5 Things We Learned: Stoke City 0-2 Manchester United

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By Matthew Jones

1. Rooney in centre midfield

IT’S finally happened. Wayne Rooney in Manchester United’s midfield. I’ve been wanting to see this for a while.

In truth, I think he’s played their once or twice, filling in during games, but yesterday he was picked to start in the engine room and asked to be a central midfielder for a whole game.

It speaks volumes that he was awarded Sky Sports’ man of the match, while a tweet I read this morning from statisticians Opta revealed Rooney completed more passes yesterday (81) than he had in a Premier League game since his 105 in the 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn in November 2010.

Rooney has got the talent, vision, energy, strength and skill to play in midfield, an area that is seen as our weak point.

The problem with our midfield is that, while talented, we haven’t really got someone intimidating to play alongside Michael Carrick.

Anderson’s fitness issues have dogged his Old Trafford career. Darren Fletcher’s health is even jeopardising his whole career. Tom Cleverley’s enjoying a decent first full season. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are ageing.

Not only can Rooney be a big, physical presence, but he’s also a fabulous player too. He’s even better on the ball than Carrick.

Some people like the idea of Rooney in midfield but worry that if we drop him back we’d lose his goals and he wouldn’t be the same player. But Rooney becoming a midfield general would no doubt benefit him and give Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck more time to develop alongside van Persie and possibly god knows who else come next season if the rumour mill is to be believed.

Despite enjoying a stuttering season with injury, fitness and patchy form, Rooney still has 16 goals and 12 assists in total, one assist behind the 13 Antonio Valencia had last season.

His goals up front could be replaced and I’d say he’ll still get his fair share from midfield, while his assists would sky rocket too.

2. Back on track

Journalists and neutrals, even a lot of United fans have been talking of the title being over for a few weeks now.

But, after experiencing the pain of last season, and the little blip we’ve had of late following our Champions League exit, I’m a bag of nerves and have banished talk of title number 20 being in the bag.

I’m a lot more confident after seeing us return to winning ways at the Britannia Stadium yesterday and winning convincingly too. We definitely seem to be over our little blip that saw us exit Europe to Real Madrid in painfully harsh circumstances and then the FA Cup with a whimper at Chelsea, as well as playing second fiddle all night to reigning Premier League champions City at home last Monday.  We’re now in the home straight and Sir Alex spoke after yesterday’s game about how he’s set his team the target of winning all seven remaining games (now six). If we were to limp over the line, it would still mean a 20th title, but it would be bittersweet. Far better to blaze a trail to that 20th triumph and win it in style.

With a midweek game at West Ham United and at home to relegation-threatened Aston Villa next Monday, two wins would have the league near enough sewn within a week. I’m far more confident after yesterday’s win and we seemed to regain a little swagger. Let’s hope we can maintain that and saunter to the title with one of Fergie’s ‘worst ever teams’.

3. Van is still the man

We looked relatively comfortable yesterday. We’re good at playing at just 1-0 up but, with a vociferous crowd roaring them on, Stoke always fancied themselves to get an equaliser so getting the penalty and converting it silenced the Britannia and secured the three points. Apparently Robin van Persie hadn’t scored a United goal since February 10, a chasm of time the size of the grand canyon for a world class player and goalscorer like him not to have found the net.

You’d never have guessed it had been 10 games though from the way he expertly converted his spot kick yesterday. Not only did he score the penalty, coolly placing the ball in the corner of the goal and out of the reach of Asmir Begovic, but he had to contend with a biting and mischievous wind blowing the ball off the spot, wrenching up the tension further.

It might have been missing for a few months but the Dutchman has got ice in his veins. He hasn’t played particularly poorly during his goal drought, he’s notched a few assists, but goals are his game and he’s missed a few sitters in games, so it’s nice to see his midas touch hasn’t deserted him.

