Stoke City have become rather a formidable force at home. With Tony Pulis adding in significant numbers to his squad over the Summer and backed by a raucous crowd at the best of times, the Britannia Stadium has been given a fortress-like character, a place where so far this season both Liverpool and Chelsea have dropped points with Stoke’s physical approach getting the better of them. This time, it was the turn of Manchester United, on a superb run of form, to visit the Midlands and continue their 100% start to the season. The day did not start well, with news that Wayne Rooney had picked up an injury and with Jonny Evans having to be withdrawn during the warm up changing plans. Unfortunate circumstances continued on to the pitch, with Javier Hernandez, back from Ashley Cole’s horror tackle, being taken off after what initially was thought to be a penalty. Alas the penalty given, and perhaps rightly so, but the young Mexican could not go on, although it was revealed he merely sustained a dead leg. Stoke’s physical style dominated in the early proceedings with big tackles going in and generally asserting their strength in midfield. However, it was United who struck first, with Nani being given space to run at the defence, he weaved his way into the box before firing a low shot at the near post. Stoke responded, but found their efforts resisted, in particular due to the heroics of David De Gea. However, a clean sheet was not to be, as 7 minutes into the second half, Peter Crouch beat his marker to head home an equaliser. And so it stayed that way, with Stoke generally having the better of the game and United struggling to create meaningful chances. There were strong arguments for a penalty for handball, and Ryan Giggs should have provided the winner late on but it was not to be. With that, here are five things that may be taken away from the game.
1) David De Gea answered his critics
David De Gea has been the subject of much interest by journalists since he started at Old Trafford. Many describe him as a R20;flop” and that he has been much maligned with a start that has been “filled with errors”. Frankly, this has been grossly exaggerated, considering he had made the most saves of all goalkeepers and that he was part of a side that was keeping clean sheets. Despite words of Sir Alex Ferguson stating otherwise, there had been much speculation as to when he would find himself on the bench with Lindegaard taking his place. However, on Saturday afternoon, De Gea certainly went some way to answering his critics with a string of superb saves that showed why United chose to sign him. The first came immediately after the opening goal with a superb reaction save at his near post, followed by another highlight moment with a finger tip save to deny Walters not long after, both notable examples in a showing that showed off his shot-stopping ability. Were it not for his efforts United could well have found themselves behind. Some may argue that he could have done better with the goal, that he should have come out, but from a goalkeeping standpoint it is better to play it safe and hold the line than to attempt to intervene with a cross and miss. The goal should have been defended better, Jones should have marked Crouch better in an otherwise strong performance. Yes, De Gea is lacking in that area, but with training as he gets more physical and toughens up then he will be better equipped to deal with those situations, but for now it is safer to hold his line than to “flap” for the ball and create more danger.
2) Phil Jones should be given a chance in midfield when injured defenders return
One point that many have picked up on during his superb start to the season, is that Phil Jones can certainly cause problems for opposition defenders with jinxing runs and a strength that allows him to break through, even from a defensive area. This has prompted suggestions that he be utilised in the defensive midfield position, and indeed that could well be an option in the weeks to come. Although it may be an option at some point, it is unlikely fans will get to see this immediately, assuming it does at all, due in part to the number of injuries in defence at the moment. With Rio Ferdinand only having just returned, and Nemanja Vidic making “slow progress”, with Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling also in the treatment room, then it is understandable that Ferguson will be retaining all defensive options as much as he can.
3) Berbatov and Owen – Dilemma?
Dimitar Berbatov is often described as either “languid” when United are doing well, or “lazy” when times are not so good. This is perhaps unfair on a player with fantastic ability and world class skill, but often finds himself bearing the brunt of fans’ frustration when the team as a whole are not having their best day (along with that other fan favourite Michael Carrick). Saturday’s performance probably would not have helped the analogy in what appeared to be a showing that was, at times, anonymous. Of course, when the football is not flowing fluidly and the ball is not getting in to the final third as easily as it should, then forwards simply do not get service and do not get the ball, but the issue is that in a side that contains Wayne Rooney, who forever back tracks to win the ball, it makes those such as Berbatov appear a little slow. That said, United did have opportunities going forward and the afternoon seemed to be summed up by the Bulgarian striker getting frustrated and generally not having the sort of impact he would have liked. Coupled with Michael Owen who also failed to make much of an impression on the game, try as he might and United were left with a forward line that could not break down a resilient Stoke defence. Being fair, one must admit the service was not great by any means, Anderson in particular having a poor game, with United regularly relying on the wings to make something, with the most success being brought about by Nani. Even though Berbatov is likely to get criticised for failing to do much, some may point out that it is understandable for a player who feeds off confidence to struggle to get started when he has barely been able to get a starting place since the season began.
4) Nani – Oozing confidence
In Rooney’s absence, and with the setback regarding Hernandez, it highlights the strength in depth when United still have potential match winners lining up for them. In particular, is one Luis Nani. Many have praised and lauded his his often brilliant play this season, but one also must acknowledge the attitude he has brought forth since the disappointment of not starting the Champion’s League final last season. He has started the season in much the same vein as he played with for much of last year, providing a constant attacking threat, switching play with Young throughout and providing moments that could swing games in his side’s favour. His goal was a statement of his form of late, with a quick run into the box with a strong finish. However, the most clear sign of his confidence was when the ball went out of play and he gestured the Stoke fans to get louder as they cheered his play only seconds before. Much of United’s threat came through him but as unable to help find that second goal.
5) Points had to be dropped somewhere
Of course, Manchester United are a side that will always aim to win, it’s simply the mentality that Sir Alex Ferguson has drilled into his teams. However, the solitary point has come after a strong run of performances that see his side top the league on 16 points, along with neighbours City. Considering the tough run of games, that continues with the next two, fans should be happy with the overall start that has been made. Stoke represented a tough challenge, and displayed all the characteristics that make them such a difficult side to breakdown at home, and a point is perhaps representative of the game as a whole. Indeed, both sides had their chances to clinch the win, were it not for David De Gea as well as Ryan Giggs’ clear chance late on. Now, it is on to the next one, hopefully with more back from injury, although is appears United will have to make do without Wayne Rooney for a bit longer that fans may have hoped.