At one point it looked like no one could do it on a cold Wednesday night at Stoke. Both sides were ushered off the pitch as heavy hail forced referee Mark Clattenburg to delay the match for 10 minutes. Prior to his decision, the match was played at a lethargic pace, as neither side was capable of retaining possession, due to the dreadful field conditions.
United dominated possession in the first half, but they lacked creativity, invention and penetration. Anderson and Tom Cleverley maintained deep positions alongside Phil Jones, and they rarely ventured forward. Mark Hughes’ men dropped off and focused on limiting gaps of space in midfield, and United rarely looked threatening, apart from Anderson’s sporadic balls between the lines to Welbeck.
The issue with United’s 4-5-1 was their lack of numbers in the final third. Welbeck was an isolated figure that linked play well, but received minimal service, while Oussama Assaidi and Jon Walters protected their fullbacks, thus limiting Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia’s influence on the match.
Moyes’ men gradually improved in the second half, as the pitch and weather conditions were playable, along with Anderson and Cleverley’s willingness to thrust into the final third. Likewise, Moyes quickly turned to his bench, and introduced Javier Hernandez, as United became a 4-4-1-1.
Welbeck played off Hernandez, and the Stoke’s defenders dropped deeper than expected, in fear that Hernandez’s pace would leave them exposed. With two attackers roaming around the final third, Cameron and Erik Pieters were forced to sit narrow, thus giving Young and Valencia space to receive the ball and attack the fullbacks.
Coincidentally, while Moyes’ substitution and tactical alteration were beneficial, Hughes couldn’t say the same. A minute after Marko Arnautovic entered the match, Wilson Palacios switched off – Young drifted away from the Honduran to receive a ball from Cleverley, then played a pass to Hernandez and ran towards goal – past Palacios – and fired a venomous shot past Thomas Sorensen – scoring his first goal for United in 19 months.
Hughes was then forced to replace the injured Ryan Shawcross for Charlie Adam – this forced Cameron to play centreback and Glenn Whelan to cover at right back. Subsequently, Young received a pass from Evra and attacked Whelan – however, Walters drifted over to help the Irish midfielder cope with the Englishman’s threat.
Here, Young created half space for Evra to run into, and he played the pass to the United fullback, who cut in and curled his shot into the far corner with his weaker foot.
Stoke pushed forward searching for goals in the second half, but their deliveries from wide areas lacked quality, and Crouch’s aerial threat was poorly utilized. Hughes’ men didn’t record a shot on target, which highlighted United’s impressive defensive display. Chris Smalling continuously won aerial duels, Phil Jones covered every blade of grass making five tackles and three interceptions, while Cleverley was the most proficient passer on the pitch, completing 79 passes with a 90% pass accuracy rate.
United reverted to a 4-5-1 in the latter stages of the match, when Darren Fletcher made his second appearance of the season, to close out the match. The performance didn’t showcase any significant progress under Moyes, but his valour to change his system reaped rewards, as United still lack an offensive identity.