With the international break over United made the short trip to Stoke for the resumption of the club season. Stoke on their own ground is always considered a difficult fixture but United were full of confidence with three wins in their first three games. Would the break in domestic football have had an effect upon their momentum?


In: Darmian, Herrera and Rashford.
Out: Blind, Mata and Martial.


  • Making three changes Jose Mourinho also changed his starting shape; previously he has started games with a 4-2-3-1 and changed to a 4-3-3 later. Here he started with a 4-3-3 and then changed to a 4-2-3-1 late in the game.
  • Despite this the same general problem seen in earlier games persisted. They were too narrow when attacking. The balance of positional discipline and movement was not in balance here.
  • This United side will always have goals in them because they have pace and power in attack and therefore if they defend well they will win most games. Unfortunately, they didn’t defend well enough here.
  • Fullback play and is an issue. Stoke were too easily able to find space behind our midfield and in front of our fullbacks. Going forward the fullbacks did not offer enough to stretch Stoke.
  • Similarly, midfield balance and shape did not work as well as one would have liked, especially given that Jose selected what for many would be our first choice midfield trivote.


United started this game in a 4-3-3 shape with Matic anchoring the midfield and Herrera making his first start further forward on the right hand side of midfield. Pogba was further forward to the left. This meant that Mkhitaryan moved out to the wide right attacking birth and Martial was positioned on the left. Darmian replaced Blind at left back. Stoke set up with a three-man defence and two wing backs in a rough 3-4-2-1, United old boy Diouf as a wing back on the right and Pieters on the left. Ahead of Allen and another United old boy Fletcher in midfield sat Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting behind the front runner Rodriguez.

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United’s first half shape and Pogba who had a particularly fluid role in the 4-3-3 shape

In the initial opening stage of the game Stoke were full of energy and running and twice got behind United via the lively Choupo-Moting. The obvious tactic which persisted throughout the game was an early pass behind and between the two centre-backs and full backs. United with responded with a couple of early breaks back and early passes forward towards Rashford or Lukaku; initially the game had an end to end quality. But then after the opening ten minutes things settled down into a more predictable pattern which then persisted throughout the whole game.

From that point onwards United tended to have the majority of possession with Stoke sitting back in two lines, a five at the back with the wingbacks dropping deep and four in front. That four was formed by either Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting dropping deep dependent upon which side of the pitch United directed their play. This worked well for Stoke and also provided them with a good outlet for their occasional quick breaks forward as one of this pair was always higher supporting Rodriguez. As a consequence, as Stoke broke forward which they did with good pace they would look to direct the focus of their play to the side where the support player was. So if it was Choupo-Moting on the left they would pass in that direction, if it was Shaqiri they would pass right. Often this resulted in a long diagonal pass.

Enough of Stoke what did United do with the possession they had? The starting shape was a 4-3-3 but within that basic team structure the movement of players distorted that shape. The distortion though wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

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Herrera action areas, (left) and Pogba action areas, (right). Note Herrera stayed right whilst Pogba moved right across the pitch often clashing with the position of others

Firstly both Mkhitaryan and Rashford tended to come narrow which meant that United were often only attacking across the width of the penalty area. This was ideal for Stoke with their three central defenders. Mkhitaryan in fact often took up a central position behind Lukaku, the role he has fulfilled when United have started games with a 4-2-3-1, but here it simply congested the middle. In the midfield with Matic deeper and Herrera and Pogba further forward it was noticeable that whilst Herrera tended to stay on the right Pogba’s movement was far more fluid and frequently he moved to his right, so basically into a central position. This also contributed to the congestion here.

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Mkhitaryan action areas, (left) he tended to come inside into Herrera zone, the zone into which Pogba was also moving. Matic action areas, (right) he tended to stay deeper

The centre was too crowded for United to find a way through and they really needed width to stretch the Stoke defence out. For this they needed their fullbacks to get forward. Fullback play however was noticeably lob-sided in this game with Darmian staying deeper and Valencia moving further forward. As the half wore on Valencia became more adventurous but all too frequently both players recycled possession back towards the midfield rather than attacking the space behind the Stoke wingbacks.

Valencia and Darmian action areas; Darmian was far more cautious

Valencia and Darmian action areas; Darmian was far more cautious

The consequence of this pattern was that United’s best moments came when they broke forward quickly with long diagonal balls played early after a turn-over of possession into the spaces outside the widest Stoke defenders, so behind their wingbacks. In those moments Lukaku and especially Rashford looked particularly dangerous. These moments though were relatively rare with longer period of stagnant play being the norm. As these moments came after a turnover of possession they came about on the relatively rare occasions when Stoke pushed forward. The first half then was characterised by long periods of United possession punctured by brief periods of end to end breakaways. It looked through as if it would be 0-0 at half time until the very end of the half.

