Strong-arm, long-ball, set-piece, wide-men: the elements that make up Stoke City in 2011. In a league forever vaunted for its power and speed, their tracksuited taskmaster, Tony Pulis, has built a side bigger and ‘arder than the rest of them. They are a team infamous in the air, in the challenge and out on the flanks where Jermain Pennant and Matthew Etherington patrol and charge forward with under-appreciated guile and skill.
It’s usually sexy yet impotent Arsenal whose on-the-floor passing circus grinds to a halt against Stoke City, the ultimate no-nonsense straight-talking pragmatists. It could be said that Manchester United have been flirting with the prospect of becoming poster boys for their own brand of attractive, modern tippy-tappy, and they faced similar problems thanks to the every prepared Pulis and his men. Stoke fans, of course, need little encouragement when approaching a fixture against the reds. They’ve long held a quizzically well developed hatred for United, viewing the Manchester club as a bemused, major rival. Saturday’s 1-1 draw was a delicious result for fans of the Potters, having tripped up the league leaders’ 100% record, but their team’s performance would have been worthy of all three points. An inability to finish more than one of their many wing-born, box crashing balls meant that the scoreline was held level in United’s favour.
Pulis once quipped that his squads are more like a ‘Battersea dogs home’ of unwanted mongrels than a group of sought after pedigree players and in some ways, Stoke are the footballing equivalent to a Hollywood ‘bad company’ movie. They are the league’s ‘Dirty Dozen’; gritty, direct and, at times oddly watchable. Their approach to the game, whilst not to everyone’s tastes, offers a blunt, unchecked hit of obnoxious testosterone to those who prefer their football harsh and effective. Every goal scored and victory won feels like some machismo fist pumped up into the air. A sign of rude defiance against the self-appointed ‘high culture’ establishment of the airy, fairy fancy dans. Its Stoke City against the world, and they love it.
United’s latest pricey foreign goalkeeping import, David De Gea, was billed as something of a hapless, unwitting lamb to The Potters’ suposedly inevitable, slaughter. This was to be his ‘proper’ welcome to the English game by its most savage caricature. He was to be run down, bludgeoned up, and thrown to the wayside like some dodgy continental roadkill unfit for British consumption. Stoke City, it was warned, would bombard De Gea to dust.
The Spaniard, however, was in impressive form, making a number of quality saves throughout the match, two of which in particular well deserving of a spot on any potential goalkeeping CV highlight reel. It was Peter Crouch’s equalising header that denied De Gea of a clean sheet, aided as it was by the sublimely awkward set-piece delivery of Matthew Etherington and a distinct lack of reaction and decisiveness from the United central defenders. De Gea could have perhaps taken the initiative to clear the high ball away himself, but considering his dedication in coming up to snuff out incoming crosses and dangerous potential aerial threats throughout the game, the lack of credible challenge from either Ferdinand or Jones seems to be a fairer culprit for the defending glitch.
Lax defensive work has become something of a trend creeping into United’s play of late, especially in matches when their attacking potency at the other end isn’t firing on all cylinders. Even when they do remember their shooting boots, such as against Arsenal and Chelsea, the enjoyably ‘open’ nature of United’s forward game, and lack of positional coherency at the back, allowed the opposition to create chances as soon as they could retain the ball and steal back some initiative.
This isn’t some hysterical, and hypocritical, cry of ‘crisis’ by a spectator bloated and spoilt on the lavish victories of the intimately close past. Phil Jones, for all his rawness, impetuous lack of positional sense and maturity, is still the dazzling paroxysm of excitement and potential the recent plaudits have hailed him as, but he’s also a 19 year old defensive apprentice, newly arrived at the club. He will make mistakes. Injuries have played a part too of course, especially the absence of club captain and defensive talisman Nemanja Vidic and a regular right back starter. What is it with Manchester United and injury crisises? A more worrying situation is the sub-par form of Patrice Evra, who seems to have lost half of his game tracking back, marking up and generally playing as a defender over the past 18 months; and a mentally dulled, immobile Rio Ferdinand who looks creaky and vulnerable, not to mention rusty due to his own recent lay-off. Hopefully once back up to match fitness he’ll rediscover his composure, form and ability.
Defending, of course, begins much higher up the pitch, and although it may seem obvious to blame the back-line for defensive errors they should ultimately be the very last line of protection. The work begins in attack; retaining possession, recycling play and passing the ball on rather than losing it through a shot that isn’t on. On saturday however, Stoke were able to dominate the Manchester United midfield, limiting any potential support from the centre for the forward line and reducing the strike force’s immediate passing options in the middle. This was a particular problem for United as their long, diagonal balls from the flanks and central defense were useless due to Stoke’s hard aerial superiority. This meant the only passes available to the United forwards was out to the wings, which were quickly closed up and shut down, with players ushered off into blind alleys and dead ends. Its telling that United’s goal, a fantastic dribble and arrow strike shot by Nani (reminiscent of his goal against Chelsea just last week), came when the Portuguese managed to cut inside and push through into the centre of the park, using his superior creativity and skill to cut through the opposition’s rigid lines. It was clear United lacked Wayne Rooney to provide another source for such ingenuity and magic, and with Hernandez robbed through some rather ‘strong’ tackling early in, United’s ability to fabricate chances from the ether at the front were castrated by the strangulation of service and support. Berbatov, Owen and Welbeck will all suffer at the hands of fans and pundits alike, but it was the lack of traction in midfield that prevented United from deploying the devastatingly free and flowing game they’ve been running with so far this season.
Ultimately there are far worse teams to draw with away from home, and far worse times in the season to do so, and coming home from The Britannia with a one all draw feels like ‘good business’ for the league campaign, regardless of United’s recent imperious form and the expectations that come with it. Perhaps a 4-5-1 with Michael Carrick screening the back four may have guarded against Stoke’s steamrollering of the middle ground, but with Darren Fletcher and the increasingly all-action Anderson in the centre, Sir Alex may have hoped this fixture would act as an acid test of sorts, to see how his midfielders, and redeveloped system, coped against one of the Premier League’s more unique challenges. Neither players were particularly poor, but they also looked almost pedestrian and near-powerless at times to resist as Stoke took control of the centre.
In the end it showed up the weak underbelly of Manchester United’s midfield in the most brutal fashion possible. It is an area that will benefit from the return of Tom Cleverley, a player who, had he been fit, may have been able to change the game for United. Whilst his effect on the team’s attacking fluidity and potency has been clear, he is also a tenacious competitor forever willing to get stuck in and make the tackles needed for the team.