STOKE CITY vs MANCHESTER UNITED
United went to Stoke looking to get back to winning ways after their draw the previous weekend against Liverpool. After weeks of winning and not moving up the league at least here was an opportunity to gain ground on those above them with Spurs and Manchester City meeting later in the day.
In: Blind, Smalling, Fellaini and Mata.
Out: Darmian, Rojo, Carrick and Martial.
- United’s finishing is a significant problem holding back the progress of the side. 25 shots here, only 8 on target. This and a general over reliance upon Zlatan Ibrahimovic has resulted in too many drawn games where United are the dominant force without capitalising on that.
- In the last few games United have lost an edge to their play. This comes down to the balance in the side. The shape here returned to a 4-3-3 but the component parts were different from when United were winning in some style a few weeks ago.
- In games like this, a tricky game against a competitive side you must start well. United did not. They were disjointed and whilst having a good share of possession they did not take control of the game. They had few clear shots on target in each half until the last 15 minutes of each period.
- United miss a player like Michael Carrick in a game like this. His early passes forward open teams up before they are set up in their defensive shape. Herrera is also better use in a more advanced position.
- Thankfully Jose Mourinho was on hand to instigate in-game changes to United’s shape and personnel to respond to what was happening on the field and as he often does exploit areas of perceived weakness in their team and tactical approach. He is a proactive manager who will always take the initiative.
After a couple of games where United have utilised a 4-2-3-1 shape they returned here to the 4-3-3 which had previously become the norm. This saw Herrera in the defensive midfield role with Pogba to the left and Fellaini to the right in more advanced positions. Mkhitaryan featured on the left of the attack and Mata on the right. Stoke set up as a 4-2-3-1 with Peter Crouch up front. They had Allen as a number 10 behind him and Whelan and Adam as the pivots.
United’s first half shape and Fellaini, as an advanced midfield player; often ahead of Pogba
The first fifteen minutes or so were fairly disjointed. United shaded this period of play; they had more possession but neither side created a great deal. It was not until about the 10 minute mark that either team produced any sort of passing rhythm and then it was United who had a spell of retaining possession. Even at this point the pattern of the half was clear. If United moved the ball forward quickly they looked far more threatening. If United were more patient they did not seem able to hurt Stoke. Stoke are always competitive of course in front of their own fans and they always seemed able to get a foot in. If United moved the ball forward quickly more often than not they were able to intercept or win a 50/50 and this contributed to possession constantly changing hands.
Then in the 19th minute Stoke scored, or more to the point United scored for them. From the middle of the pitch they moved the ball towards their inside left channel. Left back Peters made a run on the blind side of Mata who momentarily lost him. This was strange because just before this the United man had looked over his shoulder and knew he was there. Pieters run caught Mata flat footed and he tried to tug him back. That tug was ineffective and Mata had to sprint to recover ground as Peters ran into the box. As Peters crossed Mata stretched to intercept but only managed to divert the low cross past De Gea. Smalling from the centre had seen the danger and tried to come across. He was never going to reach Peters and was caught in between as the cross came in. Own goal 0-1.
To describe the rest of the half one would pick out a number of points. Stoke now had their tails up and backed by a raucous crowd took encouragement from the goal. United still had the majority of possession and as the half wore on seemed to be becoming more threatening. Their play however was still measured with the ball being moved forward on the majority of occasions without any urgency.
In midfield Fellaini was often the furthest forward with Pogba dropping deep. Was this deliberate? This is a possibility and could have been a response to the sides’ inability to move the ball forward quickly and effectively. Had Pogba dropped deep out of frustration? Whatever the reason for this it didn’t seem to be helping United’s play. Pogba is not as effective in the deep where his languid play is less of a threat and can on occasions be a liability, whilst in higher areas Fellaini lacks the vision to exploit situations.
The other noticeable feature of the half was that both Mata and Mkhitaryan were coming narrow and in Mkhitaryan’s case dropping deep. When he dropped deep Mkhitrayan and to a lesser extent Mata only really succeeded in recycling possession. Their play rarely threatened the opponent’s goal. The other consequence of this was that United were relying on their full backs for attacking width. Valencia provided this on occasions on the right but didn’t have many opportunities to get forward but Blind didn’t really do this on the left. He of course doesn’t have the pace to go past people and so it was fairly easy for Stoke to defend on a narrow front.
