It was a typical away game at the Britannia; wet, windy and physical. There was not a high calibre of football on display but these games are what the Premier League is all about.
United started in sloppy fashion, conceding early on to a well-worked corner with Peter Crouch, inexplicably allowed a free header, nodding the ball into the path of ex-United defender Ryan Shawcross to thunder home.
The Reds struggled to find fluidity in response despite some decent spells of possession but were level just before the half-hour mark with a well-worked corner of their own. Those familiar with Louis Van Gaal and United’s pre-season tour will recognise that the Dutchman likes corners to be whipped in to the front post for a flick-on and that is what materialised as Carrick helped the ball on its way to Radamel Falcao to slot home expertly.
What followed was far from a sight for the purists as both teams struggled for fluency. Stoke will feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty when the ball struck the outstretched arm of Chris Smalling but, in truth, chances were few and far between for both sides.
The stalemate means that yet again the Reds struggled away from home and failed to pick up 3 points; here are five things we learned from a dogged affair against Mark Hughes’ side.
1) Away Struggles Continue
As has become worryingly common this season United failed to produce a performance worthy of 3 points away from Old Trafford. With just two victories away from home this season Louis Van Gaal will no doubt be concerned at his side’s seeming inability to perform on the road.
In the first half against Tottenham and again at Stoke (to a certain extent) there were positive signs emerging but draws need to turn into victories fairly quickly if United are to maintain their position and their ambitions of looking up instead of down.
Against Stoke, as has been fairly common of late, United enjoyed large spells of possession but failed to translate this into clear-cut chances. Much of the possession was slow and timid, with sideways passes along the back-line becoming a frustratingly prevalent theme.
There is no doubt that the Reds are missing an injection of pace and Di Maria’s absence is now beginning to tell, particularly away from home where there is a greater emphasis on possessing a counter-attack option. Moreover, Ander Herrera’s quicker tempo of passing may also bring more potency on his return to full fitness.
For now, the Reds need to be more clinical in front of goal. Too many chances have passed in recent weeks and the finishing will need to improve if victories are going to materialise on the road.
2) Defensive Issues
Defensive issues have blighted United’s progress since the start of the season. Many will point to the fact that the Reds have only conceded one goal more than both Chelsea and Manchester City, but stats can be misleading.
Defensive frailties have wielded damaging consequences further up the field for Louis Van Gaal’s side. The employment of a 3-5-2 formation provides extra cover at the back when defending and United’s attacking exploits have suffered as a result.
Indeed, one of the biggest issues has not been whilst defending, but whilst in possession, and the loss of Marcos Rojo has been a blow in this regard. The very premise of a 3-5-2 demands the centre-halves to be able to stride up the field in possession, but too many passes are going sideways along the defence as opposed to forwards, out of the defence. This, in turn, is inviting pressure and consequently the whole side is dropping too deep at times.
Since his return Jonny Evans has had a month to forget, Chris Smaling continues to blow hot and cold and Phil Jones (although improving) needs to cut out the rash decisions. It is certainly expected that United will move in the transfer market either in January or the summer, but finding defenders comfortable in possession will be equally as important to United’s progression as a unit as finding ones who can defend; finding both may be difficult.
3) Injuries Catching Up?
Louis Van Gaal only made 2 changes to his starting eleven over the past 3 games. Whilst the consistency is in ways encouraging, with such a festive fixture pile-up the timing is certainly odd.
In truth, the Dutchman would likely have rotated a lot more had injuries not blighted his ability to do so. There’s no doubt that for all Fellaini’s flaws, away to Stoke is the kind of fixture that the Belgian is part of the squad for, and his physical presence was missed.
United’s manager will hope that injuries will begin to subside in the coming weeks and the return of the likes of Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Marouane Fellaini will certainly aid the Reds moving into the second half of the campaign.
4) The Return Of El Tigre?
It’s been a rather underwhelming start to Radamel Falcao’s Manchester United career in truth. The Colombian has failed to dazzle as many had expected but with fitness improving game by game, the tenacious striker is showing signs of a return to form.
There is no doubt that injuries have been troublesome for the former Atletico man but one only has to look at his movement off the ball to understand why he has been so deadly throughout his career. Much like Chicharito, he is always alive and it was a harder finish than it looked when he levelled the match against the Potters.
Greater tests will come but it was certainly a surprise when Louis Van Gaal took the Striker off just after the hour mark as he appeared to be growing into the game. Of course, for someone with Falcao’s recent injury record, 3 games in a week is tough and the manager was arguably right to be cautious, but it was disappointing nonetheless.
The hold-up play and his touch still need to be re-discovered, as well as a ruthlessness in front of goal, but El Tigre is showing signs that he may be able to fire the Reds up the table in the second half of the campaign.
5) Adnan’s Woes
Adnan Januzaj has come in for a lot of criticism of late, a lot of it perhaps unjustified. It is important to remember that the Belgian is still very young, and very raw. He burst on to the scene under David Moyes and was in many instances the stand-out performer in a woeful campaign.
In stark contrast, Januzaj has failed to perform under Louis Van Gaal and has found his playing time limited. The winger’s cameo against Stoke perhaps summed up his season so far; it was disjointed, wasteful and confused.
Nevertheless, it is important to add some context. Firstly, many players struggle from ‘second season syndrome’, particularly when so young. There is no doubt that Adnan is low on confidence and that is damaging to the performances of a player who relies on instinct.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that Januzaj does not really know his best position, and is struggling to find a place in his manager’s plans. A lot of young talents are blooded on the wings before moving inside but with Van Gaal’s current preference for a 3-5-2 that’s not possible. It is no secret that many inside the club believe Januzaj to be a future no.10, but competition for that role is fierce.
A loan move away may be the best solution, but it would be ludicrous to write off a player with such talent so prematurely. From the outside looking in, Januzaj may have been caught up in his own hype and he needs to get his head down and work hard. If that happens, United may still just have a very special talent in the future.