Unfortunately, it was Stoke who scored first. After a reasonably long period of Stoke possession United managed to break up play only for the home side to win the ball back. Darren Fletcher then produced a sublime cross field pass behind Darmian on the United left. Diouf centred first time and Choupo-Moting met the ball to finish from close range. Darmian, Bailly and Jones were all caught out of shape in transition as Stoke won the ball back but to be fair it was the accuracy of Fletcher’s pass which turned the United defence around and they never recovered. Those cross field switches were a feature of Stoke’s play and were perhaps part of the reason United’s fullbacks were lacking in the confidence to get forward and stretch Stoke. 53 minutes played and United faced a halftime break in arrears.

Rashford Boom! Even if he didnt know that much about it

Rashford Boom! Even if he didnt know that much about it

But on the stroke of half-time they struck back. This goal came from a set piece, a corner taken on the United left by Mkhitarayan. It was meet at the near post by Matic who headed on for Pogba to power a header towards goal. It hit Rashford on the back and went in. Rashford’s goal? 1-1, Boom! United are getting stronger at set pieces by the week, but so they should be with so many plus 6 foot players in their side.


At half-time Stoke made one substitution replacing Cameron in the middle of their back three with Martins-Indi. Their shape remained unchanged as did the general pattern of play. In fact, the second half started as had the first half with Stoke looking lively and having a few good early moments of pressure. Again through the game settled down into the previous rhythm but this time United managed to make a breakthrough.

In some ways this was a typical United goal in that it was scored with a quick break up the field having won the ball from the opposition as they attempted to come forward. This time it was Darmian who won possession on the left touchline. He ran forward with the ball unchallenged as the home side were out of position and fed the ball inside to Mkhitaryan in a central position. Initially it looked as if all three Stoke centrebacks were going to hold their line but then all three moved forward to close Mkhitaryan down at the same moment. Really one of them needed to come towards the ball, one track Lukaku and one drop to cover. As they both came forward a simple straight pass by Mkhitaryan took all three out of the game and played Lukaku through on the keeper. His first shot was saved, but his second wasn’t. Boom! 2-1 in the 56th minute.

Lukaku, Boom!

Lukaku, Boom!

By now Mkhitaryan was almost always playing in a central position which gave United a shape which often looked like a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. The problem was that this narrow shape left space in the inside channels for Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting to exploit. United continued to dominate possession but this pair dropping into the areas behind Pogba and Herrera often created problems on the break. United were hurt by this in the 61st minute when Stoke moved the ball through the half-space on Stoke right, centred and drew a great save from De Gea. He tipped the ball over for a corner but United failed to defend the corner well and Choupo-Moting outjumped Jones who was all at sea at the far post. His header beat De Gea; with 62 minutes it was all square at 2-2.

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United’s shape as Mkhitaryan moved to the number 10 space

There then followed a series of substitutions and one change of shape by United but actually whilst United were clearly the team pushing for the win towards the end of the game, the contest was a bit of a stalemate with neither team doing enough to deserve a win. For the record in the 72nd minute United introduced Mata and Martial in place of Rashford and Herrera and changed shape to a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba deeper as the second pivot.

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United’s shape late in the game as they made substitutions and pushed for the win

Stoke replaced Rodriguez with Berahino in the 75th minute and then United replaced Mkhitaryan with Lingard in the 83rd minute. Much of their play though was still too narrow. The change of shape though did restrict the impact of Shiqiri and Choupo-Moting with the double pivots clogging up the channels they had previously exploited.


Two points lost or one point gained? Stoke is never an easy game and they have a better team than many people give them credit for. They executed their game plan well here and United were not at their best. Given all that it is a point gained. Nevertheless, United should focus on what they might do better.

Developing a way of stretching a mass defence out with width appears a priority. United always looked dangerous on the break through the running of Lukaku and Rashford but once Stoke were set in a defensive shape United again struggled to break them down, constantly trying to play through the congested middle of the pitch. In theory United are strong here with lots of big powerful players but that fact will only encourage teams to pack their middle and hope they will be able to defend the width of the penalty area. United have to develop ways of making it more difficult to do this. United do not have any natural bye-line attacking wingers but rather players who come up from deep and/or tend to move inside, even if they start wide. Without wingers the side is relying on fullbacks to stretch teams wide but that needs positional discipline in midfield to cover potential gaps. Something to work on.