The embrace with Sir Alex said it all about what it means for him to be playing for United and in a team that can feed his appetite for trophies. With that goal in the bag, I hope he can rediscover his net-finding form further in the remaining weeks and put pressure on Luis Suarez for the league’s golden boot award.

4. A regrettable weekend

United moved a step closer to title number 20 with yesterday’s win but an unsavory few moments during the match added fuel to an ugly fire that raged throughout the beautiful game over the weekend.

Stoke fans paid tribute to tragic fan Kameron Bourne, a 14-year-old Potters fan who was found dead in his bed at his home in Bentilee, Staffordshire, last week, by standing and applauding during the 14th minute of the game.

After the minute’s applause, United fans could be heard singing ‘what the f***ing hell was that?’  Shortly after that, the Sky cameras caught several Stoke fans mocking the visitors over the 1958 Munich Air Disaster by standing up and spreading their arms simulating an aeroplane in the direction of the away fans.

Songs mocking the disaster could be heard coming from small pockets of Stoke supporters for around 30 seconds.

I got into rather a heated Twitter debate last night after I posted a link to a Daily Mirror story reporting on the Munich chants.

I blamed both sets of fans and didn’t condone what the United fans had sung, but still got into some venomous debates with a few friends and someone else I didn’t know.

One argument (a long standing one with a Liverpool supporting friend) went off track but I stand by the fact that the ugly incident yesterday could have been easily avoided had staff at the Britannia made an announcement prior to kick-off that the hosts intended to pay tribute to Kameron in the way that they did.

United fans may or may not have joined in. It’s a tragic tale but not one that’s close to their hearts. But, with an almighty tragedy such as Munich in our history, I can guarantee that such a deplorable chant would not have been aired.

On top of the senseless rioting between Newcastle and Sunderland fans following yesterday’s Tyne/Wear derby and the downright idiotic antics of Millwall fans at Wembley on Saturday, it was hardly any appropriate way to build up to the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster today.

5. Title No 20 will whet the appetite of United youngsters

It’s been said this year by pundits, critics, neutrals and fans of United’s closest rivals that Sir Alex’s current squad is one of his worst.

It seems strange to say that considering we’re in with a chance of a record Premier League points haul and are currently hold a 15 point lead over second placed City.

I’ll jump on-board with the view that this season hasn’t been a vintage one for the Premier League and, in truth, we haven’t had a brilliant season for a few years.

But to say that the standard of the league is the worst it’s ever been is harsh. True, the top teams are in a slight decline.

Champions City failed to build on the success of last year during the summer transfer market while teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are experiencing transitional periods.

But I also think the smaller teams are getting better. Swansea and Norwich survived their first seasons and look likely to stay up again, while of last year’s promoted teams, Southampton and West Ham’s survival chances look promising.

West Bromwich Albion enjoyed a superb start to the season and while, understandably, they’ve tailed off as the season’s rolled on, they’re still making strides forward.

I think United’s team is also making strides.

Our veterans are enjoying stellar seasons. Rio Ferdinand has been superb at the back while Patrice Evra has rediscovered his best form, as too has Nemanja Vidic, after a stuttering start to the season.

Paul Scholes’ powers are on the wain, but Ryan Giggs has signed a contract to play beyond his 40th birthday and has been largely impressive, showing that he could play well into his 40s.

Robin van Persie may be in his first United season but is 29 and his goals will be a massive reason behind the success if we do go on to lift the league trophy, while Michael Carrick has been the star of the whole show.

We’ve got a lot of promise at the other end of the age scale too.

Rafael da Silva, David de Gea and Jonny Evans have really developed and matured this season, while Tom Cleverley, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck have all had seasons to be proud of.

The likes of these youngsters, in addition to Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, have not tasted too much success at United but while their talent blossoms, a 20th title, but a first for many, will hopefully feed their appetite for more success and build what we all hope will be the next trophy-laden era at United.

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Man of the Match Poll & Player Ratings: Stoke City vs. Manchester United HERE.
Latest Manchester United 2012-13 statistics HERE.
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