Buoyed by their 2-0 win over Cardiff City and with Rooney, Mata, and van Persie starting, the Red Devils were set for a tricky test against Stoke City, with a top 4 finish in their sights.
With the January transfer window officially hitting its inevitable closure , David Moyes’s side was set to face a Stoke team that the Red Devils had already beaten twice this season, including a 2-0 victory in the quarterfinals of the Capital One Cup.
In the league cup triumph, Moyes’s 4-3-3 formation that gave Patrice Evra a greater run of the wing and allowed him to link up with Ashley Young to impressive effect. The path of the match suited the Red Devils that day and, despite the hail and torrential rain, they took advantage of. Stoke central midfielders attempted to suffocate any potential attack. However, with Hernandez making an effort to as high up as possible, on the shoulder of the last man, the Stoke City defense retreated, leaving a large zone in front them that both Young and Evra benefited from in scoring their goals.
More than two months have passed since, and things seem to have changed drastically, at least in terms of the options that are available to David Moyes. The returns from injury of both Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, plus the addition of Juan Mata to the squad, provide United with a formidable attacking unit that they have been lacking at times this season.
David Moyes opted for 4-2-3-1 formation with Carrick and Cleverley in midfield, choosing to leave Giggs, who earned his 800th start for the Red Devils last week against Swansea, on the bench. Also the game against Stoke marked the debut of arguably the "best front three" in the league, a view that David Moyes also shares. Rooney was deployed in the hole behind van Persie while Mata and Ashley Young operated on the right and left wing, respectively. Moreover, Moyes tweaked his defense with the introduction of Phil Jones in central defense, alongside Evans with Smalling and Evra on the flanks.
Former Old Trafford standout Mark Hughes deployed Stoke in a similar formation. Peter Crouch led upfront with Walters playing in the hole and Odemwingie and Arnautovic on the wings. Charlie Adam and Whelan played in deep lying roles, occasionally participating in the attack while the back four was constituted of Pieters, WIlson, Shawcross, and Cameron.
Moyes Fights Fire With Fire
It came as no surprise that Moyes left the 40-year old Giggs on the sideline and went instead with Carrick and Cleverley in the middle of the pitch while sending Phil Jones back in defense and starting Smalling on the right flank instead of Rafael. The strength of this side presented Moyes with a better option against a Stoke team that has been all about aggression. In fact, according to Squawaka the Potters are ranked fourth in tackles and second in fouls committed, clear indications of their penchant for physicality.
It seemed as if everything was going in United’s way in the early minutes of the game as the Red Devils started to put together the quick one-touch passes that they have had trouble with so far this season. It made for better football as Mata was at the heart of it all from his right sided berth. Moyes’s men looked the more threatening of the two sides as Rooney thrashed a left footed volley wide.
Phil Jones started off the game extremely well, glad to be finally restored to his natural position. He responded to Stoke City’s physical challenge and led the game in clearances with 7. The England international 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.
Then the injury bug, one of Moyes’s biggest foes, struck again. Evans limped off to an apparent hamstring injury 8 minutes into the contest and some time later, Phil Jones fell heavily after a clash, forcing United to replace their second defender of the afternoon.
The Battle of The Midfield
Moyes moved Michael Carrick to center-half after Rafael came on for Evans, and Smalling was forced back in central defense and it was the logical move. However, with a tactical gamble that was no moment of genius and will be a hot topic of discussion this coming week, Moyes introduced Welbeck while moving Wayne Rooney into the middle of the pitch. This switch changed the whole complexion of the midfield.
While Rooney has demonstrated that he can play in the midfield, he isn’t accustomed to playing in a deep lying role. Instead, he favors operating in the attacking third, a position he reveled in when Moyes used him in his 4-3-3 formation. The tactical switch nullified the offensive threat Rooney presents and United missed him in a more advanced role.
Stoke made tackles further up the pitch and constantly pressured United midfielders in an effort to force them to operate in an area of the field they weren’t overly comfortable with. Adam and Whelan at times squeezed the life out of Rooney and Cleverley, pressuring them heavily and closing down quickly.
Rooney completed only 14 of his 25 passes in the attacking third of the pitch. His struggles to complete passes from a deep lying position, especially with long passes that are expected from a natural midfielder like Michael Carrick, were evident.
Cleverley, similar to Rooney also sinned in his long ball delivery and was forced to proceed through short passes and toward the flanks for the majority of the game.
Moyes’s side’s inability to link the midfield with the attack was a major problem, a problem that worsened as Rooney failed to deliver a la Carrick. Despite his expertly taken goal, van Persie saw little of the ball, receiving it only 16 times (from unusually deep positions for a frontman) and seemed isolated at times. By comparison, Peter Crouch received the ball more than double that amount, 37 times in total.
The Red Devils issues were not limited to Rooney and Cleverley. Moyes deployed Mata on the right wing, a position that he struggled under Mourinho, and the Spain playmaker struggled to have any impact from the margins. Mata was brought in to help the team through his delicate touches and surgical passing and is the antithesis of an Antonio Valencia-style winger. Despite his nominal starting position on the right wing, Mata should be expected to create inside through controlled dribbling and intricate passing. And although his link-up play with Rooney might have us shown us glimpses of what is to come, he only managed one more pass to van Persie all game, besides the equalizer, and two to Welbeck.
As I wrote last week, various ailments and deficiencies still exist in the current squad, especially in midfield but the win over Cardiff might have glossed over them. The United midfield was once again exposed and David Moyes vibrantly reminded that a wonderful array of attacking talent will not win you every game.
It is certain that luck has not been on the Red Devils side this season, something that was evidenced by the massive deflection on Adam’s free kick and the losses of Evans and Jones to a hamstring injury and a concussion. However, this is no excuse to lose to a side that hadn’t registered a league win since December 21st.
It is evident that Moyes will be tempted, in these desperate times, to field Mata, van Persie, and Rooney in the same squad in an effort to create some offensive entreprise. Against Stoke, Mata struggled on the right wing while the only logical position for Rooney is in the hole. This means that Moyes will have to operate a 4-3-1-2 with Mata playing behind Rooney and the Dutchman if he wants the trio to fire on all cylinders but. And although one might argue that he lacks the personnel for such formation, time is winding down and points are needed. With the Europa League knocking on the door, Moyes will have to be creative and take some risk to salvage this season and perhaps his regime at Old Trafford.
TheStretfordEnd Writes For InsideTheFilmRoom.com
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