United’s 100% league start to the season came unstuck at The Brittania as a bullish Stoke side held United to a draw. United, despite taking the lead were possibly lucky to even get a draw – crucial saves by De Gea and misses from Crouch kept the score level. There was bad news before the game had even started as Rooney, Carrick and Evans were all late withdrawals through injury – only to be followed by Hernandez ten minutes into the game. Eight first team players are now out injured and the squad will be well and truly tested over the next few weeks.
The general post-match feeling was that it was a point gained for United rather than two dropped – that could have been so different had a few key moments panned out in United’s favour, but it was not to be. Here we discuss some of the key talking points from the game and welcome discussion from both United and Stoke fans.
A game for Vidic and Evans and defensive concerns – (Nik)
It was always going to be a tough place to come (excuse the cliché) with the emphasis Pulis’ side places on set pieces and high balls to their forward players. Stoke City are quickly becoming a recognised force in the division, with many experts predicting a hugely creditable top 6-8 finish. In theory, United’s defence shouldn’t have had too many problems despite the missing Vidic and Smalling as well as having to replace Evans with Valencia very late on. Moreover, Crouch’s height sometimes betrays his fallibility in the air at aerial challenges, and Rio’s return was set to stabilise the backline. Yet Walters, Crouch, Shawcross and Delap caused United lots of trouble in the air, and it was all to evident that United missed that vital ingredient at the back: the ‘stopper’ – the defender who works ahead of the ‘sweeper’ and who can anticipate and intercept higher up the pitch. In this fixture last season, Vidic’s supremacy in the air nullified Stoke’s tactic (see Chalkboard 1), his key strength being the ability to attack every ball in his vicinity with great gusto and fantastic accuracy.
Chalkboard 1. Jones aerial tackles won (Stoke away 2011/12) vs. Vidic aerial tackles won (Stoke away 2010/11)
Chalkboard 2. Jones aerial tackles lost (Stoke away 2011/12) vs. Vidic aerial tackles lost (Stoke away 2010/11)
Chalkboard 3. Evans aerial success v Bolton
This term United have coped well with his absence largely because of the strength in depth the squad has in this position, but today’s problems were further compounded when Evans, our other key stopper (see Chalkboard 2 for his aerial prowess versus Davies in particular), and form centre-half, had a recurrence of a foot injury in the warm-up. Jones has started his United career with aplomb, but Ferguson’s original selection of the young Preston man was at right back, allowing for greater penetration going forward, and crucially, ensuring a more complimentary partnership of Evans and Ferdinand at the heart of the defence. Jones was careless when defending the corner that led to Crouch heading in from 7 yards, and Ferdinand was also caught out a couple of times, where de Gea continued his impressive form, twice thwarting the home side from close range. Stoke also played long balls into the channels in order to pull the centre half pairing apart, leaving United vulnerable again in the centre. The game has proved that strength in depth is great, but sometimes particular fixtures demand a specific defensive approach – Fergie cant prevent defensive injuries, but he must also be aware that he has started nine players across the backline since the start of the season, an area on the field where consolidation and familiarity are essential.
Stoke pressing limits United fullback ambition – (Nik)
Stoke’s discipline across the pitch was commendable, as was their intensity and purpose. It was notable from very early on in the game how high they were pressing, starting with the front two Crouch and Walters closing down United’s defenders in their own half. Walters in particular enjoyed dropping the deeper of the two, paying particular attention to Anderson when he sought to get the ball in deep positions. In short, the main reason for United’s lackluster display was that they didn’t respond; in fact Stoke must be given credit for not allowing United to respond. Despite two marauding runs from Jones, the defence was as deep as its been all season, and the entire backline seemed to lack confidence on the ball, as well as in aerial challenges (as above). This inevitably meant that the midfield line of four were 10 meters too deep, leaving far too big a space between themselves and Berbatov and Owen. Three key themes thus emerged: Whelan and Delap (assisted by narrow wingers) dominated the centre versus Anderson and Fletcher (the Scotsman performing generally well when on the ball), meaning that when the United pair did have the ball, the wide option was rarely viable as they were too deep; secondly, Berbatov tried to make amends for this dropping far too deep in order to receive the ball, and he likewise was unable to be penetrative with his passing. His touch and passing was neat and astute as usual, but Owen was often too far away from him, or running the channels with no support from wide.
