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1) That was United’s “best performance of the season”
It’s dangerous to start writing immediately after a disappointing result like this 1-1 home draw against the Premier League’s bottom side; emotions are still raw and feelings of frustration can cloud your judgement and perspective. Jose Mourinho’s post-match analysis was that this result constituted his United side’s best performance of the season. Ander Herrera echoed a similar sentiment during his after match press duties.
My reaction seeing that ball put into the net by the frustratingly good Joe Allen eight minutes from time was immediate pain and misery. I felt like nothing had changed from the previous two regimes. We can’t even beat Stoke. At home.
Despite a concerted late cavalcade toward the Stoke net, United could not produce a late winner. So to hear Mourinho’s assessment of the game immediately struck me as smoke and mirrors, trying to distract from the fact that this fragile United side had fallen short yet again. However, upon reflection, the stats bear out the fact that this was in fact a dominant performance (as you would expect) that on another day would have finished up in a comfortable home victory (as you would expect).
United enjoyed 65% of possession, 9 shots on target, 15 off target, and 13 corners. Stoke came and offered very little in terms of attacking threat, with Wilfried Bony made to look as effective as a chocolate fireguard. What Mourinho’s Manchester United side were guilty of was missing a glut of wonderful chances, particularly in the first half. Paul Pogba was probably the most culpable, and Ibrahimovic could, in fact should have secured a hat trick if his finishing were up to its normal elite standard.
Therefore, the stats probably do support the fact that this was the side’s best ‘performance’ of the season. The fact remains that this knowledge offers scant consolation when you have drawn at home to a side who, although sure to improve, have yet to win a single league game this season. However, quality of performance matters, as it will inevitably lead to results, and this disappointing result drew no resemblance to the shambles of the defeat to Watford a few weeks ago. This was still a confident performance which demonstrated progression from the slump of those three defeats in a week.
2) Comparisons to LVG have already started
Inevitably, talk has turned in the media comparing Mourinho’s United to Van Gaal’s of last season, and the fact that this side are 4 points worse off than Van Gaal’s team at the same stage. This sounds like a worrying fact when you cast your mind back to what seemed to be a perpetually bleak two seasons under the unfashionable Dutch dictator. In my opinion, all that it amounts to is a useful stat for bitter rival fans to put on Twitter along with a laughter emoticon.
Van Gaal enjoyed a good start to the season last year, aside from a defeat away to Swansea. The truth is that after this point last season, United began a steady decline towards mediocrity at best, and calamity at its worst. Of course there are problems with this team, and improvement is a must, but this is already a much better, and almost as importantly a much more entertaining side. Van Gaal was all about sterile domination. His side were more than capable of a disappointing home draw, but they would achieve it having created a minimal number of chances despite a lion’s share of possession. This team are creating chances, playing more direct, and putting together fluid phases of play with quick, incisive passing, and genuine pace in wide positions. United this season will score more goals, and will finish with more points in what looks like an extremely competitive league even compared to last season. Manchester United are better off and will continue to improve, and I won’t even entertain the notion that there is a single negative to seeing the back of good old Louis.
Results like this happen at times, even under Sir Alex. Of course if they become the rule as opposed to the exception, and if the profligacy of taking chances becomes a theme, then we have an issue on our hands.
3) Midfield is still not balanced
I think naming an unchanged side from the victory against Leicester was the right thing to do. Pogba alongside Herrera with Mata in front has worked well in attacking terms, and at home against Stoke the lack of positional discipline was rarely exposed. However, with Liverpool looming on the horizon, Mourinho cannot go with the same line up.
I think Ander Herrera has to be a fixture in the side now. He has been in excellent form this season, and is a viable option as a holding midfield player, despite the fact that it means sacrificing some of his attacking qualities. He is tenacious in the tackle, offers good positional awareness, and is quick and clever when receiving and recycling the ball. He was perhaps lucky not to see red for catching Joe Allen thigh high with his studs up, but I actually like that aggressive side to his game. He is brave and always looking to receive the ball, and can take it directly from the back four and distribute with aplomb. He represents an excellent partner for Pogba, who then enjoys the freedom to roam forward and try to affect the game towards the final third.
