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TACTICAL REVIEW: Manchester United 2-0 Stoke City | Chalkboard heavy analysis of United's comfortable victory

Did Ashley Cole get himself sent off vs. Swansea City so that he doesn't have to face the currently unplayable Antonio Valencia?
Did Ashley Cole get himself sent off vs. Swansea City so that he doesn't have to face the currently unplayable Antonio Valencia?

Manchester United Opening Lineup and Shape

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had his side in a 4-4-2ish shape. Due to the injuries in training to both Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea prior to this match, third-choice goalkeeper Ben Amos got the unexpected start. Rio Ferdinand recovered again from his chronic back injury to be chosen and he was partnered by Jonny Evans at center-back. Chris Smalling -- who adds more height to his side against the aerial threat of Stoke City -- was chosen at right-back over Rafael while Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back.

In central-midfield, maestros Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick dictated play from the center of the park. On the right flank, the in-form Antonio Valencia was deployed while Park Ji-sung played a narrow role as the left-sided midfielder. Up front, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) stayed high as an out-and-out striker while partner Dimitar Berbatov often dropped deep to link play -- another reason for the latter's selection was likely his height for defending against set-pieces.

Stoke City Opening Lineup and Shape

Stoke manager Tony Pulis deployed his side in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Thomas Sorensen was between the posts at Old Trafford while Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth were the center-back duo. Andy Wilkinson was chosen over Jonathan Woodgate at right-back -- likely due to the better mobility being an anticipated need versus United's pacy wingers. Opposite of Wilkinson at left-back was Marc Wilson.

In central-midfield, Wilson Palacios and Dean Whitehead were chosen over Glenn Whelan and Rory Delap -- the latter's long-throw ability is nullified at Old Trafford due to the drop-off beyond touchline. Jonathan Walters started as the wide midfielder on the left in place of Matthew Etherington -- the latter limped off at the weekend versus Derby County due to a groin injury and only made the bench for this tie -- while Jermaine Pennant was the right-winger. Up front, Peter Crouch was the target-man while Kenwyne Jones played in behind him.

Scholes and Carrick dictate play while Stoke defend deep

United controlled the match -- a 75% to 25% possession advantage is indicative of this -- and this occurred because Scholes and Carrick absolutely bossed the match. Early on, everything for United ran through Scholes. The midfielder often came deep to pick the ball up from defenders and from here, he ignited the build-up to attack. When Scholes received the ball, he was free to turn and see what was ahead of him because none his natural foils -- Whitehead or Palacios -- came out to close him down. The maestro was free to play link play with the simple pass while he also could ignite things further up the attack by spraying long diagonal balls to the flanks -- 13 successful long balls played suggests his success at this. By half-time, Scholesy had completed 58 passes at a 91% success rate while Carrick supplemented him with 50 passes completed at a 85% success rate.

In the 2nd-half, Scholes played a bit higher up the pitch and it was Carrick that dropped a bit deeper to receive and ignite things out of the back. The former still completed 60 passes at a 90% success rate in the 2nd half but the latter completed 85 in this half at a 94% success rate. Perhaps Scholes tired a bit towards the end of the match so responsible distribution from deep was left more to Carrick. However, this also helps highlight another point -- both were interchangeable in their central-midfield roles.

Often when you see midfield pairings, one is generally positioned right-of-center and the other is positioned left-of-center -- and one is typically positioned higher up the pitch in relation to the other. For example, in the Carrick-Giggs partnership, the Welshman is positioned left-of-center and higher up the pitch. In contrast, the movement and roles of Scholes and Carrick were fluid and quite balanced. Both were based deep in a positional sense while picking up the ball from defenders, but both also made late-arriving runs into the box. This passing chalkboard below displays how each midfielder was all over the center of the park throughout the match and how they were not rigid in their positioning:

by Guardian Chalkboards

The passing chalkboard below -- which is only from the 2nd half -- does well to illustrate the point on how Scholes went higher up the pitch in the 2nd half while Carrick stayed deeper:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Just as they were allowed versus Liverpool at the weekend, Scholes and Carrick were given plenty of time on the ball and in acres of space. Credit should be given to the duo for using intelligent movement to find clever ways to receive but much of this was also due to Stoke's tactics of defending deep and keeping things compact in the back. Palacios and Whitehead prevented gaps in the backs by keeping tight to their back four when United were in possession. As a result, they conceded a lot of space ahead of them. It was Jones that dropped deep (more on this later) and attempted to apply pressure on United's midfield duo. Along with the assured distribution of Ferdinand and Evans, Scholes and Carrick simply overran Stoke in this area of the pitch. Pulis was fine with conceding possession to United as his focus seemed to be getting as many bodies behind the ball and in a playing space that was vertically minimal. This tactic worked to an extent as United failed to score a goal from open play -- it should be noted though that both penalties were won after United had penetrated Stoke's defense.

Stoke's approach

Pulis' concession of possession and deep-defending tactics at Old Trafford left him with one approach in attack -- trying to hit United on the counter. The Potters are already known as playing a very direct style of football as their bottom-of the-league ball possession rate and tops-of-the-league aerial duels won helps illustrate. However, Pulis put these tactics into overdrive during this match.

