Others have visited the The Britannia Stadium and crumbled; some have moaned about a physical challenge and a not-so-beautiful type of football; not Man United though. United are looking for a seventh straight league win over Stoke though and instead of criticising Stoke’s different style of play, the manager and the players have been complimentary and warned that this should be considered as one of the hardest away games of the season.
Unlike Bolton where I attempted to dispel the long ball, physicality myth, there’s no point hiding away from it with Stoke. I don’t mean that in a critical way though – Stoke’s system of long ball football and an in-your-face approach works for them, playing to their strengths. Tony Pulis hasn’t attempted to make Stoke into something they’re not and the rewards have so far been reaped – European football has arrived this season along with some big-name (all relative) signings.
Stoke added to a mean defence by bringing in two experienced old heads – Woodgate and Upson, both former England internationals can add some know-how to a relatively inexperienced set-up. Whilst both may have fitness issues, their signings cost the club wages alone, two bargains. From Spurs came Crouch and Palacios in some expensive but good deadline day business. Palacios will add more grit and bite to their midfield whilst Crouch will simply add even more height to a front-line that already includes the leggy Kenwyne Jones. The one other signing was Cameron Jerome, at £4m he could well be a bargain too. He’ll provide Stoke with the option of playing differently, keeping the ball on the ground, his pace and constant running adds versatility.
What those signings bring apart from experience and some additional quality, is numbers. Stoke now are able to play the rotation game a bit more, balancing the league with Europe and domestic competitions. It’ll be vital that Pulis gets that right this year so that the squad doesn’t suffer from burn-out towards the latter stages of the season.
Given the personnel they have, there’s little to stop Stoke from aiming high – not just a top half finish but looking at breaking into the top seven. At home they’re formidable and have the backing of a vocal and passionate crowd; it’s away from home they must improve in order to progress up the table. What’s for sure though is that Stoke have now very much solidified themselves as a Premier League team.
League wins just keep coming for United, 21 goals in their opening five games included three against Chelsea last weekend. What’ll give Stoke some confidence though is just how many shots opposition teams are being allowed to have against United, it’s probably therefore worth praising David de Gea for the fact United have only conceded four goals in their opening five games. United are the only team with a perfect league record and are therefore the league’s most in-form side. A win will mean they already have over half the away wins and over a third of the away points that they got last season.
In Wayne Rooney, United have the league’s top scorer with 9 goals in 5 games. Ashley Young is leading the way with assists, he already has 6 assists, more than any other player in the league.
Stoke are 5th after five games and are unbeaten at home. That said, in their two home matches they’ve only managed to score one goal, but they’ve yet to concede. Their home start to the season hasn’t been easy, they drew 0-0 with Chelsea before beating Liverpool 1-0. Last weekend they were destroyed 4-0 by Sunderland and then midweek they were taken to extra time and then penalties by Spurs before triumphing. United had it easier midweek as a rotated XI won 3-0 very comfortably at Leeds.
United should be able to welcome three players back – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Rio Ferdinand have all been passed fit. Chris Smalling remains a doubt and a decision will only be taken on him on Saturday morning. Nemanja Vidic and Rafael remain long-term absentee. All other players are available and should be fresh after sitting out the midweek game.
Stoke will be missing Jones who picked up a hamstring injury against Spurs during the week. Fuller, Sidibe, Higginbotham and Diao will also miss the tie. Matthew Upson may well keep his place after a good display against Spurs.
United formation and starting XI prediction:
There are a few things to consider when facing Stoke – how to deal with the aerial bombardment and how best to win the ball and then keep it in the midfield. Selection therefore particularly in the centre of midfield may not be an easy decision.
If this fixture were taking place a week ago then I’m sure I’d be forced to question whether de Gea would be starting due to media attention on that subject. However, despite the fact he’ll be thoroughly examined by Stoke, he should start and if he makes errors, he’ll learn from the experience. With Smalling being a doubt, defensive selections appear simple; the complication would arise if Smalling is fit. Height will be needed in abundance so there could be a case for dropping Evra (who has returned to good form) in favour of Evans at left back. That does though seem unlikely as United will probably look to attack and Evra is one of the best attacking full backs in the world.
