There are times as a Manchester United supporter when trying to understand what makes a team succeed or fail can be a challenge. The match at today at the Britannia Stadium against Stoke was indeed a match that challenged my thinking as it forced me to ask many questions but also find trouble answering as many.
There are times when United’s play creates such a conundrum in my head trying to really understand why we play the way we do at times on the road? Yet again we have failed to enforce our will on the road while falling pray to caution and overrated respect for the opponent. Don’t get me wrong, Stoke is a decent team that is well managed and oh so physically dirty. They get away with constant poor tackling and shirt grabbing. My issue is with the tactics we use in these kinds of games more so than the effort given by the players or the squad that was picked.
Today we learned that this club lacks a lot when Wayne Rooney is not in the line-up. We missed his finishing but above all, we miss his presence and his runs into space that open things up for others and create chances. His work ethic can never be underestimated especially when one compares it to the lack of energy willingness to chase a ball or really get dug in. In fairness, he got very little support but he also never worked himself into space the way Owen tried.
As for Michael Owen, I really felt that his running was great but his first touch betrayed him on a few occasions and credit to Stoke for just doing a great marking job on both forwards. A shame we lose Chicharito so early to an injury but for me that play leaves me wondering what exactly happened to the Little Pea? Personally, I did not feel that was a penalty and more of a dive and yes he was contacted by the keeper but after the keeper got the ball. Still, I cannot believe he got hurt via that minimal contact. Talk about fragile. Is Chicharito heading in the same direction as Michael Owen, Louis Saha and more recently, Owen Hargreaves.
Certainly this season Chicharito is spending way too much time in the infirmary and far less on the pitch. I attribute a lot of his injuries to fatigue brought on buy playing too many games as a rookie and then being used to death by Mexico at the Copa. He is too young to be abusing his body so much. Still, I hope he isn’t going to suffer more missed games due to what looks to me to be a severe case of the sophomore jinx.
Now let me offer up some thoughts about the game. What a terrible performance to be sure. We did at no time deserve to win this match. David De Gea saved our bacon on at least four occasions with great saves and our defending especially on highballs into the box was nothing short of shambolic. Even Phil Jones found it hard to defend against the strength of Stoke, which were set pieces like crosses Rory Delap throw ins. De Gea had an outstanding game but he was equally to blame with Jones on the goal because he should have come out aggressively and made that ball his. Jones was often caught flat- footed and to be honest as well as fair, is it really reasonable to ask of him to win the aerial battle against a seven foot bean pole like Crouch?
The fact is that ever since Harry Redknapp took over at Spurs, he worked hard on changing Crouch’s approach in the box. Rather than just stand and wait for a high ball, he often starts out of the box and makes a dashing run to a spot. This is hard to defend when the defender is not getting the same kind of head start nor the spring needed to meet the ball at it’s highest point. United never prepared well enough for this threat and to be honest, we were fortunate to not concede more goals from these type of plays into the box.
For me no other player but David De Gea can be named Man of the Match. Nani started out like wildfire but he offered very little in the second half. De Gea on the other hand made at least five great reflex saves and for the most part handled high balls well except for the goal and another occasion where being fouled by a Stoke player landed him on his ass. He needs to be more physical himself and fearless and this will take some time and working out to get his body to the point of handling this kind of imposition.
As for the match and how we played, let me just say that although the squad selection left me scratching my head, it was the tactics that disappointed me most. Now before people jump down my throat for expecting us to play attacking football at Stoke, that is not what I meant. A trip to Stoke means that champagne football has to take a week off because Stoke are a tough, tall and physical opponent that can hurt you in attack. So playing attacking football would be a mistake.
What I have issue with was our lack of counter attacking, lack of energy and movement off the ball and most of all, our traditional capitulation of the midfield
While sagging back to play this antiquated and rubbish induced zone defence the Fergie loves so. My question to all of you but mostly to Fergie is how long must the team continue to give up midfield and thus concede possession and control to an opponent by forfeiting the midfield? It boggles my mind trying to understand the role Fletcher and Anderson were asked to play today. At times I felt we were playing a 6-2-2 because Fletcher and Anderson were playing so deep and not challenging Stoke players when the ball was circulating in the middle of the park.
