Manchester United clinched a much needed 3 points against Stoke at Old Trafford on Saturday, coming back from 1-0 and then 2-1 down with two late headers from Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. Stoke started the game positively, soaking up United pressure and then countering through the wide areas, taking advantage of a very poor back four performance. Despite Van Persie getting the seemingly inevitable goal just before half-time, Stoke were still able to nip back in front straight away and create a desperate, game-chasing second half for United.
Manchester United lined up in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Rooney just behind Van Persie, Carrick and Cleverley as the midfield partnership, and Jones and Evans pairing up in the absence of Vidic and Ferdinand. Kagawa started in his less favoured wide position, while Nani began on the right instead of Belgian youngster Adnan Januzaj.
Broken Back Four
With the high tempo start from both sides, Stoke in particular were looking to press the first ball into midfield. Upon winning the ball they were positive going forwards, and got an immediate result with Crouch’s early goal. This signaled the start of a nightmare performance for Chris Smalling, who was given the run-around by Marko Arnautovic and frequently got caught with too much distance between himself and Phil Jones.
Here you can see the massive space between full back and centre back, which Stoke were able to exploit and put a cross in for Crouch to finish. As you can see below, they continued to do this, dragging Smalling as far wide as possible and creating the gap between him and Phil Jones:
On putting the ball in, Stoke ensured they had bodies forwards,with Stephen Ireland causing problems, and Peter Crouch being able to isolate Jonny Evans. He was unlucky not to make it 2-0 as he put it over the bar from 4 yards.
This happened far too often on both sides of the pitch for United, with Evra also guilty. Another factor on the left hand side was the tendancy for Shinji Kagawa to drift into the centre to link up play in his more natural position. A benefit is that this opened up space for Evra to utilise. However with Kagawa offering little defensively, there wasn’t much full back protection and Stoke took advantage of this.
This poor defensive organisation led to United playing out from the back poorly. They were rushed into passes they didn’t want to make, and Stoke won the aerial battle with 73% success. Despite United dominating possession with 66.7%, it was a worrying performance for a number of reasons. Overall they lost their physical battles – understandable against a team like Stoke, who have been trying to transform their old strategy under Pulis into something slightly more possession-focused under Mark Hughes. United were also poor in the final third, a lack of quality and some particularly bad decision-making from Nani justified his replacement. The fans had been calling for Adnan Januzaj, and his introduction also led to the Portuguese winger being booed off the field on his exit.
When looking at the early stages of the Moyes era, the key question people are being forced to ask is ‘have United lost some of the elements that made them so special under Ferguson?’, which until around 75 minutes on Saturday has seemed to be a resounding ‘yes’. However the nature of the turnaround was like watching the Manchester United of last season, and as a neutral fan I experienced that old familiar feeling with Stoke leading 2-1. Despite their losing position, there are times when you can say to yourself with complete confidence ‘United have got this’, somehow you know they will win. Sure enough, there came a point in the game when the pressure in the final third inevitably began to mount.
The introduction of Januzaj lifted the crowd, Moyes brought on Hernandez (the definition of the man for the occasion), and a solid and more attacking right back in Antonio Valencia replaced Chris Smalling. Stoke also adopted a more defensive approach, dropping their line of confrontation deeper into their own half, and replacing Ireland, Palacios and Arnautovic with Marc Wilson, Glen Whelan and Charlie Adam – three far more defensive minded battlers.
The statistics show that Stoke were effective to the extent that they were able to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them, and very nearly executed their game plan perfectly. Manchester United will continue to be an institution of football that promotes attacking play through width, they tripled Stokes attempted crossing statistics with 30, but incredibly only managed 3 accurate crosses.
As you can see though, United’s accurate final third passes (179) nearly amounted to that of Stoke’s total pass count, and the pressure eventually became too much for them. Despite the sense of inevitability, the feeling surrounding Moyes’ side will be more that of relief and lucky escape. In recent weeks, they have not been able to pull themselves out of these situations, with Rooney, Januzaj and Carrick looking like the only outstanding players. But they now find themselves only two points shy of Manchester City after the worst start to the season imaginable.
There are many question marks still concerning the new regime, and still much catching up to do for them to make up the 8 points Arsenal now lead them by after the first quarter of the season. If Moyes can inspire United to a run of consistency over the next two months, particularly during the Christmas period, there is hope for him yet to salvage something from this season.