Life was very different ten years ago. Tony Blair was a popular man, Girls Aloud were just forming and Wayne Rooney was still an unknown. However, the Evertonian has since powered through the game, astounding and frustrating in equal measures. He will look to keep United’s season on track and strike back at his own detractors with Stoke’s visit to Old Trafford marking his tenth year since first announcing himself to English football.
Stoke travel to Old Trafford on the back of a performance against Liverpool that truly demonstrated the key to their continuous top flight survival. They are hard to beat. Having lost only one of their first 7 fixtures, Stoke look to be in a good position. Adding to this good feeling, Andy Wilkinson is set to return to defence form suspension, whilst Glenn Whelan and Mamady Sidibe are the only likely casualties. The awkwardly effective Peter Crouch has also contributed to the cause extensively so far this season, with 4 goals in 7. But, with only one win and five draws in these past 7 fixtures, Stoke also seem a hard team to lose to. To compound this, Stoke are winless in 13 games away from the Britannia and have lost to United in 7 of the last 8 fixtures between the two. With the Red Devil’s injury list becoming ever shorter, the stars are seemingly aligning. Young is expected to return to the bench, although Smalling is still struggling.
Whilst it may seem like mission impossible for the Potters, it could actually be the opportune time to visit Old Trafford, due to two factors; Stoke’s height combined with United’s troubling goalkeeper conundrum. With Stoke, on average, measuring 6cm more than their United counterparts, it goes without saying that they will be a threat from set pieces. Hundreds of previews will labour this point, however many will often fail to mention the hardworking Jon Walters and tricky Michael Kightly, who supply the ammunition for lead striker, Crouch. Charlie Adam’s dead ball capabilities should also be accounted for. If Sir Alex stuck by David De Gea for this game, the ultimate physical test for any goal keeper, it would how immense confidence in the young Spaniard and could be just the boost that he needs.
Things are a little clearer cut outfield. United won’t try to fight fire with fire, but will attempt to pierce Stoke’s hulking defence through incessant and precise passing. Only two teams this season have had more possession than Manchester United, whilst Stoke are bottom of the rankings, with a measly 37.5% and as such will expect to spend most of the match camped in their own half. One issue, however, will be the manner in which United line up, more specifically, their width. The current experiment of tight, intricate and narrow play seems to be working well, as exemplified by the dominating display against Newcastle United last time out. But with Stoke likely to pack the middle, Young’s recovery may prompt Fergie to change midgame should his narrow tactics come up short. After playing midweek for Portugal, Nani could also return after his fall out. Yet, if the Portuguese doesn’t appear at all, it could substantiate rumours of a January exit.
There will be no prizes in the possession sweepstakes, with United likely to have the freedom to stroke the ball around at will. I believe, though, a tough and well drilled Stoke team will repel most attempts, at least until the wide men are released. I’m a firm believer that a team needs width to fully exploit the opposition, so I think United will ease to a 2-0 victory after the introduction of Young or Nani (or both). De Gea will also notch an assured performance.