Jose Mourinho got his first draw at Manchester United against Stoke City, in a match where United fans will actually feel robbed of a result. For the first time in a million draws, United was the outstanding side, and blinding events robbed the side of a result in a match where United should’ve had at least four goals. The ultimate disappointment was not the performance, which was ultimately very good, but the fact United will be dependent on other teams if they are to reach the top four at all this season. Mourinho’s men looked lacklustre in the box but very good for most of the game outside it.
Mourinho would’ve learned a lot from the match, some somber points and many positive. Eric Bailly and Daley Blind, United’s two best players, were excellent again, one allowing the rest of the team to push forward and the other a massive outlet on the wing. For the first time this season, Anthony Martial and Memphis looked very positive from the bench, making an instant impact and the former taking United’s only goal superbly. However, David de Gea’s rare error cost United three points and ultimately forces United to get a win at Anfield when the international break is over.
Rooney and Mata
Win, lose or draw, it is completely clear that United looks far better without Wayne Rooney. The captain, benched for the last three games, made a cameo off the bench for all three, and even coming onto the pitch he still looks off the pace. Rooney replaced Ander Herrera in defensive midfield as United searched for a goal and we saw far more direct, less incisive football. Rooney’s set-piece deliveries were also woeful, and he was even replaced by Marcus Rashford for one of them.
Juan Mata was the best player on the pitch for United, spinning and moving incredibly quickly between the lines, unlucky not to take a goal for his own. When he was replaced by Rooney, we truly saw the impact Mata had, as Paul Pogba immediately began to struggle and players struggled to receive Rooney’s passes into feet. United used to attack in the primal way of the generations- fast wingers, clinical strikers and physical defenders. Daley Blind, Juan Mata, and Marcus Rashford are prime examples of how United needs to evolve to attack with the generation- technical, skillful footballers up and down the pitch, transitioning the ball very quickly. Rooney was a key part of the previous generation, one in which he was a superb footballer- but he isn’t a part of this generation and he isn’t a superb footballer anymore.
Defensive Midfield Weapons
Ander Herrera did well today until his negative involvement in Stoke’s goal. Passing the ball, taking players on, reaching the edge of the box and feeding Pogba and Mata all day, Herrera covered the massive gaps left by Antonio Valencia. The game showed two telling truths about Herrera- firstly, he should be the defensive midfielder for all the small home games because he infinitely adds to the attack and can win the ball back superbly. However, the second truth is that, in some away games and the big matches, United needs to play with a better defensive midfielder.
Marouane Fellaini is not the option. Replacing the passing nous of Herrera with Fellaini is tactically backwards and brawn over brain. However, I think it can be Morgan Schneiderlin. Michael Carrick won’t be around forever. Schneiderlin won’t attack as well as Herrera, but he’ll defend a lot better, and Herrera then becomes an option in Juan Mata’s role. Adding Herrera’s new defensive improvements to Mata’s role makes his defensive ability an advantage instead of a slight weakness. If Mourinho doesn’t fancy Schneiderlin, which he doesn’t seem to, Timothy Fosu-Mensah or Daley Blind might be the player or Mourinho could dip into the market. Herrera’s role would’ve been perfect for N’Golo Kante, too- and he seems to be a bit of a misfit at Chelsea. The only player who would be an upgrade on Herrera is a complete world class defensive midfielder, so Mourinho should be keeping his tabs already.
Sometimes, it just isn’t your day
Make no mistake- there was no difference in performance between United’s performance against Leicester and the disappointment against Stoke. United was good again- not excellent, but very, very good and deserving of the win and a place in the top four. Sometimes, it just isn’t your day. United had 24 shots, nine on target, more than 60% of the ball, three key chances for both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba- the list is endless. Stoke’s Lee Grant had the best performance of any goalkeeper in any Premier League match this season, so credit to him.
Overall, though, the teams that win in the end still manage to win in matches like this- City won a few while playing terribly earlier in the season. Making the top four is going to be incredibly difficult for any team this season, including City, as a win for Tottenham Hotspur would blow the Premier League wide open. United needs to seriously invest in the Europa League because it may be the best route into the Champions League. I’m not saying United will get fifth because recent performances would have United well into the top three, but everyone else is also playing superbly and United needs a Plan B if an injury crisis hits in the dying weeks and United hasn’t yet clinched a spot in the Champions League.