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TACTICAL REVIEW: Five points on Stoke City 1-1 Manchester United

Nani provided another spectacular goal versus Stoke City
Nani provided another spectacular goal versus Stoke City

As mentioned in a recent post, we have not been able to provide regular coverage as of late but before league play begins again on Saturday, I wanted to get up tactical reviews for Stoke City, FC Basel, and Norwich City. Perhaps your interest in these past matches is not very high anymore. Nonetheless, I will provide abbreviated versions of normal reviews in the coming days for these matches for those of you who happen to be interested still. At the very least, this allows for a full archive of tactical analysis for each match this season. Here are five points on Manchester United's 1-1 away draw with Stoke on September 24.


Despite rumors prior to the match that Anders Lindegaard may get the start, it was No 1 David De Gea that got the nod in goal versus a physical Stoke side. Jonny Evans was a late scratch due to an injury suffered in warm-ups -- Antonio Valencia, who filled-in at right-back, was the replacement and this forced Phil Jones to slide in at center-back from his initial intended position of right-back. Rio Ferdinand partnered Jones in the center and Patrice Evra was the left-back. On the flanks in attack, Nani was on the right and Ashley Young was on the left. In the center of the park, the duo was Anderson and Darren Fletcher. Up front, it was Dimitar Berbatov filling in for an injured Wayne Rooney and he was partnered by Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). Chicharito was injured just two minutes into the match and Michael Owen came on as his replacement in the 11th minute of play.

For Stoke, Asmir Begovic was between the posts with Jonathan Woodgate and Ryan Shawcross the center-back pairing. They were flanked by Marc Wilson at left-back and Andy Wilkinson at right-back. Glenn Whelan partnered long-throw specialist Rory Delap as the central-midfield tandem and they were flanked by former United trialist Matthew Etherington on the left and Jermaine Pennant on the right. Up front was the recent record-signing Peter Crouch along with Jonathan Walters.

1. Peter Crouch's aerial prowess: It wasn't much of a surprise that Stoke looked to attack in mainly two ways: (1) targeting Crouch on set-pieces or using him to win aerial duels and having Walters, Etherington, and Pennant run onto knockdowns. (2) The other was getting the ball out wide and sending in crosses (more on this later). As this chalkboard shows below, Crouch won 11 aerial duels out of an attempted 13 (85%). Last season when he was with Tottenham Hotspur, Crouch won 5 aerial duels out of an attempted 10 (50%) in United's away fixture at White Hart Lane.

by Guardian Chalkboards

What possibly accounts for this difference in success rate? Perhaps it is the absence of Nemanja Vidic. Vida was arguably the best player in the Premier League last season and during his encounter with Crouch, the United captain essentially erased the then Spurs center-forward out of the match. Rafael van der Vaart had a quiet match at White Hart Lane as well because he was highly dependent last season on collecting knock-downs in dangerous attacking areas after Crouch would win an aerial duel.

Jones was mostly tasked in dealing with Crouch and he didn't fare as well -- but nor was he poor. Perhaps Stoke was even targeting the young defender by hoofing so many balls in his direction. Jones did decent on clearances by being successful on 5 out an attempted 8 but he struggled a bit more to win '50/50' aerial duels where he won just 1 out of an attempted 4. Ferdinand, who is generally very good in aerial challenges, fared even worse by winning just 2 clearances out of an attempted 5 and only winning 1 '50/50' aerial challenge out of an attempted 4. Walters positioned himself quite close to Crouch in order to collect knock-downs while Etherington and Pennant continually cut in diagonally as well when Crouch went into the air in anticipation of flick-ons. Stoke's lone goal came on a corner when Crouch was able slip in between Jones and Ferdinand and hammer home a header. United missed their captain versus Stoke

2. United's poor defending: The trouble that the center-backs had with Crouch was just discussed so not much more needs to said in regards to them. One thing to point out though is that Rio played one of his more poorer matches in quite some time. The full-backs didn't fare much better either. As mentioned earlier, the original intent was to have Evans in the center alongside Rio and Jones on the right. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson mentioned how he felt Evans being out there would have provided more of a physical presence -- after struggling last season in aerial duels, Evans has shown drastic improvement in that regard this season.