Nani and Young seem obvious choices on the wings after Valencia and Park played full games at Leeds. In the centre though, things get complicated. The Anderson-Fletcher pairing seems most likely after they lined up against Chelsea last weekend but Carrick and Fletcher is what I’ve gone for. They’d offer better protection to the back four and Carrick’s height when defending set pieces may be vital. When in possession, neither ever looks rushed, which for all his good form, Anderson can still appear to be. The wildcard option may be Giggs – he only played 45 minutes at Leeds and looked fresh and in control – getting him on the ball made things happen. Up front Rooney’s likely to be partnered by Hernandez although if ball retention is key then Berbatov could be favoured.
Begovic vs. Hernandez – Not for the first time this season, an opposition goalkeeper (and his defence) may be key in determining where the points go. Begovic has had an excellent start to the season making exuberant saves and doing the simple things very well. He’s proving himself to be a very good goalkeeper and a real bargain buy by Stoke. If there’s one thing that the Stoke defence may be susceptible to though it’s pace and movement…
…which Javier Hernandez has in abundance. He may not have scored last weekend but since his return from concussion he’s looked sharp and deadly. His movement at Bolton two weeks ago was lethal and it comes scarily naturally to him. Hernandez seems to have a thing about scoring at opposition grounds too, especially when United desperately need a goal. Last year he scored two goals at Stoke including a baffling back-headed flick!
Whilst there’ll be other match-ups on the pitch that will be crucial, this one could be key. Begovic will have to be on top form to keep Hernandez out and he’ll have to marshall his defence well.
History and last meeting:
United have only played Stoke six times in the Premier League era and they’ve won all of them. The Brittania tends not to be a particularly goalscoring affair though with only six goals scored in the three games played there, five of them by United – meaning United have also kept two clean sheets in that time.
Last season this fixture ended 2-1 to United. Two Javier Hernandez goals sealed a tough victory but the game may well be remembered by United fans for Gary Neville’s comedy showing in the first half which lead to his substitution at half time despite him going out and lining up to start the half.
United’s start to the season has been surprisingly perfect and form has not been sacrificed for entertainment. Stoke meanwhile have done well too but may well suffer from a long midweek game and an injury to Kenwyne Jones. This fixture is built up to be one of the toughest of the season but I think United will find it a bit easier than in past years and with that in mind I predict a 3-0 United win.
Peter Walton – his fourth game of the season. So far he’s averaging five yellow cards a game with no clear favouritism towards either the home or away team.
– United are the only Premier League team to have a perfect record against Stoke
– It’s nearly 27 years since Stoke last beat United
– Stoke have kept 7 clean sheets in their 11 competitive games so far this season
– Stoke are yet to score more than one goal in any of their league games so far this season
– Whilst United have allowed their opposition to have more shots on target than any other team, Stoke have allowed their opponents the fewest shots on goal
– Rooney is yet to score against Stoke, if he does he’ll be the first ever player in the Premier League to score in the opening six rounds
Ferguson on Stoke’s fans: “They have a great attitude and their support is brilliant. I love the atmosphere there. If you don’t attend to that you just get engulfed”
Ferguson on having Rio back: “There are occasions when you bring in the experience Rio offers because it does make a difference. The young players know that.”
Evans on defending at Stoke: “Playing teams like Stoke and Bolton definitely takes a lot more out of you. As a defender you’re having to sprint a lot as they play a lot of balls down the channels and you have to chase them and then get back out to take up your defensive line. You’re also jumping a lot to head long balls. You find yourself involved in the game a lot more than when you play against sides that adopt a more continental approach and try and keep the ball on the ground.”
Pulis on United’s start: “If you look at their team and the way they’ve started, I think United now have a better team than they had last year, and they won the Barclays Premier League title last year.”
Pulis on various United players: “I think Hernandez is the next Denis Law. His movement in the box, his anticipation, is fantastic. He’s quick, he’s got everything great goalscorers need and he’s certainly deadly in front of goal. And Ashley Young, what a great signing that’s turned out to be. Then you’ve got Rooney playing the best football he’s played for years, Nani scoring goals from everywhere. They’ve got goalscorers and they will be a major force again.”
The Stretford-End.com team have each given a predicted starting XI and final score ahead of the game – give us yours here.
For all pre-match banter, tactical discussions, team and score predictions click here.