Manchester United: Darren Fletcher - Out; Tom Cleverly, Rio Ferdinand, Robin Van Persie, Nemanja Vidic & Daniel Welbeck - Doubtful
Stoke City: Geoff Cameron - Doubtful
Manchester United - None
Stoke City - None
Manchester United: WLLWD
Stoke City: DLLLD
Manchester United's game against Stoke kicks off a run of games that seem winnable if United are to breathe life into their faltering defence of their title. Most pundits believed this proposed run would start against Southampton last week - to blow my own horn - I of course knew better.
Stoke are not Southampton and as such I suspect they will struggle against United. In their past 5 games against United, Stoke have lost four times, drawing only one. In those five previous encounters Tony Pulis was in charge and characterised Stoke as a powerful, aggressive long ball team. Pulis was hounded out by the fans after a slow regression down the table was blamed on an archaic method of playing football - ironically that system would have put them in better stead ahead of this fixture.
Indeed, Stoke are not the long ball team they were back then, even Manchester United are not as crisp in their passing as they were under Sir Alex Ferguson. As you will see below, Manchester United's and Stoke's playing methods have somewhat mirrored each others.
Stoke now look to move the ball around as opposed to lumping it at every opportunity to the big man up front. While this tactic has brought some detractors of their backs, it has not brought results any better than what Pulis left with. They have only scored four goals all season and only two of them were from open play, the others being set pieces - old habits die hard.
As you can see above, Stoke generally play well and although they have only scored four, they have only conceded seven, meaning apart from the Arsenal match (where they lost 3-1), all their other matches could have gone either way if luck was on their side. However, in football you make your own luck and Stoke have not been too good at forcing the initiative. Indeed they have only created on average 12 shots per game, and only 4 of those have reached the target. But this is not the doing of the supply unit, they have generally supplied enough chances to the striker (Stoke play one up top) to at least force a save; the question is: what has said forward done with the ball once its at his feet.
Lets take a look at who has started up front for Stoke this season: Marko Arnautovic, Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones have all had stints up front, all have yet to assist or score a goal, Why? For starters they are all poor at keeping the ball at their feet: Arnautovic has lost the ball 9 times in 6 games (1.8 average); Crouch has lost it a whopping 13 times in 5 games (2.6 on average) and Jones has lost it 11 times in 6 games (1.8 average). Furthermore both Crouch and Jones have been terrible at passing so far: Crouch has a 64.3% pass rate and Jones is lower at 60%.
Whilst this has the advantage of keeping their defence guarded, it is also the reason they cannot score. Going with two up front to provide more movement would be suicidal as it would expose Stoke's weaknesses to United. If there is any hope for Stoke it comes in the form of a set-piece. United commit 13 fouls per game on average - 13 chances for Stoke to score from. Of course it is never as easy as that, especially given United tend to be strong in the air themselves but if any team can do it, it is Stoke.
Nonetheless, United should prove too strong to handle.
Manchester United 2-1 Stoke City
*All statistics courtesy of WhoScored