So, halfway through the season with only Blackpool and Chelsea not faced due to postponements (the latter very legitimate because of a cold ‘mist’!), Manchester United remain unbeaten and still yet to find full throttle in the race for the Championship. Ferguson tried his very best versus West Brom (West Brom 1 Manchester United 2 – Tactical Review: United Wing-Play Falters) to meddle with the bit of momentum Man United had going into the game, but luckily his side’s plucky resilience (and poor marking from a corner) saved the day and rescued the 3 points.
Nani should finally return to the starting line-up versus Stoke City tomorrow evening, and Gibson could replace Carrick in central midfield with Fergie perhaps likely to take the chance of resting key players in this home fixture ahead of the Liverpool game a few days later. Anderson in particular looked jaded on Saturday versus West Brom allowing Dorrans much joy in the centre with Brunt. Indeed United were pressed high up the pitch with the result being that the midfield were continually too deep, meaning that Obertan and Fletcher (the wide players) had few options when on the ball.
Rafael should replace Neville (who could well have played his last game for the club on Saturday), and his battle with Etherington will be key; Rafael has excelled this season as he has gradually improved his positional maturity meaning that his weakness of jumping in too late has been largely eradicated. As per his duels with Bale, Nasri and Milner, I expect him to cope well with Etherington perhaps in tandem with Evans or Smalling who may replace the rested Ferdinand. Evra faces a late fitness test.
Hernandez may take Rooney’s place following an injury after being scythed down by Brunt on New Year’s Day and could miss a couple of games. Fergie will be keen to ensure Berbatov and Hernandez work in close support of each other, similar to the partnership dynamic of Rooney and Berbatov; A common feature this season has been the ability of both forwards to read the flow of the game and take it in turns to drop into the ‘false 9’ role and adopt a creative remit. Berbatov for this reason has found himself in the penalty area far more than last season, with his goals tally supporting this statistic. Hernandez, for all the talk of his predatory instinct has also shown some fantastic positional acumen and hold-up play since his arrival.
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard (Click To Enlarge)
With United’s startling lack of width in recent games, Giggs’s likely recall, and his ability to provide width as well as come central at the right moment (with or without the ball) could be a key feature (see chalkboard). With Tuncay likely to replace Fuller and start in a central right position, Giggs may be asked to stop the Turkish midfielder getting in close support of Kenwyne Jones, and work in tandem with Evra to cut the supply from Pennant. Jones has finally settled at Stoke now and is a constant aerial threat to the opposition, as Pulis’s side have sought to engage both Pennant and Etherington as early as possible, encouraging the delivery of crosses from high and wide. Jones’s defensive acumen (as part of an ambitious 4-4-2) in the match at the Britannia Stadium earlier this season aided Stoke’s pressing system tremendously, and whilst he was not overly successful in the tackle, the striker still managed to harry the opposition, attempting 11 tackles in the game (see above chalkboard).
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard (Click To Enlarge)
Perhaps too much is made of Stoke’s ability to “rough the opposition up” however (and their threat from the Delap throw), and a recent alteration has seen a high defensive line (and resulting pressing game), as City seek to get the ball wide and into the attacking third as quickly as possible; Likewise, Tuncay may get the nod ahead of Whelan for his ability to support the attack late from deep as well as his ability to get on the ball and drive forward, pulling defensive players out of position. Wary of Vidic’s prowess in the air, and a likely single striker target, don’t be surprised to see the wide players vary their approach play, with Etherington especially able to come inside and link with Whitehead or look for the one-two with the striker.
Last season: 4-0. Giggs and Fletcher on the score-sheet in a largely meaningless game as Stoke City fans momentarily forgot who they supported: cheering on average, every 11 minutes as Chelsea cruised to an 8-0 victory at home to Wigan.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg. Recently promoted to the Premier Development List of Referees. Great positioning and authority (if not a little too ‘confident’).
Highlights: Correctly allowing the Nani goal to stand at OT as Gomes wrongly assumed a freekick had been given for Spurs. Playing a great advantage in the build-up to Song’s goal v Chelsea as Wilshere lofted a lovely pass into the area to Van Persie who brought down.
Lowlights: Not seeing the blatant foul on Nani for a certain penalty in the build-up to the aforementioned debacle. Failing to discipline Boa Morte for his persistent fouling early in the game at West Ham; Fergie particularly aggrieved at his two late challenges on Fabio.
Prediction: 2-0, Berbatov and Nani on the scoresheet.
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