Manchester United stay atop the table after earning a hard fought 2-1 victory over Stoke City at Old Trafford. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) opened the scoring in the 26th minute with a clever back heel goal that resulted from a well placed Nani cross. United dominated the opening 45 minutes with fluid passing and solid defense, but they were only able to take a one goal lead into half. Just 5 minutes into the 2nd half, Stoke were able to equalise on a Dean Whitehead header. Poor communication and marking from United and a well placed header by Whitehead had the Stoke away supporters in a frenzy. However, in the 62 minute, Nani put United on top for good with a fantastic left footed strike from 21 yards out. Although many might look at the score and assume United merely clawed and scratched their way to victory, it was a good performance versus a very solid Stoke side. A single defensive lapse, and not enough shots on goal made this game a little more uncomfortable for United and it's supporters. However, it is 3 points United earned tonight and the result will put pressure on Manchester City and Arsenal ahead of their bout tomorrow night at the Emirates.
Opening formation and tactics: Both sides elected to go with 4-4-2 formations, but there was variation in their approaches.
More after the jump....
United's fullbacks bombed forward all game, and provided quite a bit of support in the attack. Nani played very high on the right, while Giggs tucked in centrally quite a bit from the left. Rafael ended up supporting Nani often while Evra made many overlapping runs on the left when Giggs moved toward the center of the pitch. Fletcher and Gibson played more holding roles and covered for the fullbacks, and both communicated quite well while making selective runs forward. Berbatov stayed high but would often drift left when Giggs tucked in towards the center. Chicharito dropped deep often while Nani would run into the space forward that Chicharito left. So the 4-4-2 ended up looking more like this for Man United...
As for Stoke, their back 4 stayed relatively flat and their fullbacks weren't looking to attack much. However, Stoke left back, Danny Collins, made a few selective runs forward into the space the Nani and Rafael often left behind on their runs forward. Whitehead, the goal scorer for Stoke, sat right in front of the back 4 for most of the first half. However, while chasing a goal in the 2nd half, he started playing higher and made delayed runs forward. Marc Wilson, the other central midfielder, played a box to box role. Rory Delap, the right midfielder, played fairly deep and stayed back often to help on defense when Evra moved into the attack. Tuncay played a supporting role to Kenwyne Jones and played more in 'the hole' and often came deep looking for the ball. Etherington played very high and offered little support defensively from his left midfield role. Jones was essentially a lone striker at times and worked very hard on all the aerial balls that were played to him. Stoke's 4-4-2 essentially looked like this....
* Stoke sat back early and stayed quite compact. With Tuncay dropping deep so often, it was almost a 4-5-1, but more of a 4-4-1-1. As predicted in our game preview, Stoke was looking to send longs balls into Jones... even their GK never played much short and sent longs balls in.
* Right away it was evident that United was attempting to keep the ball on the carpet, keep possession, and to use to the space that was provided out wide for the point of attack.
* Also, United's two forwards often looked for the ball while dropping deep, so that space could be provided behind them for the other attackers to run onto if the center backs were drawn out. Chicharito did this more often than Berba.
* On the first goal, Berba came deep for the ball, the center back was slow to follow and the left back was hesitant on deciding whether he should pick up Berba. This created acres of space for Nani as Berba layed him off into the space on the right side. Etherington was playing so far forward that he was exposing his left back all game. Nani calmly played a perfect cross to Chicharito who made a brilliant run, and even a more genius finish. The simple Stoke formation above shows the space Etherington afforded United all game long on that side. This was another reason why Rafael was able to play so high.
* Fletcher and Gibson were doing a good job communicating and covering, and even made good selective runs forward at times.
* Giggs tucking in centrally left space for Evra to bomb forward on overlapping runs. Wilkinson and Delap were concerned with this and they mainly kept to their defensive responsibilities.
* The only problem that was creeping up for United was that when Tuncay would drop deep, Smalling wasn't sure what to do. This would cause problems again in the 2nd half as I'll get to in a bit. It was clear that Vidic was responsible for Jones all game. However, because Smalling would follow Tuncay deep, it was leaving Vida more room to cover on his own in the back and he often was in a pseudo-sweeper role.
* No major tactical adjustments seemed to be made at half. Although, Whitehead was now playing higher from his holding role in the central midfield.
* On the equalising goal, Smalling got caught out wide to the right chasing Tuncay again. This left Vida exposed in the middle once more. Because Whitehead didn't make any runs forward for most of the 1st half, Fletcher may have been surprised to see him make a run forward and was slow to react. Vidic was so concerned about Jones, who Fletcher loosely picked up as well, that Whitehead was left free for his well placed header. It's difficult to isolate the blame but this was the sequence of the breakdown that lead to the goal.
* Stoke played very well from the 45-60 minute mark. Despite dominating possession, United were not getting enough shots on goal and testing the Keeper.
* Nani was simply brilliant on his goal. However, with Rafael providing a threat all game long on the right side and with Etherington doing a poor job helping out left back Collins, United were able to capitalize on that side again. Nani used a clever fake right, which worked because of the threat of Rafael, and made a genius move onto his left and hit a wonderful strike... one that won the match.
* A good substitution by Fergie to bring on Carrick for Gibson, as Carrick naturally plays deeper in front of the defense. Stoke began pushing more players into the attack looking for the equaliser again, but to no avail.
* Overall, a very solid performance by United despite the score line. Smalling played okay and well on the ball, but Rio Ferdinand's ability to read the game likely would have resulted in a shutout for United. Ferdinand and Vida would have solved the issue of Tuncay dropping so deep, as Ferdinand likely would have been more sound positionally. The only other knock really was not getting enough shots on goal. Also, it's possible United came out a bit complacent to start the 2nd half after such a dominant 1st half, despite what the score said.
* Chicharito has an amazing sense to find himself space and to find dangerous runs. He is also obviously brilliant in finding clever ways to score goals. He's quickly becoming one of my favorite players on this United team.
* Nani is my man of the match. He just brings an extra dimension to the attack and it was even more evident today after his 3 game absence. A goal, an assist, and a constant threat today... very solid game for him.
* A well managed game for Fergie. He was able to rest some players and I thought made a good substitution to bring on Carrick late. Also, it appears the emphasis was on keeping the ball on the ground and to utilize the space out wide that was provided.
* I'm thrilled for the FA Cup match coming up against Liverpool and to witness Woy's woes up close... and for the upcoming battle at White Hart Lane. I'm even more thrilled to top the table with games in hand on the other title contenders. United is in very good position to chase their record 19th table at the moment. Here's to 3 points and for hoping for a tie tomorrow when 'Citeh' visit Arsenal at the Emirates... Cheers!