I have to say though, there are aspects of Pogba that frustrate me the more I see of him. Before I explain them though, I should come clean to the fact that I personally have always most valued players who put the collective of the team above all else. Hence my favourite players over the years being Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher. Paul Pogba has more ability, and greater athleticism, than any of them. He has the means to be a dynamic box to box midfielder. So far, I have seen little from him in terms of defensive responsibility and positional discipline. He does not track runners, and he does not offer his midfield partner support. You could not predict what position he is going to take up.
It is possible this has been by instruction. Maybe he has been afforded licence to roam, and has been told to forget his defensive responsibilities. This, however, makes him a luxury. There were times even against this unambitious Stoke side that Herrera was outnumbered on the break, or during ‘transitions’ as hipsters like to call it. He showed little desire to get back and help out, yet to me he seems like he has the engine to get through a much higher and more demanding workload, an offer more to the side moving in both directions.
If Pogba is to be accommodated in this way, then against stronger opposition, another disciplined midfield player must be picked to play alongside Herrera, whether that be Carrick or Schneiderlin. Without more balance, and presence, in midfield, Liverpool will make very short work of Manchester United.
It shouldn’t go without mentioning that once again, Pogba didn’t live up to his astronomical price tag, although to do so would be close to impossible. Given the licence to roam, he should be impacting games with goals and assists, which have been slow to come. However, much like I don’t believe it’s time to panic because the team are at least creating chances, Pogba is also getting into scoring positions and having efforts on goal both from distance and arriving into the box. He was very unfortunate with a late header being deflected on to the bar. The quality is there for all to see, so I am still optimistic that he can have a huge influence as the season progresses. It’s still early days, I am forced to remind myself.
4) Martial provided a reminder of his quality
Anthony Martial made exactly the impact from the substitute’s bench that Mourinho will have hoped for. Whatever the reason, he has had a slow start to this campaign, especially when you consider the shining light that he was to the club last season. From his arrival at the Euros where he had limited playing time for his national team until now, he has looked low on confidence and less positive.
The first time he got the ball on the left side against Stoke, I genuinely thought I’d accidentally hit the fast forward button on my remote. He tormented and tortured the Stoke defence with a frightening burst of acceleration, before pulling the ball back to a perfectly positioned Wayne Rooney. Rooney controlled the ball with the skill and subtlety of a baby rhino, but when the ball fortuitously came back off Geoff Cameron’s toe into the path of Martial, he finished with the confidence and assurance that the rest of the team was bereft of.
Jesse Lingard played well and worked tirelessly as always, but he doesn’t have the electric ability of Martial. With the young Frenchman on one side, and Marcus Rashford on the other, it is a prospect that would terrify the best defences on the planet. I would like to think they will start on either flank at Anfield.
5) David De Gea made an error!
He did. There’s no disputing it. Michael Owen tried to argue that England international right back (!) Glen Johnson’s shot was a really difficult one to deal with, but he didn’t deal with it. There was a slight deflection which altered to course of the ball, but also took some of the sting out of the shot, and he should have gathered it, or pushed it behind. He did neither, and it cost a goal.
The fact is, this is so unusual it is newsworthy. I have friends who love to pounce on even a whiff of a De Gea mistake, as they think he gets far too much praise. In my opinion, he doesn’t get enough. When you are club player of the season three years running you can’t be doing too much wrong. It’s just a shame that a rare mistake came at this time, as it ended up being a hammer blow. However, over the course of the year he will win United far more points than he loses, and the fans know it.
Aside from that, United’s defence didn’t cover themselves in glory for the goal either. Herrera was too easily beaten prior to the shot, and the defenders reacted slower than the Stoke attack to get to the rebound. When the score is 1-0, and you are a side aiming towards the top of the league, concentration and application must be present for the full 90 minutes, and this slight blip cost them two points.
So, there are negatives from the Stoke game, the main one being the result. But there is also much cause for optimism. A demanding run of fixtures await and that is when we will truly find out what realistic aspirations are for our club this season. There are a lot of other quality sides in the Premier League, and unlike in some seasons during the Fergie era, you cannot afford to fall to far behind the leaders or it will be impossible to claw it back. It will make for some interesting, and hopefully exciting viewing.
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