Old Trafford hosted the midweek Premier League duel between Manchester United and visiting Stoke City. United have been soaring, tied with crosstown City with two games in hand, and they haven’t experienced a defeat this season. Stoke had won two of the last three matches and started the day in 8th place, looking to prove themselves against the league leaders.
Manchester United employed a 4-4-2 formation throughout the match, with Wayne Rooney getting the evening off. Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez led the attack, with wing support from Ryan Giggs and Nani.
Tony Pulis set Stoke’s lineup as a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Kenwyne Jones as the front striker. Tuncay played as a sunken striker, holing up behind Jones. If Pulis was hoping that Tuncay would serve as a connection between the midfield and Jones, it took a long time to materialize. The first half saw little offensive push from the Potters. United backup keeper Tomas Kuszczak was untested in the first half by a Stoke team that only managed two shots, and both of those were from long range and poorly taken.
United carried most of the play, often pushing forward 7 or 8 players into the final third in the buildup of play. They broke through in the 27th minute, as Nani delivered a cross from the right edge of the area. The ball was flicked into the net by Hernandez, while being tightly marked by Ryan Shawcross. This put United up 1-0, but they had several other opportunities in the half to open their lead even further. In the games I’ve seen Hernandez play, his entry has brought a different energy to the team, and perhaps some of that gets highlighted further when paired with Berbatov who carries himself a bit lazy at times. The half finished with United holding firm to a 1-0 lead, and you wondered when their domination would overwhelm the visitors.
But the teams returned from the half break, and it was evident that there was some talk from Pulis to his team. Stoke came out with urgency. In the 51st minute, their extra work brought results. Tuncay took a left wing pass, worked around Rafael, and crossed the ball into the box. Whitehead was left unmarked, a failure in communication between Nemanja Vidic and Evra. Whitehead’s header snuck into the far post to equalize the match.
The goal served as a wakeup for United. They began to methodically take control of the match again, and at the 62nd minute, a brilliant left foot by Nani from 18 yards emphatically wrested control of the match back to the Red Devils at 2-1. The assist went to Hernandez, who worked free in the middle outside the area in order to get the ball to Nani.
Stoke made three changes between the 69th and 76th minutes, but to me those changes were disappointingly neutral. Etherington and Rory Delap were refreshed with Jermaine Pennant and Jonathan Walters, respectively. Jones was also removed for Ricardo Fuller. Aside from the 10 minutes that began the second half, the Potters showed little offensive blend in the match. While their tempo was fast, it seemed like they could have had time to work with the ball. Instead they forced themselves into poor passes and lost possessions. Granted, Jones and Fuller are two large front men, and they have the bulk to fight with United’s center halves. But I thought they could have taken a more patient approach, and put pressure on Smalling and Vidic who at times looked shaky in this match. Jones had a decent aerial game, but almost all of his opportunities came outside the area, and he didn’t get a chance to direct any towards goal.
Manchester United finished off the game well, and Stoke simply couldn’t generate the opportunities to earn a second goal. The Red Devils controlled possession and shots. United compiled yet another victory at Old Trafford, closing out the game 2-1 in a defeat that could be characterized as thorough if disregarding the score. They have now pulled into sole possession of first place, though Manchester City will have a chance to join them again at the top if they can defeat Arsenal tomorrow.