Wayne Rooney fired in a stoppage-time equaliser to salvage a point for Manchester United against Stoke, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record in the process.
As usual, Jose Mourinho made changes to his team for the visit to Stoke City, resting Michael Carrick ahead of the EFL Cup semi-final on Thursday. Marcos Rojo was also absent at the Britannia, replaced in the line-up by Chris Smalling.
The decision to rest Michael Carrick, while understandable, cost Manchester United a great deal of quality in every aspect of their performance. His absence causes a ripple effect throughout the team. The two immediate changes in midfield forced Ander Herrera into Carrick’s role as pivot, while Fellaini was deployed in a more advanced area. It is fair to say one was more impactful than the other.
In recent weeks Marouane Fellaini has answered many of his critics with excellent performances as an impact substitute against Hull City and Liverpool. As an advanced midfield player in this 4-3-3 system, it was business as usual for the big Belgian.
In 56 minutes of action, Fellaini completed 85% of his passes but was completely ineffective. Scrap that. At times he was downright detrimental to Manchester United’s attacking efforts. Too many of his passes were backwards or sideways, too few of them were forward passes through opposition lines and there is only one forward pass in that graphic that could count as being the in the final third of the pitch. Above all else, Fellaini was barely in possession of the ball during his time on the pitch. In order to accommodate his participation in the match, Ander Herrera, United’s tigerish and progressive midfield man, had to drop into a less adventurous, more restricted role. To justify his selection Fellaini has to do more.
Herrera himself performed admirably as Carrick’s deputy. Operating as Manchester United’s conductor in that deep-lying midfield position, Herrera was positive in possession and rarely wasteful with his pass selection. Completing 93% of his passes, Herrera was instrumental as United dominated possession and created chance after chance.
Unlike Fellaini, Herrera got on the ball as often as any other player and allowed United to play faster through the middle, with short, sharp passes into the forwards. With Mata, Pogba, and Mkhitaryan in those advanced positions, the speed of United’s play through the lines was crucial. Herrera contributed to this fluid style, Fellaini, for all his positive attributes, did not.
Manchester United clawed their way back into the game after falling behind in the first half, but the real catalyst came with the introduction of Marcus Rashford. When he replaced Marouane Fellaini in the 56th minute, United were given an injection of pace that had been missing all afternoon. Stoke’s defensive shape was to be expected; concede possession, drop deep and defend the narrow spaces with multiple defenders as often as possible. In order to beat defensive systems like this, the attacking team must produce incredibly quick passing that plays directly through a team’s defensive structure or rely on individual quality to beat an opponent 1 vs 1 and create space elsewhere through that momentary disruption. Rashford offered that individual quality.
Marcus Rashford attempted four take-ons in the second half, completing three of them. Only Paul Pogba completed more for the away side (4). Not only was Rashford willing to run at players with the ball, but his movement off the ball and his electric pace as he linked up with Ibrahimovic started to take the game to Stoke in a more purposeful manner. When he came on, United looked more lively and more likely to create something out of nothing.
Many of United’s stars failed to shine this afternoon. Despite having plenty of possession, a lot of which was in Stoke’s half of the field, United struggled to really test Lee Grant, with many of their 25 shots comfortable for the Stoke goalkeeper. While it didn’t happen for the likes of Mkhitaryan, Mata, Pogba or Lingard, United could rely on their dependable right back to offer them a way back into this contest.
Once again, most of Valencia’s work took place in the opposition half and he was the first option for United as they came at Stoke with wave after wave of attacks. Valencia was excellent again today, creating opportunities with his attacking adventure and advanced positioning. He attempted 12 crosses, created two chances and offered width and balance to an attacking system that is often very narrow given the players selected to play in the advanced positions.
With Liverpool losing in the early kick-off and Manchester City facing off against Tottenham Hotspur this weekend, Manchester United needed a win to capitalise on the dropped points above them. Thanks to Wayne Rooney’s excellent free-kick, they have one point and stay in touch. Just about. But it was starting to feel like groundhog day as chance after chance came and went and United failed to apply the correct finishing touch. Despite the dominance, despite the number of opportunities to score, Manchester United were not good enough today.