. His shot was saved by De Gea but he spilled the ball forward rather than taking the easy option of pushing the ball round the post. Walters picked up the ball and shot; this was deflected onto the bar but fell for Allen who had an easy task to fire home the equaliser from close range. 83 minutes played 1-1.
United’s late shape and Pogba who hit the bar with a late header
Mourinho now made an instant substitution removing Herrera and introducing Memphis on the right. As part of this adjustment Rashford moved to a central position alongside Ibrahimovic with Rooney and Pogba as the central midfield pair in a 4-4-2. United had further chances thereafter, Ibrahimovic had a shot saved and Pogba headed against the bar as they mounted a last gasp bombardment. This was to no avail however and the match ended in a draw.
A very disappointing result considering that United controlled the game; they did not do enough however to make this count. Their play often lacked intensity and urgency and so as a consequence they never really generated a prolonged period of pressure. Stoke were well organised and so did not crack. Despite this United generated more than enough chances through good movement to have won the game by half time. This was two points dropped.