Chalkboard 4. Shawcross focus – Evra thwarted
Thirdly, Stoke’s pressing and high intensity meant that our usual thrust from the fullback position didn’t quite materialise. Valencia and Evra found it difficult to take the ball forward with their usual panache and cause problems in the attacking third as Pennant and Etherington doubled up with Wilkinson and Wilson in stopping them getting out – especially in the first 60 minutes of the game. The home side seemed to pay particular attention to Young and Evra, who have both been superb this season as individuals and as a pair. Chalkboard 3 shows Shawcross kept his central-right position very intelligently in order to assist the fullback; likewise, Chalkboard 4 (heatmap) shows the attention Delap gave to United’s left side, paying particular attention to thwarting Evra’s out-ball. It was only in the last quarter of the game that Evra broke forward with his usual penetration, but alas, United were often short on numbers attacking the box. Of course, doubling up and showing the winger inside could not always pay dividends, as we saw with yet another stunning goal from the hugely productive Nani. Perhaps Stoke underestimated the latter’s ability to take the ball inside and shoot with his so-called weaker foot. Nani’s precision with his left foot has been superb in the last 12 months, and here he took 3 defenders out of the game in one jinxing run.
Chalkboard 5. Delap positioning
Shots on goal becoming a concern – (Nik)
Today, Stoke carried on the trend that has been seen thus far in terms of taking every opportunity to shoot at United’s goal (see Chalkboard 5, 13 in total, nearly half from outside the area). This is becoming a concern for the reds, and there have been a number of theories put forward as to why we are conceding more shots than any other team in the league; de Gea seen as ‘vulnerable’ by the opposition; United’s attacking approach play in numbers (Jones and Evra have been very ambitious) leaving us susceptible to the swift counter; the central midfield partnership being too attacking in outlook (Anderson has partnered Cleverley and Fletcher in the main, with Carrick, our main defensive minded midfielder giving way due to the team’s great form).
Chalkboard 6. Stoke City shots on goal
To some extent, all of these have validity, but perhaps the simple answer lies before our eyes: Fergie is currently undergoing yet another transformation in the team’s approach, both in personnel and in regards to tactics. We cannot expect the swashbuckling attacking football we have seen in recent weeks not to have a minor downside, and this seems to be it. With Young, Nani, Rooney and Welbeck/Hernandez interchanging with great ease and fluency to date, with the fullbacks and attacking central midfielder in close attendance, it is easy to conclude that opposing managers have got wise to a part-solution. This is still a concern for Fergie however, and especially when the ‘bigger’ teams are on the horizon (be that league or European competition), he will have to prepare the team with greater finesse. This is perhaps where we will see a change in starting formation with an extra central midfielder required to add that vital gusto in the middle of the park. Of course this may mean sacrificing one of our fantastic attacking quartet, unless of course the age-old dilemma resurfaces on Rooney’s ability to play a deeper role as well as maintaining his productivity and influence.
No striking edge – (Doron)
With Rooney out through injury, Hernandez going off injured early on, and Welbeck not sharp enough post-injury to start a game yet; Berbatov and Owen both played the majority of the game as the forward pairing. Despite playing a full game on Tuesday night at Leeds these are two strikers possibly with something to prove after finding themselves out of the first XI picture so far in the league this season.
If there’s one thing United had learnt so far this season from their strikers, it’s that having both in the box at the same time causes problems. There were a few fantastic examples of that at Bolton were Rooney and Hernandez’s opposing runs created goal scoring opportunities. Yet when in possession against Stoke, everything from the front two appeared to be in slow motion. Owen’s runs were good but he was often just a second too slow. Arguably the most frustrating aspect of the striking play though was Berbatov’s recurring failure to support Owen in the box. The pair attempting to replicate the Rooney-Hernandez partnership with Owen dropping off the ball deep and running into channels whilst Berbatov held a deeper more creative position with the aim of arriving late (or after Owen) into the penalty area.
