Robin van Persie celebrates with Sir Alex Ferguson following his goal for Manchester United
Manchester United edged closer to an unprecedented twentieth league title with a 2-0 victory over relegation-threatened Stoke City. Michael Carrick netted a early toe poked goal from a corner, whilst Robin van Persie scored a second half penalty and celebrated with manager Sir Alex Ferguson on the sideline. United dominated proceedings from the start with Stoke City having limited opportunities, although Nemanja Vidic was lucky not to give away a penalty after slipping over and bringing down Kenwyne Jones in the process. Manchester United are now fifteen points clear, with six games to go – although Manchester City have a game in hand, with Stoke City three points above the drop. Here we discuss the talking points of the game and invite comments from both sets of fans.
Wayne Rooney in midfield: good performance but not a long-term solution
When the lineups were announced, some wondered if Sir Alex was going to repeat his early-season “diamond” experiment in midfield, with Carrick, Jones, Rooney and Kagawa all capable of fitting in such a formation. On the pitch, however, it turned out that Rooney would be partnering Carrick in a midfield duo, with Cleverley kept away from the type of physical environment in which he’s suffered impact injuries before. Rooney went on to pick up the man-of-the-match award for a well-balanced performance, though some would argue there were more deserving players on the day.
To his credit, Rooney did everything that was required in the game, and to quite a high standard. Positionally disciplined, he circulated the ball from flank to flank, helped the side keep the ball for long periods and contributed to some pleasingly intricate passing moves. However, the demands of the role seemed to limit the attacking drive that defines his game at his best. On a few occasions, he seemed to want to run with the ball and impose more menace upon the game but, constrained by his positional role, he thought twice, played the safe option and retreated to a space ten yards further back. This isn’t at all a criticism of his performance – on the contrary, his intelligence and understanding of the task should be applauded – but it is more of a suggestion that to envision Rooney as a midfielder would be to deny the very best features of his game. In other words, the fact that he can play in central midfield doesn’t mean that he should play there. That he won a man-of-the-match award against a woefully supine Stoke team says that he’s capable of playing multiple positions well, but this is something we have known for almost a decade now. Given the club’s almost self-parodic need for midfield reinforcements, Rooney’s ability to fill in here should not be seen as anything but a stopgap measure. It would be unfair, both to the team’s progress and to Rooney’s own talent, if he were asked to play in midfield with any regularity.
Phil Jones shows his versatility and growing maturity
What a young player this guy is. Within the space of six days he’s put in superb performances in two different positions, with an outstanding showing at centre-back against City on Monday, and an accomplished display at Stoke this afternoon. And that adds to the accomplished central midfield outings he’s already had in 2013. On Sunday, he showed a pleasing combination of steel and energy, as well as a keen footballing brain, to deputise excellently at right back. While lacking the outright pace and attacking guile of Rafael, he was extremely solid and proactive defensively, while always providing an energetic, efficient outlet for the improving but still sheepish Valencia. He managed to quell what little threat there was from Stoke’s left side (3 tackles, 4 interceptions), and he won the corner from which Carrick scored the game’s opening goal. What’s more, Jones showed the kind of intensity and desire to win that fans really appreciate. While he’s said that his versatility might count against him at times, at this stage of his career it is winning him starting places the United team, and he’s firmly established himself as a player with the confidence of fans and the manager. Even in an injury-hit second season, the gurning Prestonian has shown everyone why Sir Alex raves about him constantly. The early Duncan Edwards comparisons may have been ridiculous, but United have an excellent talent in the 21 year old.
Attack is the best form of defence
Following the 2-1 defeat to Manchester City on Monday, Sir Alex Ferguson needed a response from his players. The starting line up featured a very attacking team, which at first glance (on paper) looked a 4-4-2 diamond that had worked so well in the 3-0 victory over Newcastle United earlier in the season. Turns out, Wayne Rooney was to play in a flat midfield four, with Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa operating on the left and out of form Antonio Valencia on the right side.
As usual, Michael Carrick took up a central berth and Phil Jones was in at right back to cover for Rafael. Javier Hernandez led the line and Robin van Persie dropped deep to try and influence play, in what usually is Rooney’s role. The selection worked wonders for Sir Alex as Stoke City rarely threatened and were restricted to long range efforts. David De Gea did have to make a save from an in-swinging freekick from Charlie Adam late in the second half, but other than that – United were fairly comfortable.
Stoke City fail to press and set precedent
Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick probably haven’t had an easier twenty minutes all season as they didn’t come under any pressure at all, with the Stoke City midfield sitting deep and allow the midfield duo to dominate early proceedings. Rooney’s inclusion within the midfield was a bit of a surprise at the start of the match, but in all truth, he ran the show in the first half along with Carrick passing neat and intricate one-twos to each other. The majority of United’s play was positive and Rooney was rarely playing back to Ferdinand and Vidic due to Stoke City’s setup. The passing stats of Rooney and Whelan in the first twenty minutes speaks volumes as the majority of Whelan’s passes are going backwards due to the pressure from United’s attack, where as Rooney and Carrick were able to pick off their passes with ease:
Here is a still from the match today highlight the arces of space in front of Rooney, with absolutely no challenge from an opposing player. Rooney was allowed to venture forward and setup a chance for Robin van Persie:
You may argue that Stoke City are of course massive underdogs in the match, however – previous Stoke sides have played at a high tempo and given United limited space to operate in. Stoke have come under criticism over the years for their physical and direct approach to the game, but they sat off United far too much and allowed the league leaders a foothold in the match. With Stoke City fighting against relegation, I would have presumed Tony Pulis would have approached the game differently.
Regardless of what their rivals do, just seven points separate Manchester United from their twentieth league title. Another solid, professional performance from the Reds got them back into winning ways, after limp performances against Chelsea and City recently. The finish line – as well as a potential league points record – is within sight. United never really looked like conceding today, although Vidic may have been fortunate with Kenwyne Jones falling over him (the initial contact may have been outside the box, though), and an assured performance from the defence and midfield – featuring Wayne Rooney – ensured a pretty one-sided game. It was also pleasing to see Michael Carrick get the first league goal of an excellent season for him, while Robin van Persie grabbed his first in 10 games and showed everyone how delighted he was about it. Another tough-looking trip to West Ham awaits on Wednesday, and more of the same would be welcome.