Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez celebrates scoring against Stoke
Follow Doron on Twitter
In a strange turn of events, United actually play a game at 3pm this Saturday. It’s felt like an age since the surprisingly fluid and dominant win up in Newcastle – a real shame given some rhythm was much needed. Stoke are the visitors and United’s record against them is good, they’ve not won at Old Trafford for over 36 years. Mind you, we all remember what happened last time a team came to Old Trafford with a similar record. We welcome comments from both sets of supporters.
This is Stoke’s fifth consecutive season in the top flight – a really remarkable achievement for club and cap-wearing manager, Tony Pulis. They’ve become synonymous with a specific, almost Allardyce-like type of long-ball football. If anything that’s a tad harsh. Stoke are a team full of tough players but also contain individuals who are capable of doing more than hoofing the ball. Still, Old Trafford will witness a clash of styles and Fergie needs to decide if United are to stick with the diamond or revert to width.
With stability and consistency comes the opportunity to improve and that’s what Stoke have done since the last time the sides met. Tony Pulis clearly had a good idea of which area he felt needed strengthening and signed five central midfielders over the summer. Jamie Ness might be one for the future but Edu, Adam, Cameron and N’Zonzi all have a good level of experience and quality. They provide a nice mix of passing ability with muscle and certainly show that Stoke want to be able to be more than just effective centrally. It also provides an opportunity to play three in the middle, something that Stoke may even consider tomorrow should they want to try and keep it tight and frustrate United.
The other smart acquisition was Kightly from Wolves. Having been plagued by injuries, he’s yet to truly show the Premier League what he can offer and Crouch, Jones and Jerome should enjoy having him in the side if he can stay fit. He has a good right foot and is almost like a less powerful Antonio Valencia – direct, pacey and can cross well.
In terms of injuries Stoke are in a good way right now and Pulis has plenty of options, particularly in midfield. Only Sidibe and Whelan are doubts whilst Michael Owen is expected to have shaken off a minor knock to possibly feature at Old Trafford once again. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of reaction he gets – probably muted applause rather than boos.
Crouch and Walters are the two obvious players to single out – the former needs no introduction and the latter is a really underrated part of the set-up at Stoke. Walters is a tireless runner but also knows what to do once he gets the ball. He takes a lot of their set pieces and is often found either delivering crosses or popping up late into the area. His probable battle with Rafael could be a key match-up.
Their start of the season has been a tough one with games at Chelsea and Liverpool whilst Arsenal and Man City have faced them at home. It’s probably one reason why Stoke have only scored six goals in seven games but also should be a reason to praise a side who’ve only conceded five times. Only Chelsea have managed to beat them and it certainly lays a good foundation for the season to come.
After internationals, there’s some good news – we have no new injuries. Smalling’s not yet ready to return but Young is back and in the squad. Jones isn’t expected back yet although there was no mention of him at the press conference. Given the options, the midweek travelling and the game at Braga to come, here’s a predicted starting XI:
The timing of the Newcastle game was unfortunate given that for the first time in ages, United played pretty much the entire game to a good standard and were in control of proceedings. Having once again employed the diamond system in the midfield it gives Fergie a dilemma now of whether to stick or twist. It’s the test of a manager to get tactics right but when the two options are really quite different it becomes even trickier. Does Fergie feel it’ll be important to dominate the centre of the pitch again or can we win the game out wide?
Personally, I think it’ll be important to have some width as well as strength in the middle so have somewhat reluctantly selected a slightly lopsided team – something I hate and have criticised Fergie for in the past. The back five is easy enough – de Gea should retain his position and with only Buttner for Evra the only other possibility I can’t see Fergie changing things up. Smalling isn’t ready yet and Wootton should continue on the bench. Some might point to de Gea against Stoke as a weakness given their love for crosses but last season at Stoke he was fine – he chose to stay on his line rather than come for crosses and United’s defence were quick to attack high balls.
Ahead of the defence it comes down to working out who’s fit enough after midweek international games and who might be held back for Braga on Tuesday. Anderson and Giggs didn’t have games so should start and I reckon Scholes will be held back for Tuesday. Young’s return from injury is a boost but he may not be ready to start so Nani should hold one wide position, particularly after Valencia’s been in South America. Carrick, who rarely seems to look fatigued should probably take the other role in the middle.
Up front the options are plentiful – Kagawa could play behind any of the striker but I fancy him to be rested and Rooney to start behind van Persie. Hernandez may well miss out altogether after some long flights and that could even open up a chance for the in-form Joshua King to make the bench.
Essentially, United have a lot of options for their front six and many of the combinations you’d hope will be enough to trouble Stoke. Still, United should respect what Tony Pulis has done – as Alex Ferguson told his weekly press conference today, Stoke’s progress is obvious to see from top to bottom every year. A clean sheet and a convincing win would be lovely although somehow I get the feeling that this may well be tighter than it should be.