When exactly did Darren Fletcher go from terrier and pit bull to a sloth paced fat bulldog who would rather sit on the couch and sleep? And as for Anderson, well playing him this way makes him completely useless so playing Carrick instead would have been better. I honestly have no answers over how this problem can be solved unless the manager changes his tactical priorities. Fact is we need better quality midfield players and we never went out and bought any. But even if we had, these tactics would nullify any positive influence these players could inject into the squad or game.
As for high points and low points, it was not really hard to find the low moments. Nani’s goal and De Gea’s saves were high points but nothing else grabbed me as particularly outstanding. Low points were way to many for my liking. Capitulating midfield position and supremacy is major. Losing the aerial game in the box cost us three points, Phil Jones looking merely human hurt a bit as did Antonio Valencia getting skinned numerous times doing nothing for my belief that he can man the position even though he got away with his mistakes today. Add to that our forwards inability to create space and chances to score left me numb and frustrated. Above all, our tactics left me cold and frustrated trying to understand why a team as potentially great as this feel it necessary to approach a match against a clearly inferior club with such fear and respect? Well for me it comes down to injuries and Fergie’s force of habit.
As for Fergie’s post match comments, I thought he would be as predictable as bread going dry and stale in the hot sun. As usual it was an opportunity to blame the officiating crew whom to be honest were rubbish but who I do not feel cost us victory. I fully expected Fergie to show outrage in post game interviews, but very little came other than his feeling that Chicharito was fouled in the box but because it was so early he felt the referee decided not to call a penalty so early on in the match. Other than that small evidence of referee bashing the Boss had nothing but praise for his club who he felt played like champions thus making him out to be awfully tolerant of their performance. Here’s what he had to say to MUTV;
“I was pleased with the performance from the lads – they battled really hard and played like real champions, If Stoke were going to score it was probably going to be from a set-piece. They’ve got some big lads in their team and they do keep you under pressure that way.” No shit Sherlock. That’s stating the obvious.
He continued to add the following insights on our play when he added the following;
“In terms of the attacking part we showed some good play and maybe should have scored more. We’ve always done well here, but all the changes we had to make today [with injuries to Evans, Hernandez and Rooney] maybe just unsettled us a bit for parts of the game. A draw is probably a fair result. It’s a difficult place to come to. I was pleased with the performance. They battled really hard and played like real champions in every sense of the world.”
When it came to making excuses, instead of picking on the officials today, he pointed a finger of disapproval towards Stoke’s lone goal scorer and thorn in our side, Peter Crouch by adding these comments;
“He fouls all the time. He gets off with it because of his height but he jumps on top of defenders all the time,” said Ferguson. He has been doing that for a long time. Referees know that. Even with the goal he has maybe caught Phil Jones, but he is right above him. He is a handful in the air, there is no doubt about that.”
Very true and as I said before, very hard to combat that kind of aerial presence unless you add a few well placed Nemanja Vidic elbows in the scheme. Crouch always places his hands on defenders shoulders but I wouldn’t say he always gets away with it. I have seen numerous games when he was caught and where goals were called back due to his infractions. Lets just say he got away with it today and be done with it.
Fergie then went on to rightfully praise David De Gea for his performance by offering the following thoughts on the Spaniard’s Man of the Match performance;
“He made a great save in the first half, knocked it round the post,” said the United manager. He was very confident. He sailed through and showed terrific composure. Nothing disturbs him.”
So in closing, did we learn anything from our first major hiccup of this season? I personally expected the performance we gave as I knew Stoke would be a difficult and hostile environment to play especially since our injuries to key personnel reduced our effectiveness to keep Stoke defenders back and concerned wholly by our speedy forwards as well as losing the height war in our own box due to injuries to strong aerial players like Vidic, Smalling and Evans.
We learned that Nani although quiet in the second half has really come into his own and is playing with incredible confidence. Add to that the fact that Valencia at right back is not an option other than in desperate times like today. I would also like to add that after watching Phil Jones play again today, I am more than convinced that he should be given a chance to play midfield due to his comfort on the ball and his terrier form in pursuit and tackling which is something that has gone missing in Fletcher’s game and is not part of Anderson’s. Finally and above all, we learned that without Rooney and Cleverley on the pitch, we begin to look very ordinary at best. Their return as well as Chicharito’s and Vidic’s is something that I think you will all agree with me when I say, it cannot come soon enough.
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