A game away to Stoke has been the archetypal ‘difficult place to go’ since their promotion to the Premier league back in 2008. Well on Saturday, it was United that struggled at the Bet365 stadium, coming away with a point that stopped them pulling away from Manchester City again at the top of the table.
Mourinho made three changes from the team that played Leicester, bringing in Darmian, Herrera and Rashford for Blind, Mata and Martial. The team sheet was published in a 4-3-3 formation, but during the game, it was often a 4-2-3-1, with Matic and Herrera sat deep and Pogba in the number 10. Stoke lined up in a 3-6-1/5-4-1 shape, with Diouf and Pieters at wing back and Jese furthest forward; Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting played out wide.
Early on, Stoke got in behind United’s defence, but then the game settled down, with United keeping the ball for long periods while struggling to get into Stoke’s final third. Herrera, Matic, Jones and Bailly regularly ended up keeping the ball to themselves. The front four were often too static to receive balls to feet and combine in front of the Stoke defence. Stoke were playing a very high line and Rashford and Lukaku made several runs in behind which repeatedly came to nothing. Rashford had the best chance from one of these openings, a shot that he hit straight at Butland.
As the first half was petering out with United managing to hold precarious control of the fixture, Choupo-Moting took advantage of some lax defending and opened the scoring. Diouf had got in behind Darmian (yet again) and was able to cross, while Bailly failed to track the Cameroonian forward, too busy ball watching. Phil Jones had also had the chance to cover the front post and block the cross. So far this season, both Jones and Bailly had looked like a really accomplished centre back pairing. Today they showed that they still have errors in their game.
It’s a well-known maxim that scoring before half time is one of the best times to score. Stoke were satisfied that they’d managed to do that before United responded almost instantaneously. United’s set piece delivery had been really poor all game, often deciding to take the ball short or even failing to beat the first man, so the fact that was how United scored their opener was very surprising. Mkhitaryan’s corner still didn’t make the near post, but this time Matic ran across the front of the Stoke defence and flicked it to the back post, where Pogba was unmarked and able to head home. At least that’s how it looked at first glance; replays revealed he nodded it onto the back of Rashford’s head before it dropped into the net.
The first half had been underwhelming as a spectacle with neither team able to truly create chances. Mourinho’s decision to play Herrera and move Pogba further forward had allowed United to control the middle of the field but shoved Mkhitaryan out to wide right. The Armenian looks uncomfortable out wide and struggles to influence the game. In an attempt to get involved in the play, he often drifted much more centrally but had little impact in the first half. Just after half time, he switched flanks with Rashford and gave up occupying spaces out wide, instead attempting to get as close to Lukaku as possible.
This switch appeared to be the catalyst for the second goal. A failed Stoke counter broke down and Mkhitaryan slipped in Lukaku behind the Stoke defence, who managed to score after two attempts. United may have taken the lead but they did not deserve it at that point. They had struggled to contain Stoke and despite holding the ball never truly held control over the game itself.
This United side looks much more comfortable when it can counter and break forward at speed from back to front. The pace in attack and quick exchanges mean they can easily take advantage of a panicking defence. When tasked with breaking down an organised defence sat back in the correct position, so far they appear to lack the guile to create multiple clear chances. In the previous games this season, most of the goals have arrived once the opponent has had to come out and spaces have formed later in the game. Of course, very few teams will allow United this kind of space from the off; they will have to get better at penetrating tougher defences if they want to win these types of games.
Stoke burst United’s bubble almost immediately, after De Gea made an incredible reaction save from a Jese chance, Choupo-Moting scored at the back post from a corner. He was left unmarked as Jones collapsed at his feet, a pathetic attempt to challenge an attacker in the air. Stoke then dropped back, but still maintained the high line they had held for the whole game. Rashford and Lukaku consistently attempted to exploit the space behind but were unable to take advantage yet again. The game started to open up in this period, with both teams frantically attempting to score.
Despite the space behind the Stoke defence, Mourinho elected to replace Rashford and Herrera for Mata and Martial. At first, it seemed strange to take off the fastest player in the United attack when there was so much space for him to run into, but the Potters almost immediately dropped deeper, allowing United to again dictate the play and probe for gaps.
Unfortunately, they were unable to score again. Their best chance came when a Martial cross was whipped in from the right to Lukaku who half volleyed from six yards into the stands. This is exactly the sort of chance the Belgian was signed to convert; to not even hit the target from that close to the goal was criminal. Van Nistelrooy would have converted from that range, Lukaku has been impressive so far but doesn’t yet look as lethal as the famous Dutchman. But then again, who is?
United never managed to truly pin Stoke back and besiege their goal as they so often have through the years, throwing everything they have at a defence and creating chance after chance. In the end, they meekly prodded away without ever causing much harm at all. There was one final chance for the Reds when a corner hit Kurt Zouma and was saved off the line by Butland, but this was the only one created in the last ten minutes.
This was definitely United’s worst performance of the season so far. The inability to create chances against a deeply packed defence is concerning, but equally United had enough clear chances to win this game. The bigger worry is the defence that has looked so solid all season looked much easier to exploit at the Bet365 Stadium. Maybe the three games before were against such pathetic opposition that the fragile Reds defence was not exploited? Or maybe the Stoke attack was so good that they were the first to have the ability to do so? Sadly, it looks a lot more like the former. There is work to do here if United are to secure a 21st title. Still, United remain top of the table and we all know that Stoke is a difficult place to go, right?