Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen shakes hands in the 4-2 United victory earlier in the season
Author: Herzog’s Child
Following United’s disappointing inability to all but wrap up the league title against City last Monday, Sunday’s trip to the Britannia will be a stern test of the team’s character. Given the gap at the top is still significantly large, few are envisioning a complete meltdown, but with two tricky away fixtures in four days things aren’t going to come easy. Against City, United appeared jaded, outplayed and lamentably outmuscled by a team who looked more alive and willing. Recently for United, form has tended to mask performance. Recent league wins have been efficient, but largely unconvincing. With few straightforward fixtures left in the campaign, United are going to have to improve to ensure their healthy position isn’t going to be compromised as a result of ineptitude at this late stage. Monday should have served as a warning that certainty is often only an illusion in football. There’s still a lot to play for yet.
While Stoke’s recent poor form has seen them descend towards the murky lower regions of the table, they’re rarely easy to brush aside at home. Having suffered only four home defeats all season, and with the threat of potential relegation looming, in Stoke United have a feisty opponent who will ensure any victory will have to be fought hard for. “Doing it at Stoke” has become a tedious cliché, of course, but clichés exist for a reason: there is always some semblance of truth to them. Combative, aesthetically unpleasant and frequent employers of a style that renders the purist queasy, Stoke’s modus operandi may be unbeautiful but it consistently works for them at home. However, despite football’s propensity for the cruel, good football usually trumps its opposite. Lessons from recent past need to be learned if United are to prevail. There is little leeway to tinker now. The right team needs to be deployed and the sloppiness evident in recent weeks needs to be eradicated. A league title is more or less within touching distance – but further dropped points will create an uneasy doubt that is entirely unwelcome, particularly with May’s odour still polluting the air. Monday’s opportunity to issue City a deathblow wasn’t taken. United need to pressurise them once more by ensuring the gap has widened again by the time City play on Wednesday.
A view from the opposition
1) Stoke are flirting ridiculously with relegation, will you stay up?
It’s been a tough season, and one that many fans want to finish quickly so we can forget about it and rebuild. The atmosphere around the club at the moment – certainly from the fans’ viewpoint – is that we can only stay up if results from other teams go our way.
Of course, if we win every game or pick up a respectable number of points (eight, maybe) then we will be safe without doubt. The problem lies in our lack of goalscoring – one goal against at the moment is enough to beat us, and that’s a very scary prospect when confidence is low and we’re heading into the final run-in of games.
2) What do you say to those fans who label Stoke a “Rugby” team?
We’ve been called worse over the lifetime of the club!
It seems ironic that we’re still being labelled as a one-dimensional hoof-it-up-field team when this season we’ve actually signed playmakers and ball players to try and change our style of play. Unfortunately, for one reason or another (mainly deployment of tactics), it hasn’t worked and so we’ve switched back to the hoof-it-and-see tactics. Worryingly, that hasn’t worked either as we’ve only been using those tactics when the ball players have been on the pitch, so we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place!
3) How would you sum up your season?
To call it transitional would be lavishing praise on a tactically inept and poor season.
It started off well, full of enthusiasm and hope – and then began stagnating and finally snowballing out of control whilst everyone around us gained a firm foothold.
4) What advice would you give to Tony Pulis?
Stop using square pegs in round holes, listen to your coaching staff and scouts, and pay attention to how exhausted your players are. Take advantage of home soil and support and go all-out-attack, even against “stronger” teams – the fans will still support you if you attack the opposition, they won’t if you try to grind out 0-0 results.
5) What have you made of Manchester United this season?
In typical Alex Ferguson fashion, United have bounced back with vengeance after losing the title to city-rivals last season. So far, despite injuries to some key players at key times, the team has coped well and shown it’s strength in depth. I’ve personally been particularly impressed by van Persie, who – despite the high-profile nature of the signing – has settled immediately into the squad and been United’s key player. When one looks at the signings of Liverpool (Carroll) and Chelsea (Torres) for example, it’s easy to see big-name signings make the wrong impressions both on and off the field, and come under pressure from the media. The United media team have handled van Persie’s transfer very well off-pitch, whilst on pitch Ferguson has made a very shrewd move in bringing him to the club.
6) United generally have a decent record against Stoke, what do you expect score to be?
I’m not expecting miracles this weekend, and I’d expect United’s record to continue against us. We could easily conceded five or six goals this weekend if Ferguson’s men turn up. If we’re lucky, we’ll restrict you to three. If we score, expect the biggest cheer of the season…
7) How will stoke line up against united?
