A few points to takeaway from yesterday’s game as well as the highlights from it.
For the first time this season Jose Mourinho fielded a different team in terms of shape and personnel (leaving aside the Martial/Rashford conundrum). This was an indication of respect from the manager, calling in Matteo Darmian who would ostensibly add a settlement to a left side perhaps exposed by Daley Blind’s lack of pace, and Ander Herrera to form a three man midfield with Juan Mata the player relegated to the bench.
United were positionally and territorially dominant but this Stoke side are very good on the counter attack. In terms of balance of play the manager got his selection right. Poor performances — or, perhaps more accurately, three critical errors — proved the difference between a single point and all three.
A perfect storm
It’s been a recurring theme on the UIF podcast this season; the caveat pinned to each convincing win, regardless of how it came about, was the capability for an error in United’s side. The ongoing issue about left-back was perfectly described by Matt Galea on the most recent pod as the area of the team where we just seem to select a player when most other positions seem nailed down.
This statement should be taken as ‘most likely’ rather than absolute; Matteo Darmian isn’t United’s long term left back, and Saturday showed why Phil Jones will surely not be the solution at centre half. Here’s the dilemma with Jones; you get the best out of him when you play him consistently but the trade off is the occasional loss of concentration which results in incidents like the second goal. If that sounds harsh then maybe it is, and then again, this is the harsh difference which means United wake up this morning top of the league by goal difference and not two points.
Victor Lindelof will play for United against Basel and Jones’ position is most at risk.
Like for Like
Some of the blame might go to Romelu Lukaku. He’s started life at Old Trafford brilliantly, so why is there the prevailing sense of anxiety whenever he has more than a second to think about an opportunity?
Beyond the pessimistic routine of any football fan (“he’ll miss it”, “this always happens to us”), Lukaku looked anything but confident when he stepped up to take the penalty a couple of weeks ago against Leicester City.
Yesterday he seemed to be completely lacking in conviction. He missed some great chances to seal this game, and even needed two bites at the cherry for his goal when it was a fairly comfortable opportunity. Then he perplexed all of the support by stepping up to take a free-kick in injury time. Again he didn’t look convincing, the kick was wasted and United settled for a draw.
The good thing is that he has the self-confidence to keep putting his hand up but the bad thing is that when presented with more than a second to think about the chance he has generally missed. Wayne Rooney had a similar issue but at least converted some of his chances in those situations.
Upon his signing, Lukaku was heralded as the player who would convert the plethora of chances United were creating but not converting last season, as if he was a deadlier finisher than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This is not a matter of over-expectancy from supporters but again another simple truth, no matter how harsh —it doesn’t matter how well the strikers have done, they need to score these easy chances or they won’t quite have done well enough. By “well enough” let it be said that we are talking about the difference between being a very good goalscorer and one who proves the difference between success and continued underachievement.
A (near) perfect goalkeeper
Wasn’t it good last season to not have to rely on David De Gea all the time? It almost led some to question whether or not he had fallen from grace with some of the goals we did concede last season. Yesterday he was at his best; making the game’s truly outstanding save in the second half from Jese. He was faultless, really, for either goal. But for him, United might be talking about losing a game they should have won.
…are just irrational to jump to, other than to say all of United’s existing issues seemed to come together to deny Jose Mourinho’s team a win. Stoke did play well so this is not to downplay that (and despite some spicy incidents we’re not quite sure why Mourinho was so aggrieved) but for the goals to have come from existing highlighted issues in United’s team is at least to suggest they were architects of their downfall. In that case it’s both reassuring and frustrating.
It’s not to say that United’s problems will all be solved by the selection of Shaw and Lindelof but there is the anticipation that they will at least be minimised after they’ve had a chance to settle into a flow as a unit.