4 notes from Man United 1-1 Stoke (including two big plus points for Jose)
A lack of creativity and ingenuity was a familiar sight for Manchester United fans last season under Louis van Gaal. The 4-1 win over Leicester last weekend was a huge relief, then, even if three of those goals did come from set-pieces.
Against Stoke, the scoreline was far from impressive for Jose Mourinho’s men – not least considering that before this game only West Ham had conceded more goals than the Potters this season.
But United are clearly demonstrating much more than last season. A huge reason for this is that they now have world-class performers in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, of course, while the likes of Marcus Rashford have more freedom in the final third. Ibrahimovic’s movement into Stoke’s left-hand channel caused them problems and allowed Rashford to head diagonally for goal.
United should have won the game comfortably, but a combination of poor finishing and the excellent Lee Grant denied them victory. Stoke’s goalkeeper, on loan from Derby, was making only his second-ever Premier League appearance but looked unfazed by the occasion.
“He had a good game, but that’s what he is paid to do,” smiled Mark Hughes after the game. Mourinho wasn’t so cheery, lamenting: “I never criticise my players for missing chances, their goalkeeper is man-of-the-match obviously, deservedly.”
United mustered 24 attempts on goal with nine on target, eight of which were saved by a 33-year-old enjoying one of his best-ever games.
1. Both bosses’ subs make desired impact
As United struggled to make a breakthrough, Mourinho opted to introduce Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial for Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard. The Portuguese coach couldn’t have wished for a better reaction, as his changes combined in unlikely fashion to nudge the hosts ahead.
Martial ran at Stoke’s defence and played the ball into Rooney; the forward’s first touch was poor and his awareness obsolete, but Geoff Cameron’s interception fell back into the path of Martial. The Frenchman finished superbly and appeared to settle nerves. “An amazing goal and very good initiative,” said Mourinho. “It was very good for him.”
However, Stoke chief Hughes also used his own options from the bench. Jonathan Walters struck the crossbar on the turn, while Peter Crouch made a nuisance of himself around the box before Joe Allen half-volleyed the equaliser.
2. Allen shines in unfamiliar No.10 role
With Bojan starting on the sidelines for Stoke, Hughes used Allen behind Wilfried Bony. The Welshman occasionally played cameos in the role during his latter days with Liverpool, but it’s still surprising to see him occupying that position.
After a quarter-of-an-hour, Allen managed to get to the byline and cut the ball back into the centre of the penalty area; it fell just behind Bony and Cameron was unable to get the desired connection. It was a fantastic opportunity. Then, in the 55th minute he turned Daley Blind before unleashing a tame effort into the arms of a grateful David de Gea.
His late equaliser was well deserved for his hard work. “Joe was immense again,” Hughes said. “He is an intelligent player, he has got great energy levels that everyone sees every day, but that’s not all he’s got. He has good awareness of situations and how to affect the game. His anticipation is first class in the box and in midfield areas as well.”
For United, Mata had the chance to make the No.10 slot his own having mainly been forced to drift inside from wide areas since arriving in Manchester. He almost opened the scoring with a delicate chip, but Grant tipped the ball away to safety. The Spaniard did well in general build-up, although he’ll have wanted to contribute more in the way of final balls.
3. Herrera adapting well to holding role
Ander Herrera’s botched transfer in 2013 should have perhaps been a warning sign to the Basque midfielder that United were no longer the destination they were 12 months earlier. Imposters posed as officials from Athletic Bilbao and United failed to meet his buyout clause, which led to heavy criticism of then-manager David Moyes and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
Herrera hasn’t been able to establish himself as a starter in the last two seasons, with the Red Devils investing heavily in central midfield. However, his deployment as a deep-lying playmaker by Mourinho could well awake the Spaniard from his nightmare.
Straight from kick-off, Herrera played a direct ball in behind Stoke left-back Erik Pieters, with Lingard close to getting on the end of it. When Antonio Valencia ventured into the final third, Herrera filled the space vacated in the right-back zone rather than dropping between the centre-backs as many of his contemporaries would.
He completed 73 passes – 21 more than anyone else on the pitch, even though he was subbed off with six minutes left. Herrera made seven interceptions and recovered possession six times, demonstrating that he won’t be found wanting in a defensive capacity.
4. Mourinho appears to have found a temporary defensive solution
United looked much more balanced in defence with Eric Bailly alongside Chris Smalling in the centre. Valencia provided a threat with his forward runs, while Blind showed that his left foot can be an asset from more than just set-piece situations.
There will be bigger tests to come than struggling Stoke, and that they couldn’t keep a clean sheet will rankle, but there were signs of improvement.
Smalling has a good understanding with Blind to his left and his partnership with Bailly will develop in the future. Bailly made five tackles and eight clearances, while Smalling made four headed clearances and won both of his defensive aerial duals.
De Gea was unexpectedly shaky between the posts for United, although given how much the former Atletico Madrid shot-stopper has saved them in recent years it will be quickly forgiven.