Pulis is keeping things closer to his chest than ever before. I’d anticipate a typical 4-4-2 formation, with Jonathon Walters on one wing and Michael Kightly on the other, both pinging crosses in towards Crouch and Kenwyne Jones. It’d be nice if Charlie Adam got a start, and Michael Owen made an appearance – but don’t hold your breath.
8) If you take one United player, who would it be?
If we could take anyone, it would have to be Robin van Persie. He has the tactical mindset that we need right now, he can bag 20 goals a season and he can lead from the front. Similarly, Rooney has the necessary attributes we so desperately need – but without the same level of tactical expertise as Robin. I’d take either of them though, any day of the week.
9) Who is the best stoke player you’ve ever seen? Is Matthews the best of them all?
Peter Hoekstra, the Dutch former-Ajax left winger who left defenders inside out and often on their backside. His level of skills were phenomenal when we had him in the lower leagues, and he could easily grace the Premier League pitches today. His trickery seemingly knew no bounds.
There are few that would argue against Stanley Matthews being the best of all of Stoke’s alumni. There’s a reason fans wanted the stadium named after him, why he has two statues in the city and why he is so fondly remembered around not only the country, but the world.
10) Tell us a fact about Stoke City that we would not know.
Less a fact about Stoke and more about Pulis himself. This is his second stint in charge of the club. If he loses the game against Manchester United, his win percentage will fall below the percentage he achieved in his first stint – where he was sacked by the Icelandic board for “not exploiting the foreign market”.
I’ve never heard “not enough wins” phrased so elegantly before.
A £20 bet on Wayne Rooney to open the scoring wins you £110
A £20 bet on United to win 2-0 wins you £135
A £20 bet on Shinji Kagawa to score anytime in the game wins you £75
Despite being more than well stocked in the area, against City United were down to the bare minimum at centre half. Phil Jones, United’s finest performer on the night, pleasingly excelled in his position alongside Ferdinand, but it’s difficult to imagine he would have started there had other options been available. With Vidic, Smalling and Evans all sidelined as a result of various injuries, it’s logical to conclude that Jones had initially been penned in to play in central midfield. If, as expected, one or more of the trio returns against Stoke, we could see Jones pushed forward against Stoke. Carrick, who has been United’s most consistent performer throughout the campaign, will nestle in at midfield once more – the only choice is who will fit in alongside him. Giggs is unlikely to appear, having been abject and at fault on Monday. Anderson, for obvious reasons, should not be considered. The mobility and neat passing of Cleverley may be chosen, but if Stoke’s aggression is taken into account, it is likely that Jones will be given the role to nullify and add muscle to what will be a tense affair.
Ashley Young’s confirmed absence was met with indifference in some parts and glee in others – a damning sign of his enduring mediocrity. However, it would be even less significant news if United were in possession of a winger that was performing well this season. Nani’s erratic displays and the disheartening one-dimensional and unconfident style of Antonio Valencia offer little hope that any produce can be offered from the wide berths. Out right in particular United are low on other options, so the likelihood is that one of the much-maligned twosome will start. Left is anyone’s guess. Danny Welbeck remains the man in favour for the sterner tests and could be used once more. The other option is Kagawa, who for all his instinctive excellence and eye-pleasing artistry is not very effective when wide. Up front, it’s hard to envision much change. Monday might have seen Rooney lethargic and uninspiring, and van Persie worryingly unthreatening, but when both play United usually tend to win. The possibility of Hernandez starting isn’t outlandish, but it seems unlikely.
Potential United lineup
For a number of reasons, United’s encounter with Stoke is likely to be intense. With both clubs chasing very juxtaposing rewards – a title and survival – and with the season’s end edging ever closer, it could potentially be a game of very few goals. A loss for United would offer City the opportunity to close the gap to nine points midweek – a dangerous gift to give with United’s run of fixtures, and their recent performances, taken into account. A loss for Stoke could see them dragged further into a mess from which they may not emerge. Expect the game’s early moments to be tight and the game to be edgy from there on in. Both sides’ strengths vary in nature, so each threatens their opponents in very different ways. High balls and set-pieces could prove problematic for United – with this in mind, the potential presence of Vidic, a master of dealing with ugly incomings, would be most welcome. United will need to see more from those out wide and more competence from those ahead of them. Stoke, despite their recent form and league position, are not an easy side to manoeuvre past. However, they have shambled into such a precarious position for one reason: they’re not very good. Difficult to break down, yes, but they can be handled well – provided the right team is picked and certain individuals perform to an acceptable standard.