Hell is a place that’s often been described, though it has never been seen. A cold, windy and rainy afternoon in Stoke, however, would gain a rather large consensus if the description of hell was to be put up to public vote.
Everything is quintessentially awful about Stoke. Their fans, their manager, the horrible football they insist to practise, their players and their horrendous wind-swept ground, where footballers and fans are at the elements’ mercy, with sudden gusts of wind making play almost impossible.
None of those things, however, can claim the accolade for worst thing on display at the Britannia today, for that award can have one recipient, and one recipient only: Manchester United Football Club.
Quite how United continue to produce such dismal performances remains a mystery, for even the greatest ineptitude concedes occasional breaks to quality and optimism, but United are relentless in their pursuit for mind-boggling uselessness and fading standards.
Granted, bad luck can be blamed losing Jonny Evans and Phil Jones in the space of 40 minutes and having the match officiated by a referee of quite remarkable incompetence and, at a push, even for Michael Carrick’s deflection that led to Stoke’s opener but, ultimately, winners build their own good luck.
And winners, United are not.
Not on the pitch, where another dismal performance saw them surrender to Stoke, a side they had beaten in 11 of their last 12 meetings, for the first time since Boxing Day 1984, and nor off it, where the club’s failure to strengthen the squad in the January’s transfer window beyond Juan Mata’s arrival looks to be already delivering its damning verdict.
The Spaniard started alongside Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney in support of Robin Van Persie in what was supposed to be a rather modern 4-2-3-1, before it quickly became apparent that United were, in fact, reverting to the 4-4-2 of old with Mata, one of the game’s best attacking midfielders, exiled on the wing.
With Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley unable to produce anything resembling some momentum, United quickly settled into their own customary and predictable football, a game so pedestrian that other teams could defend blindfolded, such is the predictability of United’s movement up-front.
Trying to batter down a wall by headbutting it might seem like an act of bravery, but after countless knocks to the head other strategies might have to be employed, particularly as the wall shows no signs of buckling.
Alas, United kept hoofing forward which, given the atrocious weather conditions, made the whole game look very 1980s, not less because of United’s poor performance, which became even worse as Michael Carrick was forced to replace Phil Jones at the back, with Danny Welbeck coming on and Rooney dropping deep in midfield.
United had already lost Evans to injury, with Rafael coming on in his place as Chris Smalling switched to centre-back, the positive signs he had displayed against Cardiff nothing but a long distant memory in a game throughout which the United defender looked as solid as a house built on bread crumbles.
With Stoke 1-0 ahead thanks to Charlie Adam’s deflected free-kick, United’s troubles were momentarily eased straight away in the second half as Robin Van Persie guided Juan Mata’s brilliant lofted pass beyond Asmir Begovic, before Adam produced the best goal he’s ever scored, or will indeed score in his next three lives, to put Stoke 2-1 up.
The hosts could have increased their advantage, with Marko Arnautovic losing Smalling before firing just wide, while Oussama Assaidi forced David De Gea into an excellent save, while United, five offensive players on the pitch at the same time, continued their procession of wide passes and aimless crosses, worth of a footballing funeral.
Hernandez replaced Van Persie, a pointless substitution given that the Mexican is far from being a creative player, but nothing changed, as United continued to pile men in the box to no avail, before Tom Cleverley opted to sky an excellent chance in the dying minutes, after Begovic had deflected Rooney’s free-kick against the post.
These squad’s limits are there for all to be seen but, unfortunately, the ones who keep ignoring them are the same that should be working to rectifying them.
We came, we hoofed it, we lost. And we’re awfully poor.