From the back, Stoke relieved pressure and attempted to get into attack by simply hoofing the ball long. The chalkboard below -- goalkeeper Sorensen's and center-back's Shawcross' passing charts -- shows that the away side simply bypassed the midfield and punted the ball long when possession was won:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Typically, Stoke use a single target-man as a pivot while a secondary-striker -- such as Walters or Cameron Jerome -- is near them to anticipate knockdowns. However, in this match, the use of two combative aerial threats -- Crouch and Jones -- suggested a more drastic direct approach.

Crouch was the target-man in this match and it was he who Stoke's defenders targeted for an outlet when they hoofed the ball long. Jones played as the secondary-striker and he was tasked to use his pace and power for driving-runs on the counterattack after he got on the end of knockdowns or when he received the ball from a midfielder. Jones often looked a threat as he was able to operate in space on the counter but his end product was extremely poor. None of his three shots were on target nor were his passes defense-splitting.

The comparative chalkboard below shows Crouch's effectiveness as a target-man just beyond the half-way line when Stoke hoofed the ball long after winning possession in their own defensive half. The same chalkboard shows Jones' aerial effectiveness when Stoke actually progressed further up the pitch and were able to use the aerial threat of their secondary-striker for this match:

by Guardian Chalkboards

On the occasions that Stoke did not bypass their midfield, their central-midfielders -- Whitehead and Palacios -- simply looked to swing the ball out wide for their wingers. The chalkboard below this paragraph clearly indicates this while also showing that they themselves rarely looked to penetrate the defense with incisive passes near the box. Stoke were hoping that their wide attackers would provide this.

by Guardian Chalkboards

During the reverse fixture, wingers Etherington and Pennant caused United trouble with their impressive crossing. The former successfully whipped in 6 crosses out of an attempted 16 while the latter was successful with with 5 out of an attempted 12. Walters -- who is primarily a secondary striker this season but started in place of a slightly injured Etherington on the flank-- looked to cut inside and only attempted 1 cross in this match. Pennant -- who has recently fallen out of favor -- received the start versus United and was able to whip in 4 successful crosses out of an attempted 11. Pulis' tactics resulted in his wingers being his side's main creative forece but they failed to be as effective as they were at the Britannia in September.

Rio's deep-positioning while Evans' steps out from the back

When a center-back partnership for United includes either Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic, the back four generally play slightly deeper as both are vulnerable on the turn when balls are played in behind them. In contrast, when a center-back pairing is formed from the trio of Evans, Smalling, and Phil Jones, they are able to play a bit higher due to their possessing of a bit more pace. In this match, it was interesting to observe how deep Ferdinand was playing, despite United continually having the opposition pinned back.

Ferdinand was very-much a covering defender while it was Evans that came out to challenge in defense. Perhaps more interesting in a tactical sense, Evans continually stepped out from the back in order to ignite attacks. After Scholes and Carrick, it was Evans' 96 passes completed that were third most in this match. For similar reasons mentioned for Scholes and Carrick, there was nobody to close down Evans and it was he who often had the most space to operate in when United were in possession. Jones was occupied by his tracking of Scholes/Carrick while Crouch simply didn't have the mobility to press Evans. The passing chalkboard below shows the vertical contrast of where Evans' and Ferdinand's distribution came from:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Stoke's 2nd-half adjustments

United scored their opening goal late in the 1st half (38th minute) so Stoke didn't have much time to adjust their tactics prior to half-time. At the start of the 2nd half, Stoke came out playing slightly higher up the pitch and they looked to pressure United's midfield a bit more. This is a common reaction for a side when they trail as they are forced to come out in search of an eqauliser. When United went up two goals just 8 minutes into the 2nd half, Stoke began to play even higher up the pitch and each band from the visitors were playing a good 5-10 yards higher up the pitch. Pulis bringing on Jerome for Crouch in the 57th minute -- 4 minutes after United's second goal -- allowed for a more mobile attacker to press United's defenders.

United calmly close out the match

United briefly lost their dominance but they hardly lost their firm grip on the match. Despite Stoke's increased pressure, United rarely looked troubled. In the 73rd minute, Fergie brought on young midfielder Paul Pogba for striker Chicharito -- thus, United's shape shifted to a 4-3-3. The extra man in the center of the park allowed United to regain their dominance in possession. In fact, the last 20 minutes or so was United's most dominant span of possession in this match. The youngster Pogba was the most advanced player of the midfield trio as he impressed with his technical ability, confidence, and athleticism. During the closing stages of the match, Stoke stopped pressing and they simply looked to limit the damage -- or perhaps fatigue played a role as well after they essentially chased United's shadows throughout the match.


On a day where leaders Manchester City were defeated at Goodison Park by former United midfielder Darron Gibson's winner, the champions went level on points with their rivals after their defeat of Stoke City. While no goals resulted from open play, United were impressive throughout the match and the scoreline failed to flatter their performance. The return of Scholes -- and in combination with an in-form Carrick -- has brought calm into Fergie's side. This is being complimented well by Valencia being unplayable on the right flank during the past month. The anticipated return of Wayne Rooney -- a central creative force in the space between the lines -- should only add to the quality of United's play at the moment.