Film Focus: Previewing Stoke City vs. Manchester United

Rob Blanchette@@_Rob_BFeatured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2014

Manchester United's Patrice Evra, left, scores against Stoke during their English League Cup quarter-final soccer match at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke, England, Wednesday Dec. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super/Associated Press

As the transfer window grinds to its inevitable closure, with a grunt and a groan, attentions turn towards the latest set of fixtures, as transferred players look to make an impression in their new surroundings.

On Saturday, David Moyes takes his Manchester United side to the Britannia Stadium to face Stoke City.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 28:  Manchester United Manager David Moyes substitutes Juan Mata during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Cardiff City at Old Trafford on January 28, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Micha
Michael Regan/Getty Images

The United Faithful are in a buoyant mood after the capture of Juan Mata, and are keen to see what the skillful midfielder can bring to United's attack.

Stoke currently sit just above the relegation zone, having only scored 22 times this season, per Squawka.

United themselves have also struggled in front of goal, scoring only 38 times from the 230 chances they have created during the season (h/t Squawka.)

However, with the return to fitness of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, United will feel that this is their time to shine, and start their drive towards an automatic Champions League position. 

The last four matches between the sides have ended in victories for the Red Devils.

United's Capital One Cup visit to Stoke saw Ashley Young and Patrice Evra both exploit the right-back position, with Stoke dropping too deep. This allowed United into the last third, and score the two goals that took the win.

Young Shows How Mata Could Hurt Stoke:

Sky Sports

Here we see the tactical error made by Stoke, which allowed Young to score.

Three central midfielders had attempted to squeeze the space in front of them, keeping a tight line and attempting to suffocate any potential attack.

However, with Chicharito making an effort to play as high up as possible, on the shoulder of the last man, Stoke's defence had retreated too far back, leaving a large zone in front of them completely vulnerable. 

Stoke's midfield exposed
Stoke's midfield exposedSky Sports

Young then managed to slide the ball into Chicharito's feet, play a quick interchange of passing, and then finish with aplomb from outside the box. 

Young and Evra attack from the left
Young and Evra attack from the leftSky Sports

There was a similar issue with the second goal of the game, scored by Evra.

Young once again managed to breach any hold that Stoke had in midfield, and made his way deep into the final third, where he was addressed by two defensive opponents.

Evra penetrates Stoke's defence
Evra penetrates Stoke's defenceSky Sports

This allowed Evra the space to receive a pass and burst into the box.

From this position, Evra was allowed to take a touch, and curl the ball high and wide of the goalkeeper.

It was an excellent finish from the French international, but he should never have been afforded the space.

Evra scores
Evra scoresSky Sports

If Stoke lend United's attack this kind of space, with Mata, van Persie and Rooney in the forward line, they will be in serious trouble. 

Evra and Young were able to do quantifiable damage to Stoke, and take the game away from them. If the Stoke defence retreats in such a manner again, United could rack up a cricket score. 

United's forwards will be hungry in this match and keen to show what it is capable of with their new Spanish wizard pulling the strings. 

Stoke's Aggression Can Make a Difference:

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29:  Charlie Adam of Stoke City is tackled by Sebastian Larsson of Sunderland during the Premier League match between Sunderland and Stoke City at Stadium of Light on January 29, 2014 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Gareth
Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Stoke's shortcomings in midfield against United at home were not present in their 3-2 loss at Old Trafford, just six weeks before.

On the day Stoke managed to twice be in the lead, as their midfield squeezed the life out of Tom Cleverley and company. 

By forcing Cleverley to operate in an area of the pitch he is not overly comfortable in, and charging him down, Stoke were able to engage United's back line, and this lead to both of their goals.

Cleverley feels the pressure
Cleverley feels the pressureSky Sports

Here you see Cleverley panicking, only able to flick the ball out wide, as Stoke's midfield put tremendous pressure on him, in a defensive area.  

Without doubt, this will be Stoke's best opportunity to unsettle United and make them play in a part of the pitch which will cause the least amount of damage to the scoreline. 

This tactic will also force Rooney and Mata into deeper areas, leaving van Persie much more isolated in the attack. 

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  Stephen Ireland of Stoke City beats Wayne Rooney of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 26, 2013 in Manchester, England.  (Photo
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It is not a pretty tactic, but one Mark Hughes will be happy to deploy, if it gets him a result. 

With Michael Carrick injured again, Stoke could get another chance at harassing Cleverley and this could turn the game in favour of the home side.

One player does not make a team, but this does feel like a new beginning for Manchester United.

The addition of Mata is more than just a statement of intent. It is also the first newborn steps of a manager who has had a torrid start to his new career. 

If Moyes can utilise the return of his big players from injury, you cannot see Stoke surviving the 90 minutes intact.

However, if Stoke can turn this game into a war, and exert some of the grit that they used to have under Tony Pulis, then this match could be decided by just the odd goal, or one knockout punch.  


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