The stand out moment of the half for United however came in the 31st minute when United did manage to move the ball forward quickly from the back. The ball was played into the inside left area for Ibrahimovic to run onto. He centred to Mata who seemed to be in two minds as to how to finish. He failed to get his body shape right and hit the ball over the bar from about 5 yards out. Ibrahimovic had other half chances himself in similar positions but elected to try and play someone else in rather than shot.
At half time United were chasing the game with a 0-1 score line.
There were no half time substitutions and the pattern at the start of the second half was much the same as in the first half. United showed more attacking intent however; they played a little higher up the pitch and moved the ball more quickly. Playing higher up the pitch however simply compressed the play and much of the passing was still fairly cautious, side to side rather than towards the Stoke goal.
Stoke had their first shot of the half in the 51st minute. This was a speculative effort by Crouch from distance on the Stoke left. Perhaps this and the fact that United weren’t really getting behind Stoke prompted Mourinho to take the initiative and make a change in the 55th minute. This change introduce Rashford for Fellaini.
This saw Mkhitaryan move to the right hand side of the advanced midfield pair with Rashford joining the attacking line on the left. Ibrahimovic remained in the centre and Mata remained on the right. He still tended to come narrow and with Mkhitaryan pushing on this pair were competing for space. Mata coming inside meant that Valencia had plenty of space into which he could advance on the right and as a consequence United had the potential for attacking hrust with pace on both sides. Rashford’s starting position being further forward than Valencia’s he was the natural target for the early ball forward and on several occasions he demonstrated that he had the beating of his fullback for guile and pace. He almost got in a couple of times.
United after their first and second second half substitutions
United were now not just moving the ball more quickly now, but also moving the ball forward more quickly. Mourinho, perhaps to exploit this and mindful of the fact that Mkhitaryan and Mata were now operating in much the same areas made a second change in the 65th minute replacing Mata for Rooney. This changed United’s shape to something closer to a lop-sided 4-2-3-1. Pogba dropped deeper and Rooney played to the left of Mkhitaryan. Stoke were now beginning to drop deeper and deeper effectively defending their lead but also surrendering the initiative to United. This allowed Pogba to push forward often leaving Herrera to guard the area behind United’s attacking forays.
United’s shape late in the game and Lingard with a shot which hit the bar
In the 72nd minute Mkhitarayan was replaced by Lingard. Lingard’s striking position was out on the left but as is usually the case his movement is so fluid at times that he was just as likely to pop up anywhere across the attacking line. The game was now becoming a bit of a siege; United had 9 shots in the last 15 minutes of the game, but most of their efforts were half rather than full chances. A significant number of shots were blocked with the Stoke keeper not really having to make many saves. The best of these efforts came from Lingard, itself only a half chance, a shot from outside the box which hit the bar. The best that is until the equalizer.
This came in injury time. United were awarded a free-kick wide on the left in a high position roughly level with the penalty spot. Rooney lined this up as a cross shot the sought which might go in if nobody touches it but a killer cross in itself. It beat everybody. Boom! This goal makes Rooney United’s all-time highest goal scorer, and more importantly rescued a point.
This was a poor performance from United who started the game poorly. Not that they were outplayed but they did not assert themselves. It far to say this applied to both halves of the game. Of their 25 shots on goal a combined total of 18 came in the last fifteen minutes of each half. 9 of those shots were blocked with the Stoke keeper having to make only 7 saves. That is not a big enough percentage of 25.
The issue here is that United whilst dominating much of the play are not creating clear cut chances, but rather half chances. Ibrahimovic, United’s central striker for the whole match had one shot on goal. Herrera, Pogba and Fellaini each had four which tells a story particularly as a majority of shots were late in either half. What this says is that United are trying to create good chances but towards the end of the half when they are becoming if not desperate but more urgent they are then more inclined to shoot from distance try to make the most of a half chance.
Fortunately for United in Mourinho United have a manager who is proactive and after half time does not wait to change things. One change at a time he tinkers with the personnel and formation putting adjusting to change United’s approach to suit either what we are doing badly or well or any adjustments the opposition make during the game in response to his early changes or developing events on the field. Mourinho is known for this and has served United well in their last three games.