The tide seems to have turned for Jose Mourinho and his men. After a chastening week of three consecutive defeats, Manchester United have bounced back with a run of three successive victories in all competitions. Particularly impressive was their first half deconstruction of champions Leicester City at Old Trafford. A 4-0 half-time lead is a rare thing at the Theatre of Dreams these days and fans will hope this is the new beginning they have been waiting for since 2013.
Most encouraging were the performances of Juan Mata and Paul Pogba who seem finally to be finding their feet under Mourinho. Stoke City have not had the best of starts to their season. Pressure is beginning to build on the manager and squad after a poor run of early results. Yet, the team that have maintained a top ten spot for three seasons in a row will soon rediscover their quality. They will hope that start with a win in this weekend’s early kick-off.
Manager: Mark Hughes
Since hanging up his boots after an impressive playing career, Mark Hughes has worked hard to become an established and successful Premier League manager. One of many ex-United players to make the transition in to management, Hughes can consider himself one of the most successful. Enhancing his reputation with solid spells at Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City and now Stoke City. Since taking over from Tony Pulis, Hughes has adapted Stoke City’s playing style. Left behind is the raw physicality and defensive solidity that kept the side in the Premier League under Pulis.
In its place is a more fluid, attacking playing style. One enhanced by statement signings like that of Bojan Krkić and Xherdan Shaqiri. Despite this, and a respectable top ten finish last season, Hughes’ Stoke side are showing signs of strain this year. Heavy defeats to Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace has left his side in nineteenth place and with speculation surrounding his job. A win at Old Trafford could be the tonic needed to kick-start their season. But Hughes will know this is no easy task based on current form.
Key Player: Marko Arnautovic
Since joining from Werder Bremen in September 2013, Marko Arnautovic has grown to become one of Stoke City’s most influential players. He credited the move to Stoke City with resurrecting his career and he has established himself as a creative force in Stoke’s new approach under Mark Hughes. Last season was particularly productive for the Austrian. His 11 goals and seven assists in 34 appearances ensuring Stoke City maintained a ninth-placed finish for the third year in a row. This included a memorable strike against United at the Potteries. Inspiring Stoke’s victory on that day and heaping further pressure on the stricken Louis van Gaal. With one league goal this term, it has been a slow start for Arnautovic.
Yet he is not the only player searching for form in an under-performing Stoke side. United have shown particular weakness in wide areas this season. Including some dangerous counter attacks during their laboured defeat of Zorya Luhansk on Thursday. Arnautovic will be looking to exploit the space vacated by United’s advanced full-backs. With United’s midfielders so far failing to cover their teammates in these situations. He is likely to line up against Antonio Valencia on that flank and the right back will have to keep him on a short leash. Stoke City will be less forgiving than the Ukrainian side were in midweek.
Crystal Palace 4-1 Stoke City
Stoke City 1-2 Hull City
Stoke City 1-1 West Bromwich Albion
Predicted Starting XI
Manchester United 2-0 Stoke City
United are enjoying a return to form during the last fortnight and have secured three consecutive wins across all competitions. While the manner of the victories against Northampton Town and Zorya Luhansk were hardly convincing, the performance against champions Leicester City will inspire more confidence. With the pace of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard either side of the creativity of Juan Mata and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United have found a rhythm to their attack that has been missing for years. Displaying near total dominance in the first half of both the Leicester City and Zorya matches, United seem to be growing in confidence. The emergence of Paul Pogba as a significant influence in the last two fixtures will give United fans hope.
After a slow start, the Frenchman has been growing into his new, unfettered role at the heart of the United midfield. Stoke will be hoping their luck will change. A poor start to their season could have been eased by facing the United side that struggled against Watford and Manchester City. Instead, they come up against a team who look like they may finally be finding their feet. The Potters have plenty of players with the potential to worry United’s defence, who have been less than cohesive at times. But United look to be gathering some momentum and seem set to heap more misery (and pressure) on Mark Hughes this time.