Manchester United won their third Premier League game on the spin, having beaten Arsenal and Bolton recently, with a 2-0 victory over Stoke City. Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov converted two penalties for the Champions, who are now level on points with league leaders Manchester City. United were missing Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones and Ashley Young – to name a few – but still managed a 33rd league win over Stoke City. United also managed to give a league debut to a young goalkeeper.
Here we discuss the talking points of the game and invite Stoke fans to join in the discussion below.
How United unlocked the door
Tuesday evening was a strange one in the sense that Stoke City theoretically played with three ‘forwards’ yet failed to field any in reality. Pulis’ men were well drilled from the off, setting up in somewhat of a ‘4-4-2’, with Walters left, Pennant right, Jones and Crouch ahead of Whitehead and Palacios. But this doesn’t tell the entire story; Pulis was happy to concede the majority of the posession (United had 75% with a pass completion rate of 90%) in the hope that they would either nick one on the break or settle for 0-0 draw. Jones and Crouch started so deep when without the ball that they were effectively the 3rd and 4th central midfield players, with only one asked to press the United backline according to the position of the ball (Jones would nominally press from right to left, Crouch in the opposite manner). The deeply held line also had the effect of pulling Jermaine Pennant back for a large part of the first half in particular, where the former Liverpool player often found himself trying to combat Park and the left of centre Hernandez in the right back position (with Williamson pulled central). It was no coincidence that it was Pennant then who conceded the penalty that led to the crucial opening goal, clumsily sticking a leg out to foul the (admitedly clever) Park who had reached the ball first.
United struggle to penetrate: 3/22 successful crosses and 303 completed passes, 0-38 mins
Up until this point United had really struggled to breach the 10-man defensive strategy – especially with Stoke pressing each player so vigourously. Getting the ball wide to Park and Valencia as quick as possible was part of the strategy, but despite their best efforts, and the doubling up of Stoke defenders the wingers struggled to make an impact. Scholes and Carrick (who completed nearly 250 passes together) continued to penetrate from the centre, and both ball-playing centre backs (see Evans’ dashboard for passing, 93 passes) were often found high upfield as they sought to gain numerical advantage in and around the away team’s penalty area. Despite United’s dominance frustratingly not leading to clear goal-scoring opportunities, their patience was finally rewarded – with the Stoke City system effectively their downfall.
When trying to break on the counter down the left hand side with Walters, he was so deep that it only took the most basic of defensive interceptions from Smalling from which the move that led to the vital opener initiated. Valencia was quick to the ball, drawing out Wilson as well as Huth and Palacios, meaning that the Ecuadorian could find the unmarked and effervescent Berbatov, just on the edge of the area. With Stoke shuffling their backline accordingly, Berbatov’s neat lay-off to Scholes allowed the revived playmaker to survey the scene and play in Park with a perfectly weighted through-ball. It was an equally brave and disastrous approach from Pulis – brave in that his system had pretty much worked to pefection at that point (see chalkboard, 303/342 passes [114 in the final third] until the 38th minute), but disastrous in that such a deep and defensive approach was always likely to be counter-productive if their defence was to be breached. At 0-1, Pulis’ men were drained, confused and ineffective – their passing in the final third non-existent.
A debut for young Ben Amos
Ben Amos had made six appearances for United previously to the match against Stoke City, however none of these came in the league. Amos is now level with former United goal keeper Nick Culkin with a single Premier League appearance to his name (Culkin came on in the dying seconds against Arsenal back in 1999 when Raimond Van der Gouw was injured), although I’m sure United’s number 40 will pick up more appearances than his predecessor. Amos was decent in possession, only giving the ball away when forced to go long to Hernandez and Berbatov. Crouch and Jones didn’t have a single shot on target between them and Stoke only had two shots on target all night – so the youngster wasn’t really tested in the absence of David De Gea and Anders Lindegaard. Paul Pogba also made his league debut despite speculation about his current contract.
Penalties: Yes or no?
Tony Pulis was quoted as saying the following after the game:
“Jermaine is adamant, although it doesn’t show it on the television, that he played the ball first. On the second, it’s not a free-kick before the penalty. Then Valencia runs across Jon Walters and falls over. When you come to Old Trafford, if there’s decisions going, they go with the home side.”
The comments from the Stoke manager indicate that he didn’t think either were a penalty and cited “being at Old Trafford” as one of the reasons as to why they were given. As shots were quite limited all game (United’s two on target were penalties), it is easy to see why Pulis is frustrated by the two goal defeat, however I think it is hard to argue against both decisions. Pennant clips Park, whilst Walters drags Valencia back (see below):
Park gets to the ball before Pennant and hits the ball towards goal
If Pennant had of got a touch, the ball would have gone toward the byline, rather than towards the goal
Walters clearly tugs Valencia hindering his progress towards goal
So what are your thoughts? Penalties or not? Should Evra have had a penalty in the second half?
Park deserves a mention for playing with remarkable nouse and intelligence for the second consecutive game. His link up play with Evra and Hernandez was particularly good, as was his left to centre movement, dragging opponents out of position.
Scholes and Carrick reigned back the years. In a performance that was once typical of the complimentary central pairing, their mutual understanding, dilligence and precision across the pitch was outstanding. Both goals were the result of clever play from the centre in the first instance. As per the game at Anfield, Scholes seemed to thrive on the challenge of a combative opposing midfield. His close control and quick thinking were a joy to watch – 8 months since retiring, who’d have thought it?
Evans played in the ‘Pique’ role, frequently taking the ball forward and either beating his man, or laying the ball off out wide in order to push for a position in the final third. When a team sets its stall out as Stoke did, one of the centre backs must take the opportunity to step out and improve the passing angle and forward penetration. Jonny did this with aplomb. Will be sorely disappointed with his lax challenge on Carroll at the weekend, but has grown in confidence in recent months and is arguably the club’s best centre half at the moment.
A dominant United performance ended with a comfy victory over a lacklustre Stoke side. Maybe the one frustrating point was that United couldn’t add more goals to boost their goal difference, particularly on a night when Man City lost. Scholes and Carrick were once again at the centre of United’s play, orchestrating everything going on ahead of them. The game provided a good chance to rest Welbeck and Pogba made his league debut – an impressive cameo.
United are at Chelsea on Sunday, another big game against a team out of form and sorts. Young, Nani and Rooney all should make the squad along with De Gea so numbers should be better – hopefully no one’s being rushed back though.