Five lessons from Stoke 2-1 Man United: Mata needs time to really help unlucky Moyes
Stoke savour big day
"We've just beaten Man United! Gwaan Stoke!" exclaimed an overjoyed Stoke fan in the concourse as supporters filed out of the Britannia. The win - Stoke's first over Man United since two Mark Stein goals handed them a 2-1 League Cup win in 1993/94 - was greeted by a ground-shaking roar at the final whistle.
It's been a difficult period for the Potters, who had gone six league games without a win. Recent performances at Crystal Palace and Chelsea were dire, and while Mark Hughes continues to have the backing of the majority of fans, there is a definite sense that the honeymoon period is over for the one-time Man United player.
A big result was needed, and his players provided it here. While the win is significant in its status, Stoke supporters, and indeed Hughes, might later reflect that it came with an element of fortune. A huge deflection aided the opening goal at a period when the visitors were establishing a foothold on the game, and injuries to both Jonny Evans and Phil Jones irreparably damaged United's grip on proceedings.
Nevertheless, the commitment and application shown by the Potters was worthy of reward. Charlie Adam's second goal was followed by a period of dogged defending in the howling wind and bitter cold of the Britannia, as Stoke sat deep and held onto what they had.
In the first half, Stoke made tackles further up the pitch but often without success, winning just 6 from 13. With three points to hang onto, however, they snarled and fought, eyes fixed with a piercing gaze. Eight out of 10 successful tackles tells the story, and the position of them - far deeper than in the first half, tells a tale too. They hung on. There may be a new manager in town, but this was a win that epitomised what Stoke in the Premier League have been all about ever since promotion in 2008.
Moyes is down on his luck
As the old saying goes, if you can't be good, be lucky. Since taking over at United, Moyes has been striving to prove he's the former, in the face of widespread criticism for a huge dip in results and performance levels. Moyes is a good manager - and has plenty of time to prove he is good enough for the highest level yet - but unfortunately for both him and his team, he certainly has not been a lucky manager in recent months.
The number of injuries to United players during games this season is quite a worry for him - indeed, not a game seems to go by without either a key player absent or someone having to limp off mid-game. Today at the Britannia, Nurse No Luck appeared not once but twice, with both Evans and Jones forced off before half-time.
Jones had started the game extremely well: finally restored to his natural position at centre-back, he looked to be relishing the challenge of a physical battle against Stoke and was leading the game for clearances with 7. The England international had also completed 94% of his passes and won 4 of 5 aerial battles, providing a solid platform from which the champions were starting to build.
Lady Luck is certainly not smiling on Moyes right now. Evans and Jones' injuries were compounded by a madcap deflection off Michael Carrick for the opening goal, and at 1-0 down, with Carrick having to drop into an unfamiliar role at centre-back, it was always going to be difficult. "We were really unlucky with the first goal," Moyes commented afterwards. You could certainly sympathise with his look of resigned frustration as he analysed the game post-match.
Mata showed glimpses but can offer more
The game's top passer, an assist, a 94% pass-completion rate and, strangely enough, the game's top tackler with 5 out of 7 successful. Looking at those stats you'd think that Juan Mata was a roaring success in his first away game in the red of Manchester United (or dark blue, on this occasion) . That wasn't quite the case here, however.
The £37 million spritely Spaniard is, of course, an exceptional player - the Red Devils acknowledged this when they forked out such a sum for someone who plays in a position that, ostensibly, didn't really need reinforcing. What was clear at the Britannia, though, is that it will take a certain period of adjustment before axis Rooney-Mata-Van Persie is firing on all cylinders.
A major problem for Moyes' boys throughout was an inability to link the midfield line with the attack and Van Persie. Despite his expertly taken goal, the Dutchman saw little of the ball, receiving it only 16 times. By comparison, Peter Crouch received the ball more than double that amount, 37 times in total.
Mata has been brought to link midfield and attack. He is the very antithesis of an Antonio Valencia-style winger, despite his nominal starting position on the right, and operates more as an inside forward with a duty to knit and weave offensive play. But though he linked well with Rooney, Mata only managed to play 2 passes to Van Persie all game, and another 2 to striker Danny Welbeck, who replaced the injured Jones before half-time.
If Moyes' thinking in signing Mata is to create a blueprint of quick interchanges and devastating link play between Rooney, Mata and Van Persie, it isn't working quite yet. It will take some time, naturally, during which Mata will need to adjust. But on the whole, the early signs are promising.
Adam fundamental to Stoke's game
Hughes' intentions in the January transfer window were obvious. The aim was to help cure Stoke's goalscoring problems by injecting a bit of life into forward areas. John Guidetti and Peter Odemwingie were secured (both vastly more dynamic than the outgoing Kenwyne Jones), while other players with cut and thrust were targeted to help remedy a sometimes ponderous approach to attacking.
Charlie Adam is Stoke's top scorer with 7 goals, and his double against United showed once again how important he is to the Potters' game. Adam has had a curious career in many respects. The Scot was like Roy of the Rovers at Blackpool, winning games almost singlehandedly and prompting Sir Alex Ferguson to remark that his corner kicks alone were "worth £10 million". Liverpool charged in and thereafter followed a downward spell similar to the one in his early days at Rangers, where he struggled to establish himself.
Against the champions he once again demonstrated why his career has been such a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill. Adam didn't offer a great deal. His passing was often wayward (72% of 32 completed) and he didn't run the game by any stretch of the imagination. And yet he won Stoke the match with an unbelievable strike, to top his rather fortunate first goal.
"It was an absolutely outstanding strike from Charlie," raved Hughes post-match. "A great goal to win a great game from our point of view. Hopefully it's a key moment of our season and we can build from this." Stoke will hope there's more of the good to come from Adam as the season progresses.
The Europa League is calling United
From this scribe's point of view, sat up high in a press box where Stoke's wide-open stadium leaves you fully exposed to the ghastly conditions and the bitter wind pounds at you from both sides, the overwhelming conclusion here was that things just aren't going Man United's way at the moment.
There will be a lot of panic and many a crisis button hit in reaction to this result over the next few days, but on the evidence of today it really isn't warranted. Moyes was right: United were largely on the front foot and were the victim of misfortune at key moments, as injuries robbed the team of their shape on a rare occasion where the manager was able to field something approaching his strongest side.
United were playing with decent rhythm and tempo before Adam's opener. Ashley Young and Patrice Evra looked menacing down the left, Mata and Rooney were combining in enterprising fashion and momentum was building. Defensively, the goals were neither from errors nor bad play. On another day the champions might have prevailed.
To rub more salt in the wounds, Adam's goal was virtually slapdash - and there was certainly a comedy element to the way it trickled slowly into the net, to Moyes' horror. With the title now a distant memory, even fourth place is starting to disappear over the horizon.
United fans may just have to accept this season for what it is - a transition period - and embrace the possibility of Thursday night football next season.