MANCHESTER UNITED VS STOKE CITY
After an encouraging mid-week European victory United returned to domestic action with a home game against Stoke City, looking to kick-start their Premier League push after a series of disappointing results.
In: Smalling, Cleverley, Nani and van Persie.
Out: Rafael, Valencia, Giggs and Hernadez.
- Several players had really poor performances here, especially in the first half.
- United were slow, ponderous at times, flat footed in defence and played far too narrow.
- As the game wore on David Moyes made a number of key substitutions, changed the shape of the team and United’s play then exhibited greater fluidity, pace and general menace. They got there in the end but not without a struggle.
United started this match in second gear and consequently went a goal down in only the 4th minute. The goal came from a run down the Stoke right by the Pieters. He ran pasted Smalling and Cleverley far too easily from deep and was able to get in a cross which was prodded towards goal. De Gea saved well but Evans, slightly slow to react, hit the rebound against Crouch and it squirmed into the net.
Could United respond? Initially the answer was no. Throughout the first half United were sluggish. They started in second gear and stayed there. In terms of team shape United started as a 4-2-3-1. Smalling was at right-back, Carrick and Cleverley as the half backs, Nani right and Kagawa notionally left. Rooney started centrally behind van Persie. Whilst Kagawa was notionally on the left his movement was such that it appeared that he had a free role.
Stoke too shaped up as a 4-2-3-1, but when United came forward they compressed their shape to a 4-5-1. This meant that United had little opportunity to play through the middle of the park. Unfortunately all too often that is what United tried to do. For long period their play was just too narrow. Kagawa with his free role was rarely over on the left and Nani was playing fairly narrow on the right. Rooney often dovetailed over to the left when Kagawa came central.
The problem in the first half however was that too many United players were simply having an off day. Nani consistently slowed the game down and gave the ball away. The whole defence was reactive indecisive and often flat footed. The chief culprits though were Evans and Smalling. Carrick and Cleverley were poor in central midfield. Cleverley kept going missing; he ran high and wide to the right and often positioned himself in areas where he was simply out of the game. This left Carrick exposed.
Up front van Persie was isolated; he just wasn’t in the game.
The collective problems were that United’s play was too narrow, the tempo of their passing was too slow and much of their passing was inaccurate. This all added up to a sluggish performance with players taking too many touches and United making little significant impact upon a solid looking Stoke. When United did find themselves in wide areas with crossing opportunities the quality of their crossing was low.
As half time approached a better team than Stoke would have been further ahead. United’s defence was ponderous and a better side would have taken one of the several chances they created. United created few.
Then suddenly Boom! From nowhere Nani delivered a great cross, (in truth even this was a slow delivery), it was met by Rooney whose header was saved but van Perise was first to react to the loose ball and fire home. United had seemingly got away with a very poor first half display scoring on 43 minutes.
But they hadn’t as Stoke went straight up the other end, won a free kick. This was well executed by the impressive Arnautovic (a constant threat throughout the half) and beat De Gea in the top corner. He got a hand to it and might have kept it out, but in fairness Stoke were worth their half-time lead.
United started the second half playing at a higher tempo, but in truth there was little improvement in the quality of United’s play. Stoke were forced to remove Arnautovic after 49 minutes after he took a knock and this at least was some relief. Thereafter United’s defence looked more solid.
On 58 minutes Moyes made his first change removing Nani (to the crowds audible approval) and introducing Januzaj. Positionally this was a straight swap. Almost immediately this improved United’s play simply because Januzaj was more of a threat as a consequence of the fact that he did not slow the pace of the ball down and rarely gave the ball away. Januzaj drew a number of fouls with his direct running and the game became quite niggly. Stoke later complained about a foul by Hernandez suggesting that he should not have still been on the pitch by the time he scored but I truth they were lucky that the referee was so lenient with them.
On 68 minutes Moyes removed Cleverley (who had had a very poor game) and brought on Hernandez. Stoke removed Palacios at this point, presumably because he was on the verge of being sent off because of his persistent and deliberate foul play. This second substitution was interesting tactically. United now reverted to a slightly lopsided 4-3-3 shape. Rooney and Kagawa now dropped into midfield both playing ahead of Carrick who sat in front of the defence. Januzaj on the right, Hernandez in the centre and van Persie on the left were the front three.
Five minutes later Moyes made his last change introducing Valencia as a right back behind Januzaj in place of Smalling. Smalling had had a really poor game. He was perhaps preferred ahead of Rafael because of his height, (was Moyes worried that Stoke might isolate Rafael against Crouch). Smalling had done okay (no better than that) going forward but looked off the speed at fullback.
United was a different team in the last fifteen minutes and all credit to David Moyes for the substitutions. He had removed United worst three performers on the day and introduced new players and changed the shape to suit the match situation. United’s play was suddenly now more dynamic with Kagawa and Rooney finding space and Carrick redirecting the play from deep. The Januzaj/Valencia combination on the right was far more of a threat with Valencia and Januzaj under or overlapping. This formation was lopsided but on the other side Evra got forward to balance things up. United now took the game to Stoke with renewed purpose, pace and guile. Movement on and off the ball was greatly improved in this last fifteen minutes.
This was thankfully rewarded with goals and irony of irony both came from crosses. United had played narrow throughout and their crossing had generally been poor. Stoke are physically a big team and crossing will always have to be good to make an impact against them. The three United goals came from United’s three best crosses.
Boom! On 78 minutes Rooney scored with a superb deep header from a corner and then almost straight away Boom! Hernandez scored after a fine running cross from Evra at the bye-line on the left.
Ten minutes to play, plus five added on minutes but unlike last week this time United were able to play out time.
This was a poor performance but a good result. Hopefully it can give the players a bit of confidence because their play today looked ponderous and a little nervy.
The first half performance was really poor. The difference in the second was a slightly higher tempo and a more solid looking defence. United were a different more dynamic and more fluid team in the last fifteen minutes after a change to a 4-3-3 shape. Rooney and Kagawa were United’s best performers over the ninety minutes, but in the last fifteen they stepped it up again.
Prior to this United had been too narrow and their passing and general play had been far too slow.