Tuesday 24 October 2017

United forced to dig out draw as Stoke show up weak links

Stoke City 2 Manchester United 2

Stoke City’s chases Romelu Lukaku during last night’s Premier League at Bet365 Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Stoke City’s chases Romelu Lukaku during last night’s Premier League at Bet365 Stadium. Photo: Getty Images

James Ducker

Manchester United have found it heavy going in Stoke ever since Alex Ferguson retired. Lost, drawn, lost, drawn is their record in the league over the past four seasons. Tellingly, they trailed in all of those games and it was the same story here.

Jose Mourinho will have been relieved that it only took a few minutes to restore parity after Stoke looked like taking a slender lead into the interval when Maxim Choupo-Moting put them in front with the first period drawing to a close. But the United manager's pre-match expectations of a difficult, draining exercise were borne out.

Stoke City's Swiss forward Xherdan Shaqiri controls the ball under pressure from Manchester United's Italian defender Matteo Darmian. Photo: Getty Images
Stoke City's Swiss forward Xherdan Shaqiri controls the ball under pressure from Manchester United's Italian defender Matteo Darmian. Photo: Getty Images

Understandably, he had sought to guard against that by stiffening the midfield. Playmaker Juan Mata made way for Ander Herrera and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was pushed out of the No 10 role to a position wide on the right but the change seemed to disrupt the attacking fluidity United had showcased in their opening three matches.

Marcus Rashford's cunning and relentless running ensured Stoke's aggressive three-man defence could ill afford to nod off. Certainly in the formidable Kurt Zouma, Stoke had a centre-half revelling in the challenge in front of him but this felt like a more workmanlike United.

Stoke, in truth, made them fight for every inch. Mark Hughes had claimed United had "areas that are a little loose positionally" which his side would try to exploit. Presumably by that, he meant the left-back area.

If there is a weakness in this United team it is there - or at least it is accentuated when Matteo Darmian is deployed in the position. He is a curious one, Darmian. He offers little going forward and yet is no one's definition of a sturdy Italian full-back.

Jack Butland of Stoke City makes an impressive save. Photo: Getty Images
Jack Butland of Stoke City makes an impressive save. Photo: Getty Images

Stoke's brightest moments in that opening 45 minutes originated from United's left flank, as did the goal. Had Darren Fletcher swept a ball out to Mame Biram Diouf on United's right, there is every chance Antonio Valencia would have closed him down, or at least done enough to put off the Stoke player.

Darmian, by contrast, was too slow, trundling along rather than putting everything in to get to Diouf. Take nothing away from the cross, it was a beauty, and Choupo-Moting made no mistake with the finish but the defending could have been better.

Mourinho bowed his head in the dug-out. He knew his team would now have to dig in even more. Hughes just wanted his side to get to half-time in front but the disappointment was soon his.

Mkhitaryan whipped in a corner that was headed on by Nemanja Matic at the front post. Paul Pogba, unmarked, had a simple header but seemed to get his bearings slightly wrong only to watch the ball bounce in off the back of Rashford's head. Hughes claimed offside but referee Neil Swarbrick was not having it.

Stoke had twice got behind United's back four in the opening exchanges. Eric Bailly recovered to thwart Choupo-Moting first time around, then Jese shot across goal after Darmian and Phil Jones allowed goalkeeper Jack Butland's long ball to slice through the pair of them.

It's hard to know how England manager Gareth Southgate thinks Joe Hart remains a better bet for the goalkeeper's jersey than Butland. Twice he frustrated Rashford, first denying his England team-mate after Pogba had split Stoke's defence with a sublime through-ball and then palming away a clever, disguised low shot from Rashford when other goalkeepers would have pushed the ball into the lurking Lukaku's path.

Goals were shipped on both sides but, in truth, that had little to do with either goalkeeper. David De Gea was just as brilliant in United's net. His instinctive reflex save to tip over Jese's terrific volley from Erik Pieters' outstanding left-wing cross was a show-stopper. It was just a shame the agile Spaniard was rendered powerless from what followed at the resulting corner. Xherdan Shaqiri whipped in the ball, Jones slipped on his backside and Choupo-Moting was left unchallenged to head home for his second. Mourinho will have been furious.

United had worked hard to force themselves in front. Darmian had made some amends for his earlier fumbling when he nicked the ball off Joe Allen, darted forward and slipped the ball into Mkhitaryan's path.

Lukaku timed his run well, Kevin Wimmer playing him on, and although Butland saved his first shot, the Belgian gobbled up the rebound.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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