A Fan’s Breakdown of United’s Defense Against Stoke

Manchester United managers have not been known for being meek since Dave Sexton was sacked in 1981. The club’s tradition has been to attack. Before Ferguson converted United into a winning machine, the expectation was always breathless, attacking play in Matt Busby’s traditions. “Just go out there and enjoy yourselves,” was Busby’s simple advice before every match.

New manager David Moyes’ caution has cost him both points and the patience of supporters. The Glaswegian gambler that Sir Alex Ferguson embodied has been swapped for a safety-first Scot. At present, the Moyes master plan looks to be to hang on grimly. Every win this season (at the exception of the season and Champions League openers) has raised more questions than it has provided answers. And  of course, Moyes is not helped by an under-performing group of players.

With Vidic and Ferdinand out with injuries, Moyes opted for a central defensive partnership of Phil Jones and Jonny Evans (with Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling playing on the flanks) against Stoke, and ahead of them a midfield comprising Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverly, Nani and Shinji Kagawa, with Wayne Rooney supporting Robin Van Persie in attack. Manchester United may have eventually beaten Stoke City 3-2, but it was an uncomfortable and at times ridiculous afternoon. In this article, I will break down some moments that showed how the midfield and defense are still very much works in progress.

Game Situation – Stoke City’s First Goal 

After Cleverly loses the ball, Marko Arnautovic does some maneuvering and dribbling and delivers a pass to Erik Pieters who is surrounded by three United players, Nani, Cleverly, and Chris Smalling who is gambling and is anticipating a pass to Jonathan Walter, leaving a wide open area behind him.

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Courtesy of Skysports

 Pieters dances through United’s left side of the midfield like it isn’t there. And because Smalling leaves a gaping hole behind, Phil Jones, at first undecided, is forced to unleash on Pieters to cut, obstruct his cross but it was too late.

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Courtesy of Skysports

Meanwhile, Patrice Evra has completely lost his man, Peter Crouch who starts a run towards the goal and has the edge on Evans since he’s behind him. And although one could argue that Evra was primarily concerned about Walters, he should have shifted his attention back to Crouch, as Walters tried to meet the cross at the near post. Pieters whips in a cross that finds Crouch but de Gea is able to deny him. However, Peter Crouch gets a another chance on the rebound and bungles in a goal with the help of Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans.

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Courtesy of Skysports



This is a clear cut evidence of some of the problems that have plagued United this season: space, turnover near the box, and a marking error. Nani should have pressed Pieters harder, while Cleverly should have closed up and forced him to come towards the middle of the field. Moreover, Smalling should not have gone up that high as there was no immediate real danger (especially with no one filling in for him) and Carrick should have dropped as soon as Pieters started his run, which could have allowed him to provide the help needed to obstruct the cross and given United one more player in the box to deal with the threat. Also, Evra has to provide a much tighter coverage on Peter Crouch.

Game Situation – Peter Crouch Almost Doubles the Lead 

Peter Crouch fetches the ball from around the corner and passes it to Pieters who in turn gives it to Arnautovic. Crouch then drops into the box. Smalling realizing that Nani may be beat for a cross, decides to bring in some help and points to Crouch and asks his teammate (Carrick) to cover him.

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However, Smalling doesn’t step up forward quick enough to prevent the cross. In the meantime, Evra misjudges the trajectory of the ball and loses track of Walters at the far post who delivers a cross to Peter Crouch who barely misses.

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On this great scoring that was created as a result of yet another cross from United’s right side, Smalling should have stepped up and seal the flank while Nani should have closed and force the ball carrier towards the middle. Additionally, Carrick should have sensed the cross and provided Smalling help once it became obvious Nani put a soft coverage on the ball carrier and wasn’t going to double up to prevent the cross. Evra once again lost his man. He should have stayed up with Walters.

Game Situation – Walters Is Denied by de Gea

On this deep cross from Stephen, an unmarked Crouch has all the freedom in the world to deliver a chest pass to Walters who is denied by de Gea with stupendous save.

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Evra should have covered his man again while Phil Jones should have realized what was about to happen (he stopped at one point).  Also, Kagawa should have covered Stephen Ireland, not Jones. This would have allowed the latter to provide Evan and Evra some much needed help.

Against Stoke, more often than not, the defense got caught on the wrong fault mostly because of the lack of support from midfielders and the existence of some gaping holes. With times changing at the back (Ferdinand’s reign as a first choice may be approaching to an end and the Evans-Jones duo has been given a run of games together.) help is more than ever needed from the midfield to compensate for the lack of experience and there is no doubt Fletcher’s return will be a huge a boost and give Moyes more options

Moyes’s biggest strength at Everton was using a rigid system to promote the limited talents of players with considerably lower potential than the players he has now. However, the system has been implementing at Old Trafford has shown some indicators of a chemistry and game fluidity in the making. Against Stoke, we witnessed the return of the Red Devils we are have accustomed to seeing: persistence, a hunger to win, and the come-from-behind mentality so characteristic of the Ferguson era. Good things are just around the corner.


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