Chalkboard 7. Berbatov passing and positioning
Chalkboard 8. Owen passing and positioning
Berbatov’s a tremendously skilful player and he does things no one else in the United team can do. However only 12% of his passes were made in the final third of the pitch yesterday (Owen made 35% in that area). What’s more, with Stoke pressing and not allowing United any time on the ball, it was a game for one or two touch football. Berbatov regularly was taking four or five touches, losing momentum.
One game is not enough to jump to drastic conclusions about either Berbatov or Owen, but neither staked much of a claim for selection ahead of one of Rooney, Hernandez or Welbeck against Basel or Norwich in the coming week. Every squad needs depth but that depth has to be able to make a difference when needed or rotated into the side. For Berbatov in particular, the league’s top scorer last year, it was a disappointing afternoon. He has many admirers because he’s such an entertainer but he also splits fans down the middle and can frustrate. Expectations from him are high and he in particular was a let-down but one shouldn’t forget that good strikers need support from the rest of the team too and other players behind them were also poor.
Choosing to keep these two players over the summer was a big call from Ferguson – his new United team is built on pace, energy and incisiveness, not necessarily attributes one would associate with either Owen or Berbatov right now.
Fine margins – (Doron)
Three incidents stuck out post-match; three moments that could have changed the game in United’s favour.
The first came inside the opening moments of the game. Hernandez was played through one-on-one with Begovic when he was knocked off balance by Woodgate behind him. Replays of the incident show Woodgate coming through the back of Hernandez to win the ball; contact was first with the man then the ball. Hernandez would go off injured a few minutes after as a result of the collision with Begovic that came as a result of the Woodgate foul. Referee Walton gave nothing though, however he was some distance from the action and possibly couldn’t have seen Woodgate making contact with Hernandez first. The linesman on the far side though had a clear view and still gave nothing, it surely would have been not only a penalty but a red card for Woodgate as he was denying a goalscoring opportunity.
Woodgate on Hernandez
Woodgate on Hernandez (2)
Woodgate on Hernandez – referee and linesman positioning
The second incident came about through a rare Stoke error. With United 1-0 up and the game still in the first half, a poor pass back to Begovic saw him hurried into a poor clearance by Ashley Young and eventually the ball fell to Nani who had a half-open goal from 20 yards but managed to but the ball high and wide. To be fair to Nani it all happened so quickly and he had little time to adjust his feet but even so, he should have scored.
Nani (half-)open goal chance
The third incident again involved the officials. Ashley Young’s initial shot was saved by Begovic and as the ball wasn’t properly cleared, Anderson fired it back in at goal only for it appear to hit the arm of Ryan Shawcross as he tried to turn his body away from goal. The officials didn’t give a penalty but instead awarded Stoke a free-kick for an offside decision.
Shawcross handball? (2)
Shawcorss handball – referee and linesman positioning
Unlike the first incident, this time the referee has a clear unobstructed view whilst the linesman cannot possibly see if the ball has hit the arm of Shawcross or not; hence the decision to raise his flag for offside was correct according to what the linesman saw. Referee Walton potentially should have overruled it and awarded a penalty – Shawcross despite turning his body clearly has his arms flailing. Unintentional it may have been but in my opinion it still should have been given as a penalty to United.
United’s 4-4-1-1 was matched very well by Stoke’s similar approach, and in particular their high-energy game enabled them to earn a point against the league’s form team. Fergie has commented on the ‘dreadful’ week his team has suffered, with injuries to Smalling, Evans, Carrick and of course Rooney, who have been superb this season. A point however is a decent result, despite the fact that the game could have been drastically altered 3 minutes in of course when Walton could easily have awarded a penalty and ordered Woodgate from the field for a clumsy challenge on Hernandez. Stoke pressed well, and Pulis’ men were organised with aplomb, not allowing United time on the ball across the pitch. Nani, Fletcher and de Gea were the stand-out performers, but Fergie will be slightly worried by the jaded performance at times from his men. Basel midweek should offer him the opportunity give key players a rest ahead of Norwich next weekend.