Valencia isn't a natural right-back and his lack of experience was exposed at times when he would let Etherington slip him -- particularly with inward runs. Perhaps Fergie anticipated United to dominate possession (which they did -- 58%) and because of this, he felt the attacking threat of Valencia with his marauding runs forward was a potent threat. It is interesting that Valencia was chosen over Fabio as the replacement for Evans.

Evra on the other hand has plenty of experience and is generally regarded as being world-class at left-back -- this is debatable now (but I'd argue there isn't a stand-out left-back in the world right now). He certainly didn't put in a world-class performance versus Stoke. Pennant continually got in behind Evra and bombarded United's defense with crosses -- 16 crosses were sent in by him and 6 were successful. This chalkboard exhibits the dangerous areas form where Pennant was continually allowed to play crosses in from:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Etherington also sent in a high number of crosses as well (12 attempted with 5 successful) from the left side. It appears clear that Stoke's other attacking emphasis, apart from Crouch, was to swing the ball wide to their wingers and allow them to whip in crosses -- which mostly targeted Crouch. Full-backs Wilson and Wilkinson did well too to get forward and provide overlapping runs for their wingers.

3. David de Gea's impressive performance: There were concerns on how de Gea would handle the unique physical challenge that Stoke presents -- especially at the Britannia. The youngster aced the test and was quite impressive. It should go without saying that his shot-stopping in this match was superb and a few saves were absolute world-class. What impressed me more though was his decisiveness in the box on crosses and set-pieces. On Delap's first attempted long-throw, the Spaniard was quick to shoot off his line in an attempt to punch the ball away. On other balls that were sent into the box, de Gea was quick to command his defenders to clear the ball away. He showed remarkable improvement in the quickness of his decision-making as he instantly committed to come off of his line or not. It's possible still that he spills some balls this year on crosses but he's clearly more comfortable in this regard now -- there will be no stiffer test than Stoke.

4. United's lack of fluidity in attack: A characteristic of United's sensational start this season was how fast and fluid their attack was. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, and Nani have been interchangeable with their movement and their one-touch passing -- complemented by the late arriving runs of Tom Cleverley and Anderson -- was the genesis of this incredible attack. Injuries have decimated the Reds as of late and because of this, it was Berbatov and Owen up top for most of this game with Fletcher in the center.

United's lone goal came from a quick 'one-two' between Nani and Fletcher -- Nani's individual brilliance allowed him to slalom through the Stoke defense and when he cut inside of Woodgate, it was Owen's run to the right that dragged out a defender to clear space for Nani. Besides this though, United lacked fluidity for most of the match while in attack. Berbatov continually came deep to link play but he was visibly frustrated that no one was there to support him or to make runs into the space that he was seeing. Young wasn't as involved in this match as he has been for most of this season -- perhaps this resulted from a lack of understanding with Berbatov. Owen was nearly non-existent when he came on for Chicharito and despite coming deep as well to link play, he wasn't able to provide any incisive service for the other attackers. United's most threatening moments generally came from the individual brilliance of Nani in this match.

5. There was a lot of stoppage in play: In this match, there was a lot of stoppage in play and it would be interesting to find out how much time was spent in the actual run of play (I couldn't find this information). It wasn't necessarily because of a high number of fouls because Stoke only committed 11 while United committed 5. Because of Stoke's direct play and because United failed to find a rhythm, much of the time in the match appeared to be wasted in setting up set-pieces or on throw-ins. In this match, United only completed 391 passes at a 78% success rate which is well below normal. Stoke only completed 245 passes at a 68% success rate -- which is quite low for most teams but not necessarily that low for the Potters. This strongly hints that not much run of play football actually occurred.

Conclusion: In the big picture, an away point at Stoke isn't optimal but it is far from a failure. In addition, much credit should be given to the home side for playing well in this match. Tactically, the match was mostly a bore and neither manager got the best of the other in this regard. While injuries surely prevented United from putting in an optimal performance, it doesn't excuse an arguably poor one. The performance was lackluster and a number of players failed on an opportunity to impose themselves in the squad's pecking order. The positives though: Nani and de Gea were quite brilliant as individuals. A draw seemed like a fair result in this match.