With the international break having been and gone, may were yearning for the return of club football to their weekend, and Manchester United fans would find their side come up against Stoke at Old Trafford. The international games often provide moments of anxiety for people, hoping key players for their side do not go and get injured on national duty and end up on the sidelines for a significant amount of time.
Fortunately for the United faithful, no major injuries were reported and the side lined up as follows with David De Gea starting in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans sat in front of him, with Patrice Evra and Rafael Da SIlva on the left and right respectively. The chosen central midfield pair consisted of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, Antonio Valencia starting out on the right and Danny Welbeck playing towards the left. Leading the line up front was Wayne Rooney, playing deeper and Robin Van Persie.
The game kicked off with a bright start from both sides, but it was to be the visitors who would make the early breakthrough. Having given a free kick in a dangerous position, Charlie Adam played a ball in, and with Ryan Shawcross looming, the ball came off Rooney to find it’s way into the net. An own goal from an unlikely source, 0-1 to Stoke. Soon after, Stoke looked as though they were gunning for a second, putting pressure on the ball and playing at a pace that United struggled to cope with. However, just over a quarter of an hour after the opening, Wayne Rooney made amends for his own goal, get on the end of a threatening cross from Van Persie to head well and bring the game level. 1-1 and all to play for. United began to take more control of proceedings, with the main line of attack of Welbeck, Rooney and Van Persie looking ominous going forward and linking well.
With a few minutes left to play in the first half, United were to make their good play pay off, this time Van Persie getting on the scoresheet, adjusting well to steer home Valencia’s pass. 2-1 and so it remained going in at half time.
United kicked off the second half looking to build on their lively finish to the first and it was 3-1 almost immediately, with Rooney turning provider as he whipped in a cross for Welbeck to dive and get on the end of the ball to provide a two goal lead . Dominating possession and threatening up front it was clear more goals were desired. However, the somewhat shaky back line was capitalised on, with Kightly breaking through the defence all too easily and firing past De Gea to bring the game back to 3-2. Buoyed by their goal, Stoke started to show more confidence on the ball although United were not ready to give up their lead and soon the two goal advantage was restored after a Van Persie corner was not well dealt with, leaving Rooney to pounce for his 200th Premier League goal. 4-2 and United were in the ascendancy.
The game calmed as it reached the closing stages, although Stoke were not down and out, still looking for a way back in the game, and United looking comfortable at times in possession, eventually seeing the game out 4-2. On a day that proved controversial for different reasons, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) David De Gea – some unfair criticism?
As has been mentioned many times before, David De Gea is one of the finest shot-stoppers around and a great talent for United to develop into a world class goalkeeper. There have been questions about his physicality and the way in which he deals with crosses. However, One has to wonder if it is a case of him being unable to do anything right when it comes to them. Now, if he does struggle with crosses and he is aware of this, I am of the opinion that he is better served holding his line than attempting to flap at a ball he is not confident in winning and finding himself exposed. Not coming for a cross may lead to headers that are not easily saved, but he stands more chance of preventing a goal holding his line and letting the defence attempt to clear it. However, after some criticism about the way he looked at dealing with such situations before, some stated they felt De Gea should have gone for the ball when Rooney’s own goal occurred and I feel this gives the impression that regardless of the decision he makes, it will be perceived as a bad one. It is clear at times he does not have the strength yet to handle that situation and unless he is totally committed and feels he is able to win the ball, I believe sticking to his line is the right decision.
Could he have gone for it in this case? Perhaps, it was fairly close to him, but if he does not feel he should, he simply should not. Otherwise, the Spaniard had a relatively calm game, called into action on occasion and making good saves.
2) The attack has gelled well
Since adopting a different system and what appears to be a different way of utlising the strikers at their disposal, United have looked more fluid going forward and was further evidenced by the way in which the strikers worked together on Saturday. All three strikers were very much involved when going forward and all found themselves linking up in some way. Van Persie delivered a great cross for Rooney’s “second” goal, Rooney in turn found Welbeck for his goal and Van Persie again whipped in a great corner that eventually made it’s way to Rooney to finish at the far post. As a trio they have looked particularly dangerous in the last few games, with Rooney appearing to thrive dropping deeper. Van Persie has also shown he wants to be providing goals as well as scoring them. Welbeck has continued to impress and although it is hoped he will go on a good goal scoring run and improve his confidence in front of goal, scoring against Stoke with a diving header will certainly have helped him.
Perhaps it would be desirable to see Hernandez implemented into this, given chances to play, particularly to allow him to be effective when called upon if needed, although on the form of Saturday’s starters, he may have to be patient in waiting for opportunities.
3) Questions remain over the back line?
Besides the arguments that will be made over De Gea’s decision making for the first goal, some issues with the back four should also be discussed. Certainly, it would be something of an overstatement to claim they had a disastrous day or that they were incapable of defending, but one cannot deny they had their shaky moments. Among them, there were none more obvious than when Stoke pulled a goal back to 3-2 through Kightly. The way in which he was able to beat the defenders looked far too easy. Credit is due for the way in which he persisted and ultimately finished, but one must admit the ball should have been dealt with far better.
4) Should Anderson have started?
One point that I have drawn on before, is in playing Scholes and Carrick together, in that perhaps they should not start together. Admittedly, the midfield did their job well on the day and were able to control possession well at times. One might argue instead of one of them, Anderson or Cleverley could have been given a start, to provide more energy and a different option in the centre of the park. That said, with the way United have set up in recent games, with the strikers also contributing in the midfield, one may state that the kind of energy one of the other midfielders would provide, is covered in what Rooney and Welbeck can do and that Scholes and Carrick simply need to assert their authority in midfield and control the game.
5) Rio Ferdinand and the Kick It Out issue
Prior to the game, it was known that Rio Ferdinand, among other players, chose to publicly show their dissatisfaction with the Kick It Out campaign against racism. With recent controversies, one of which involved Ferdinand’s brother Anton and the trouble encountered by the Under 21 side in Serbia, one might say they are justified in their decision. However, it was Sir Alex’s comments after the game, expressing his disappointment with Ferdinand that drew more controversy.
In a sense, one can see why Ferguson would have a problem, given his comments the day before regarding the campaign, and his wish to show team unity and backing the campaign.
However, one could also argue that Rio Ferdinand is hiw own person and is entitled to express his issues with the campaign, just as others did on Saturday.
My opinion is that a refusal to wear a t-shirt should not be the big issue of the day and should not have been as big a talking point as it became. I also see why some may want to take issue with Kick It Out, given that it is an FA funded campaign, it could be argued that they do not put enough pressure on the FA when it comes to such matters, as it would be akin to biting the hand that feeds them. Refusing to wear the t-shirt is a fair way to show dissatisfaction and highlight the issues that they may have with it.
The issue of racism in football in this country is one that should be eradicated completely, and unfortunately is something that has reared it’s ugly head a couple of times recently, although nowhere near the scale that can be seen in some parts of Europe. There is no doubt that punishments for racism are far too lenient, often simply being fines for teams that would never serve as a real punishment. It is a debate that will likely continue to rumble for a while but arguably, changes need to be made if yet more progress is to be made in getting it out of the game.