The best front three in the Premier League: David Moyes’ perhaps generous assessment of his attacking options ahead of Manchester United’s Premier League fixture with Stoke City this weekend. Generous in that the triumvirate is as yet untested as a combination; yet almost £90 million worth of exciting talent nonetheless.
A hint too at the options Moyes now boasts after Juan Mata’s arrival this winter, while Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney should join the Spaniard in the starting team if not this weekend then at home to Fulham in a week’s time. They might have to be the best too, with United falling to strengthen key a areas of weakness in defence and central midfield this winter.
Still, Moyes received a remarkable triple boost in the past week with Mata’s arrival coinciding with the return to fitness of key players. One that is also Moyes’ last roll of the dice this season as United seek qualification for next year’s Champions League. With United now six points and goal difference behind Liverpool the Reds can afford no more mistakes. There are fewer excuses for the new manager too.
With van Persie having completed more than an hour against Cardiff City on Tuesday, Mata is against likely to start at the weekend. Moyes faces a choice: to deploy the Spaniard on the left side of midfield, with Rooney returning to the number 10 role he has graced this season, or to push the Englishman up front and Mata into his prefered central role.
Elsewhere the Scot faces another dilemma – to employ Antonio Valencia in a traditional wide role on the right side or the free-roaming Adnan Januzaj. Or in other words will Moyes retain a variant of 4-4-2 following Mata’s capture, or has the evolution to the more fluid attacking system begun?
The latter may be against of Moyes’ natural instincts; an intrinsically conservative and reactionary coach in an era of progressive free-thinking football. Still, the Scot has talked a good game this week, and whatever the outcome, Moyes has little time to lose this season.
“We need to give Juan Mata time to settle in and not get too far ahead of ourselves too quickly,” said the manager on Friday.
“The one good thing is that because he has Premier League experience and being in the league and being at a big club, coming here should be a little easier. But we still have to be mindful that there is a change and we have to give him time for that to happen.
“Football is changing as the game goes on. Players change themselves. There is a lot more movement especially with the forward players. They still have to play in a framework and from that framework you allow it to develop themselves.”
On the pitch Moyes’ perennial injury crisis is easing, with only Nani and Rio Ferdinand definitely missing the trip to Stoke, although the Englishman is close to a return. Captain Nemanja Vidić is suspended following his dismissal at Chelsea a fortnight ago, while Michael Carrick could make the squad following a hamstring injury.
Marouanne Fellaini is an outside bet to make the matchday squad having return to training, although the Belgian is short of match fitness.
Once again the manager’s principle decision will be in central midfield where Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs compete for two spots if Carrick is not yet ready to start. And once again United will face being over-run in midfield, where the Premier League’s bottom side Cardiff City dominated last Tuesday.
“Nani has had a bad hamstring injury. He’s getting closer now but I think it will be another month until he will be about ready to play,” adds Moyes.
“Carrick is improving with his ankle and has got a good chance of being in the squad. He’s improving and has done some training. We’ll just check to see if he can twist and turn correctly before we make a decision.
“Rio is back in training and in the squad as well. I’ll continue to use Rio at the right times when we think we can play him. He has made a great contribution, especially in the first half of the season. He played a big part in helping me settle and get my feet under the table a little bit.”
Meanwhile, much of the focus will be on Rooney and van Persie, whose injuries have at least in part contributed to United scoring just 38 goals in the league – 19 fewer than at the same point last season.
“We’re mindful they’re both coming back from injuries and we have to make sure they’re ready,” said Moyes, whose decision to rush van Persie back into action earlier this season potentially contributed to the 30-year-old’s poor injury record over the past five months.
“We’re a little bit more concerned about Robin because he’s been out longer; Wayne’s been out for a shorter period. We have to keep managing them and do things right.
“When you want to win you need people like Robin van Persie, who will get you the winning goal. The other night, we started well and Robin got us a goal after six minutes.”
Meanwhile, Stoke manager Mark Hughes is without midfielder Steven Nzonzi, who serves a one-game ban following a red card at Sunderland. Peter Odemwingie, who joined from Cardiff City on Tuesday, could make his home debut. Fellow loanee John Guidetti, who complained about lack of playing opportunities just two week’s into his spell with Stoke, is again likely to be on the bench.
Still, Stoke need the points just as much as United, with Hughes’ side in wretched form of late. The Potters have lost four on the spin and lie just three points ahead of the relegation zone.
“Whenever you play Manchester United it’s difficult but with Mata, van Persie and Rooney coming back into the fold we’ve had a few sleepless nights this week,” admitted Stoke assistant manager Mark Bowen.
“We feel, and quite rightly so, that we can give anyone a game on our own patch and I’m sure we will do tomorrow against United. We’ve played them twice and done well against them for 70 minutes but that doesn’t really matter when you get beat.
“We’ll take positives from the game though and think that, both home and away, we caused problems for them and can do so again. I’ll settle for getting hammered, Asmir Begovic winning the Man of the Match and us winning 1-0, winning at the death. It doesn’t matter how good or bad we play, getting something out of the game tomorrow is the key.”
It’s a sentiment to which Moyes will surely concur.
Stoke City v Manchester United, Premier League, Britannia Stadium, 3pm, 1 February 2014
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron,Pieters, Shawcross, Wilson; Whelan, Adam, Ireland, Assaidi, Walters; Odemwingie.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Januzaj; Mata; Rooney.
Stoke: Sørensen, Muniesa, Shotton, Crouch, Guidetti, Arnautovic, Palacios, Crouch
United: Lindegaard, Buttner, Kagawa, Giggs, Fletcher, Carrick, Fellaini, Welbeck, Young, van Persie, Hernández
Stoke 26 Draw 32 United 41
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistants: L Betts, A Halliday
Fourth Official: M Oliver