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The Premier League burst back into action for Manchester United following the international break with a difficult tie away at Stoke City.
United haven’t won at the Britannia in the Premier League since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson but with 3 wins to open the campaign there was cause for optimism before kick-off.
Ultimately, the performance failed to live up to recent weeks and defensive errors proved costly. Romelu Lukaku could, and should, have won it late on but it’s hard to argue the home side weren’t worth their point. Here are five things we learned from Saturday afternoon’s draw with Mark Hughes’ men.
1. First real test
Saturday’s trip was arguably the first real test for the Reds this season and, in truth, the side largely failed to convince.
The possession was too slow, too often and there was a lethargic feel to much of United’s play going forwards. At the other end Stoke caused numerous problems with balls over the top and playing with good width.
Despite good periods of control, Mourinho’s men never looked totally comfortable and but for a truly world class save from David de Gea would have conceded the equaliser a minute earlier than they did.
The manager intimated that his players weren’t at 100% following the international break but with lots of games and far greater tests to come they will need to get back up to speed very quickly.
2. Defensive frailties exposed
Despite having a strong squad at his disposal, Jose Mourinho will have been concerned with the ease at which Stoke City were able to threaten the Reds’ goal.
With Luke Shaw still sidelined, left-back remains a real problem area and the partnership of Phil Jones and Eric Bailly that had looked so solid in recent weeks demonstrated signs of fragility. Both Stoke City goals were avoidable and that will be a source of frustration.
Victor Lindelof came in for a substantial fee in the summer and his adaptation to the Premier League may be vital if Manchester United are to mount a serious challenge.
Ander Herrera was given his first start of the season in the type of game away from home that you might expect him to be involved.
It’s no secret that the Spaniard is usually utilised in games that Mourinho wants to control and keep tight, but his inclusion may have unbalanced a side that looked in good rhythm before the international break.
The variety and creativity of Juan Mata was missed and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was largely quiet having been forced to play slightly wider. Indeed, on one of the few occasions the Armenian picked up the ball centrally he slotted through Romelu Lukaku to give the Reds the lead.
Perhaps away from home Mourinho still does not quite trust the discipline of Paul Pogba in a two alongside Nemanja Matic, but against Stoke the offensive fluidity of the side suffered and the defensive side did not appear to benefit.
4. Move on
It wasn’t a good performance and United just weren’t at it but, even though the draw felt like a loss at full-time, a point away at Stoke is far from a disastrous result.
On another day the Reds could very well have walked away with all 3 points despite being nowhere near their best. Positives in that sense should be taken and it was certainly an afternoon to grind some sort of result out.
On the back of three encouraging wins sometimes it’s difficult to manage expectations but it’s impossible to play well every game and points are going to be dropped.
United turned up to a ground that they haven’t enjoyed much success at in recent years and put in their worst performance of the season but still walked away with a point and their unbeaten status intact. It’s time to move on and build in the games to come.
5. Fixtures coming fast
Tuesday sees the return of the Champions League to Old Trafford and with domestic cup and further league games also on the horizon it will be no surprise to see rotation of the squad taking effect.
On Saturday’s showing, Ander Herrera needs time on the pitch and European competition will give the manager a good opportunity to test the likes of Victor Lindelof.
With a lethargic look to the team on Saturday you would expect to see a number of players who’ve remained on the fringes get an outing in midweek and the depth of the squad will be vital if United are to challenge on all fronts.