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Tactical Analysis: Stoke City 1-1 Manchester United – Barclays Premier League

Following a ‘struggle for life’ in the second half against Tottenham Hotspur, Louis van Gaal made two changes to his starting XI for the game at the Britannia. Luke Shaw replaced Antonio Valencia with Ashley Young switching to the right wing-back position and Chris Smalling completed his return from injury to start in place of young Paddy McNair.

After a disappointing performance at White Hart Lane, New Years Day offered another chance for Radamel Falcao to impress for Manchester United with the rest of the lineup remaining unchanged from the hectic Christmas schedule.

A new year but same old Stoke City. For a side that has often tried to shed the reputation of a long ball, physical, aggressive and ultimately one-dimensional football team, the game this afternoon was a throwback to their earliest adventures in the Premier League.

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With Bojan Krkic missing through injury, Stoke were missing the player that dictated the tempo of their game and created plenty of chances from a central number 10 position. It was the likes of Bojan, alongside the technical qualities of N’Zonzi and Arnautovic, that was allowing Mark Hughes to develop his side into a better footballing team and moving away from the stereotypes from a couple of seasons ago that have always been associated with Stoke. Against United though, with the Catalan forward missing, Stoke reverted to type and were throwing long balls at Peter Crouch and Mame Diouf all afternoon.

Stoke City long balls vs Manchester United - 1.1.15. Credit: Squawka.

Stoke City long balls versus Manchester United – 1st January 2015 (Squawka)

The game plan was simple, but effective. With United dominating possession and pushing eight or nine outfield players into the Stoke half on most occasions, Stoke looked to take advantage of the blustery conditions and play the ball long for the pacy Diouf to chase. If Diouf wasn’t the target of the long balls then it would be Peter Crouch, who would look to bring the ball down and bring others into play in the advanced areas. It was route one all afternoon and United could not handle it. Despite having three central defenders on the pitch, not one could match Crouch in the air and the chaos caused from his knockdown troubled United throughout. He hit the post, set up the early Stoke goal and was the focal point for Stoke’s straightforward but aggressive game plan.

As a result of Stoke’s persistence with long passes from back to front, they completed significantly less passes and less passes in the attacking third. Against West Brom in their last home game, Stoke completed 293 passes with 103 of those in the attacking third. Against United they only completed 145, with 85 of those being made in the attacking third. With such a high percentage of their passes in the attacking areas of the pitch, it just shows how dependant they were on the long balls to get into dangerous positions to begin with.

As for Manchester United, it was another away performance to match those at White Hart Lane and Villa Park as they stuttered to a third successive draw away from home. Unbeaten in 10 games now, but you can’t help but think that it was another two points dropped this afternoon rather than a point gained.

One of the biggest problems for United today was the isolation of their forward players. Radamel Falcao scored again, but it was his only shot in the game and Robin van Persie failed to hit the target with either of his efforts on goal. Three shots from United’s two strikers during the entire 90 minutes is not good enough but the problems lay deeper than that.

After the Boxing Day win over Newcastle United, many pundits were lauding van Gaal’s use of Wayne Rooney in a central midfield role during this unbeaten streak. His response was to explain his preference for Rooney to be an attacking midfield player, like he was against Newcastle when he scored twice, rather than a defensive midfield player which he had to be for long periods in other matches.

Against Stoke he was restricted again and was unable to link up with van Persie or Falcao in the dangerous areas of the pitch. Due to Stoke’s combative midfield and ability to turn defence to attack in one long punt up field, Rooney was forced to think defensively far more often than United would have liked and it really prevented him from having an influence on the game in attacking areas like he did against Newcastle or Liverpool in recent weeks.

Wayne Rooney heat map vs Newcastle United - 26.12.14. Credit: Squawka.

Wayne Rooney heat map versus Newcastle United – 26th December 2014 (Squawka)


Wayne Rooney heat map vs Stoke City 0-65 mins - 1.1.15. Credit: Squawka.

Wayne Rooney heat map vs Stoke City 0-65 mins – 1st January 2015 (Squawka)

Until Rooney was moved further forward to partner van Persie in the 65th minute, he did not get into the Stoke penalty area at all. When Rooney is fully involved in the attack it has a knock on affect on everyone around him. Juan Mata benefits more than most because Rooney’s late runs from midfield take the attention of midfielders and defenders that would otherwise have to focus on Mata and the little Spaniard is given more space to create and craft opportunities for his teammates. Against such a powerful Stoke midfield Mata was lost at times and was unable to get on the ball in the right areas of the pitch to create chances for Falcao and van Persie, with the two forwards isolated for the most part this afternoon.

It’s difficult to decide whether there are more positives or more negatives from United’s recent run of form. Ten games unbeaten and seven wins in that time is fantastic, but in the three draws there is plenty to feel let down by. Most fans will be disappointed that United haven’t made it nine or even ten wins during that period and despite being in third position going into the new year, it feels as if one or two opportunities have been missed.

But onwards we go, to Yeovil next. Another chance to take a run at the FA Cup which United haven’t won for 11 years now. Manchester United have a special relationship with the FA Cup and it has been too long since we’ve had success in that competition, 2015 brings a great opportunity to do that and win some silverware in Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge.

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