Manchester United’s run of nine straight victories came to a somewhat unsatisfying end last week, as Liverpool left Old Trafford with a point. The Reds’ unbeaten record was rescued only by a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic header, as José Mourinho was left to reflect on points dropped. The joy sparked by the Swede’s improvisational finish quickly dissipated after the final whistle in the knowledge that Jurgen Klopp’s side would head back down the M62 harbouring considerable satisfaction. This week, United travels to Stoke, looking to recover from last week’s derby disappointment.
In isolation, a hard-fought draw from a goal down against the club’s most bitter rivals is far from a poor result, but against a depleted Liverpool side it felt like an opportunity missed. Klopp’s side executed a game plan admirably, and it undoubtedly hindered United, but even then only a handful of individuals reached the required level.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Mourinho’s players have set high standards and supporters were left frustrated that the team fell short when it mattered most. Optimism has returned to Old Trafford, but Mourinho’s side is still far from the finished article.[/blockquote]
Mourinho’s players have set high standards in recent weeks, and supporters were left frustrated with a team that fell short when it mattered most. Optimism has returned to Old Trafford, but it is clear that Mourinho’s side is still far from the finished article. To underline the point, it is sobering to note that the Reds have taken only five points from 15 against the club’s top six rivals this season. The team’s apparent lack of big game nous was certainly on display last weekend.
In football circles the phrase “getting up for it” is overused. It’s a one-dimensional concept, and one that got the better of certain United players. There’s fine line between being mentally prepared and slipping into over excitement, which can affect an individual’s decision-making.
Paul Pogba is a case in point. The Frenchman received a significant portion of his footballing education in Manchester, and perhaps understands more than others about what it means to face Liverpool. His desire and commitment spilled over into a loss of composure. Yet, it is also crucial not to lose sight of Pogba’s dominant performances of late. He is undeserving of the hounding that has accompanied one show of immaturity. He will learn from an undoubtedly chastening experience.
On Saturday, Pogba has the opportunity to put things right as United arrive at the Bet365 Stadium for a notoriously tricky away fixture. The Reds’ last victory at Stoke came in December 2013, in what was a living embodiment of the stereotypical “wet Wednesday night at Stoke.” Play was stopped in the first-half for a hailstorm, before goals from Ashley Young and Patrice Evra granted David Moyes’ side passage into the semi-finals of the League Cup. Since then, United has endured two defeats and a draw in the Potteries, one of which was a Boxing Day catastrophe that ended Louis van Gaal’s brief flirtation with the idea of dropping Wayne Rooney.
Mourinho brings a much improved side to face former-Red Mark Hughes, although the Portuguese has won only one of his three visits to the Stoke, a record he is likely aware of.
History suggests a thoroughly difficult task for United, and this is compounded by the Potters’ recent home form. Hughes’ team is unbeaten in seven home league games, winning four in a run that has also included three clean-sheets. That run was blighted by a 2-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup, but Stoke remains a tough nut to crack on home turf.
Hughes has tried to alter the identity of the Premier League’s most unfashionable club, albeit with mixed results. Sparky hasn’t completely overhauled the club’s DNA, but has mixed more cultured acquisitions, such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan Krkic, with ever-present figures such as Ryan Shawcross and Peter Crouch. The result is a side that is largely unspectacular, but difficult to beat, with some moments of genuine quality.
Hughes’ team has improved at home since shipping four goals apiece to Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City earlier in the season, although concerns remain regarding Stoke’s tendency to have the odd disaster. Chelsea and Liverpool also fired four past Hughes’ men recently, although those fixtures were away from the comfort of the former Britannia Stadium.
There is scope for United to exploit any lingering frailty in the Potter’s back four. Ex-Red Shawcross and Dutchman Bruno Martins-Indi have become a settled centre-back pairing, but it is in wide areas that United could have the most joy. The ever-erratic Glen Johnson endured a near comedic return to Anfield just before the New Year. It may be an area Mourinho chooses to target.
In midfield, the Potters mix the combative Glenn Whelan with Joe Allen’s composure. Whelan, in particular, may have his sights set on Pogba after the Frenchmen’s difficulties against Liverpool. The Irishman is an experienced campaigner, and will look to exploit any lingering anxiety in Pogba’s mind. The home side also poses a threat in wide areas, with Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic able trouble even the best Premier League sides. Despite not registering an assist, Shaqiri has created the most chances of any of Hughes’ team, with Arnautovic following closely behind.
Mourinho has a full squad, save for Eric Bailly, a luxury that Van Gaal must look upon with green eyes. Barring any late injuries, United’s defence and midfield should remain unchanged from last week’s draw, with Michael Carrick returning to the fold after being substituted at half-time against Liverpool. It is an ignominy that no footballer will enjoy, but Carrick has the experience and strength of character to return seamlessly.
Stoke subs from: Given, Bardsley, Muniesa, Affelay, Walters, Imbula, Ngoy | United subs from: Romero, Blind, Smalling, Fellaini, Rooney, Mata, Rashford
It is an important game for Pogba, one in which he can erase the memory of his inexplicable handball and regain the confidence that has seen him stroll through games of late. It will be a test of the midfielder’s character at a ground where he will be given no quarter. This makes Carrick’s presence all the more vital, as it has been the Geordie who has freed up Pogba to maraud and create.
While Mourinho has moulded a strong spine, neither the right or left-wing positions have been fully nailed down. Several players have been given the opportunity to emerge on the flanks, yet only Henrikh Mkhitaryan is enjoying a consistent run in the side. Even then, despite bursting back onto the scene towards the end of the year, the Armenian has been quiet in recent weeks, turning in an inconsistent display against Hull City and going missing against Liverpool. Mourinho will want more from the playmaker.
Mkhitaryan enjoys drifting in from wide positions, but will have to work hard to find space at Stoke, with the Potters likely to employ both Whelan and Charlie Adam at the base of midfield. This will create space for Antonio Valencia to roam, testing the defensive resolve of Arnautovic and keeping the attacker well away positions in which he could inflict harm.
On the opposite side, Anthony Martial struggled to make an impact against Liverpool, as he was surrounded by visitors at every turn. This is testament to the threat posed by Martial, and although Hughes’ side is well-drilled, Stoke do not reach the same levels of intensity that Klopp demands.
Marcus Rashford has a case for replacing the Frenchman, but may be better used as a second half substitute. Rashford has not particularly excelled when starting games on the left, but has been used to good effect as an impact sub. Given his age and Ibrahimovic’s form, this is perhaps a better use of his talents for now.
Ibrahimovic continued his goal-scoring run with last week’s leveller at the Stretford End, and the physical challenge presented by Shawcross and Martins-Indi will be one on which the Swede thrives. Zlatan’s overall contribution was less against Liverpool, but such is his mental strength that last week’s lack of involvement will not faze him.
Stoke’s approach will focus on nullifying the striker’s influence, but he has shown that one opportunity is all that is needed. Margins will be tight, and United will once again look to the club’s number nine to stay in the hunt for a Champions League place.
Mark Clattenburg (Referee)
J Collin, R West (Assistants)
G Scott (Fourth Official)
Stoke 0-1 United