Manchester United faced Stoke City at Old Trafford, in their first game after the international break on Saturday. It was an especially important game for the Manchester club after league leaders Chelsea temporarily opened up a seven point lead following their 4-2 away win against Tottenham Hotspur.
Sir Alex Ferguson chose to revert to his classic 4-4-1-1 formation for the game. David De Gea started in goal ahead of Anders Lindegaard. The back four stayed unchanged with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans at centre-back, Patrice Evra at left-back and Rafael Da Silva at right-back. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick started in the midfield with Antonio Valencia on the right wing. Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie took up the other three spots. There were nominally two strikers and a left winger but the three strikers kept on rotating their positions in an extremely fluid formation.
Like so many other times this season, United got off to a bad start as Rooney scored an own goal in the tenth minute from a Stoke City set-piece. However, Rooney made amends later in the half by heading in from close range from RvP's pinpoint cross. United then went into the break a goal ahead as RvP diverted the ball into the net from Valencia's low, driven cross.
The second half began with a bang for United as Wayne Rooney's cross was turned into the net by an acrobatic header from Danny Welbeck. The hearts of the Old Trafford faithful were in their mouths for a few minutes as Michael Kightly took advantage of confusion in the United defence to score Stoke's second goal on 58 minutes. Wayne Rooney, however, calmed the nerves seven minutes later as he calmly scored from close range.
Overall, it was a good attacking performance from Manchester United, even though questions remain over their defence. Here is a list of five things we learnt from the game today.
Instead of playing the three strikers in a rigid formation, Ferguson asked them to rotate positions. Thus, each striker sometimes ended up on the left wing, sometimes as the lead striker and sometimes in the hole. This rotating attack was at the heart of everything good and irresistible about the Manchester United offense today.
Here is what the United manager had to say about the fluid, rotating game-plan on display:
They had flexible roles today and it all depends on their movement. If we can get that we will be a handful for teams.
There were three main reasons why the game-plan worked today. First, it made the job of the Stoke defense all the more difficult since their defenders were dragged all over the place due to the United strikers' movement. Second, it allowed all the strikers more touches of the ball, keeping them more involved in the game. Third, United could exploit the understanding that exists between the three strikers to unlock the Stoke defense.
All three qualities were in abundant display, especially during the passages of play leading to the four United goals. In addition to the four goals they shared among themselves, each striker also had one assist each.
With the impressive strike force currently on the roster at United, one can expect this strategy to be part of the repertoire of tactics employed by Manchester United in the future. This latest tactical innovation indicates that Ferguson remains as keen an observer of the game as ever and the tactical flexibility already on display in recent games will stand the team in good stead this season.
It was a bit of a surprise that Sir Alex Ferguson once again chose to start with David De Gea in goal instead of Anders Lindegaard, especially considering the physical and aerial challenge posed by Stoke City.
Lindegaard had been the first choice goalkeeper for the Premier League matches after De Gea's mistake directly led to Fulham's second goal in United's 3-2 win over the Cottagers. However, Ferguson decided to throw De Gea into the firing line recently by employing him in games against both Newcastle United and Stoke.
However, De Gea fully justified his selection, especially in a 10 minute period in the first half after United went behind to a Wayne Rooney own goal. He was quite confident in his handling of crosses and seemed more confident in dealing with the aerial threat of Peter Crouch.
Of course, this is not to say that De Gea was perfect. One could ask questions about whether he should have come out to claim the cross for the first Stoke goal. And there was also the odd errant punch. However, the Spanish stopper showed by-and-large that the vulnerability shown against Fulham was only a minor blip.
Having said that, one can fully expect Sir Alex to persist with his rotation policy and reinstate Lindegaard in goal for the Braga game on Tuesday. However, De Gea will probably be favorite to be back in goal for next weekend's big game against Chelsea.
Danny Welbeck started the game on the left wing. However, United's fluid rotating attack meant he ended up in central positions on multiple occasions.
The statistics bear witness to the promising openings for Welbeck. He had a team-leading four shots on target and scored from his only on-target shot. However, the three shots that he struck off target will probably worry United fans more than anything else.
Two of these chances were pretty simple, which one would have expected Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie to put away with minimum fuss. Much like the game against Newcastle before the international break, Welbeck's profligacy in front of goal did not cost United.
The positive aspect is that Welbeck is still only 21. He is still far from being the finished article. One important aspect of his game that needs improving is his ability to finish the easy chances in addition to scoring great goals with creative finishes.
However, it is in United's interest that Welbeck works on his finishing and improves that aspect of his game. Only then can he emerge as a potentially great striker rather than as a striker who scores great goals. And only then would Manchester United be able to start relying on him on the biggest stage.
After their last solid performance against Newcastle, the Manchester United defence once again looked fallible. They conceded an early goal from a set piece and had several hairy moments throughout the first half. In addition, the second goal was an exercise in bad marking and shrinking one's defensive responsibilities.
It is probably easy to say that Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra are past their prime. Or that Rafael and Jonny Evans aren't good enough. However, United's problems in defence aren't due to mistakes by a single player. Rather, there is a collective failure in organization during the game.
One of the best things about the defensive performance against Newcastle was the role of the fullbacks. At St James' Park, each fullback took turns in going forward while the other fullback stayed back to keep the defence compact.
Against Stoke though, the strategy that worked previously went out of the window. Both Evra and Rafael kept on bombing forward without consideration for the spaces being left behind them. This made the job of Ferdinand and Evans much more difficult and directly led to at least three good chances for Stoke, including the second goal.
It is needless to say that United need a better defensive performance in the upcoming games, and better organization is going to be at the heart of that requirement.
In a lighter vein, I thought the best observation regarding the United defence today was by my favorite satirical micro-blogger, KaiWayne:
3 - 2 now as all four United defenders watch Michael Kightly run 40-yards and beat De Gea.
Even though Sir Alex Ferguson employed a 4-4-1-1 in this game, one can expect him to revert to the diamond formation in the midweek Champions League game against SC Braga.
Once again, the Manchester United midfield of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were susceptible to quick counter-attacks by Stoke. The situation wasn't so bad since Stoke themselves do not have the pace to break quickly often. However, one can expect the situation to be different against Braga in the Champions League and also in the next Premier League match against Chelsea.
The difference in the situations was especially apparent if one looks at Michael Carrick's positioning and touches in this game against the same in the game at St. James' Park. Against Newcastle, Carrick was positioned as the deep lying midfielder and wasn't required to drive forward to support the attacks. As a result, the defence always had him as a shield in front of them.
Against Stoke, Carrick ended up having to go forward a lot more to support the attackers. The same was also true for Scholes. Consequently, there were times when the United defence lost the shield that might have helped them.
As has been widely reported, the diamond solves the problem by having a deep-lying midfielder who always shields the defense. This can allow United to stand firm against a stronger midfield and to build from a strong defensive base.
With the importance of the games against Braga and Chelsea coming up, one can expect Sir Alex to be conservative and employ the diamond once more to give his team a better chance of overcoming the midfield conundrum.