A thrilling encounter at the bet365 Stadium saw Manchester United drop two points to Stoke City. José Mourinho’s side went into the game knowing that a victory would put them clear of rivals Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table, but they now only lead the division on goal difference.
Mark Hughes lined his side up in the rough 3-4-3 shape that he has shown a preference for thus far this season, and did so to good success. His team looked organised and functional, while at the same time carrying enough flair in and around the final third to threaten their esteemed visitors.
They broke free twice in the opening stages of the first half, with Maxim Choupo-Moting and Mame Biram Diouf making excellent runs in behind the away side’s defence. And two minutes before half-time they got their reward, with the former finishing a cross from the latter.
However, Manchester United levelled things up almost immediately, with a Paul Pogba header deflecting into the net off of Marcus Rashford. And, 12 minutes into the second half, they took the lead ominously, with Romelu Lukaku breaking the defensive line and finishing at the second attempt after a save by Jack Butland.
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But Stoke were in no mood to lie down and, just as their opponents had done, they sought out a quick equaliser. They were successful in doing so, with Choupo-Moting grabbing his second of the game. The Cameroonian headed home Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner to become the first player to hit a double against United since Alexis Sanchez did in October 2015.
The score remained at 2-2 as both teams sought to counter each other for a winner, and the result is one Hughes will be delighted with after an inconsistent start to the Premier League campaign.
Here are five things we at Football Whispers learned from the game.
MANCHESTER UNITED ARE AN IRRESISTIBLE COUNTER-ATTACKING FORCE
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of Manchester United’s tactics this season has been their ability to counter-attack opponents. And this was on show once again at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday evening.
Mourinho plumped for a very rough 4-3-3 shape, with Rashford pushing up on the left to join Lukaku and effectively form a front two. This attacking duet presented Stoke with some serious issues in attacking transitions, as they combined pure pace with genuine physicality.
The pair were constantly looking to move on the blind side of the opposition defenders and make intelligent darting runs in behind, with both obtaining scoring opportunities thanks to their movement and athleticism. One of those chances was taken by the Belgian hitman to make it 2-1 to United.
Up against Stoke’s back three, Lukaku and Rashford looked to try and isolate themselves against individual defenders where they could easily win the one-on-one situation. As a result, Mourinho’s men were dangerous even without the ball.
No other Premier League team has scored more than Manchester United’s two goals through counter-attacks, and it’s easy to see why.
FLUID FRONT THREE CAN THRIVE FOR STOKE
Stoke lined up without a natural striker for this particular match, but that didn’t stop them from creating and taking multiple chances. This was thanks to the qualities of their front three of Shaqiri, Jesé and Choupo-Moting.
All three players can operate centrally or out wide. All three possess good ball control and enjoy running at defenders. In addition, all three can be incisive operators when given time to pick a pass or attempt a shot.
Hughes gave the trident plenty of freedom to roam. Shaqiri started on the right, but often came inside to influence attacks; Choupo-Moting started on the left, but came back and inside when appropriate; and Jesé often dropped deep from his more central role to help defend and support build-up.
Together, they completed seven dribbles, which is more than eight Premier League teams have averaged per game this term. They also made four key passes, including one assist, and had five shots on target, including two goals.
MOURINHO IS BOLDER THAN YOU THINK
In the past, Mourinho has been labelled dour and unimaginative in his tactical decision-making, but he showed no such traits today. He lined his team up positively to try and unbalance Stoke and exploit space at every opportunity.
The pace and power of his frontline was supplemented by the creativity of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pogba, while the forward surges of Antonio Valencia down the right flank were also a threat.
Not only was the Portuguese’s chosen system an offensively minded one, but it was slightly out of the ordinary. Usually he opts for the conventional, but here he went for a lopsided 4-3-3 that allowed Rashford to move up front and Mkhitaryan to drift infield.
Then, when the score was 2-2, Mourinho decided to bring on Anthony Martial for Ander Herrera in a bid to win the match. It was risky, and it showed his managerial bravery amid a difficult match.
DIOUF HAS A NEW POSITION
Over the last few seasons, the back three has experienced a surge of popularity in the Premier League. This in turn has allowed for the rise of wing-backs, and several players have been successfully re-moulded as a result.
Victor Moses is the most obvious beneficiary of this to date, with the Nigerian now a crucial part of a title-holding Chelsea side at right wing-back having previously struggled for games as a winger. Now Stoke’s Diouf could be set for a similar tactical transition.
Hughes clearly asked the Senegalese to bomb forward from right wing-back today in an attempt to stretch Manchester United’s defence, and the ploy worked several times. Not only was the former striker a viable aerial outlet, but he showed plenty of intent to get beyond Matteo Darmian and supply some dangerous crosses.
He often beat the Italian in the air to latch onto long balls, while he also made two key passes, one of which was the assist for Stoke’s opening goal. Diouf may well have found a new position.
POGBA TAKES HIS CHANCE IN THREE-MAN MIDFIELD
Throughout last season one of the main criticisms of Mourinho’s tactics was his aversion to a midfield three. Many felt, and still feel, that a two-man midfield reduced the attacking influence and ingenuity of Pogba.
However, the United boss decided to experiment with a midfield three against Stoke, and the player benefitted from it.
The Frenchman was lively and inventive, looking to make things happen and often being given the license to push on into more advanced areas thanks to the presence of Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera behind him.
As a result, Pogba had more shots and created more chances than his season average, while also completing two dribbles.
If today was an examination of him within a midfield three, he undoubtedly passed the test.