United’s defence is far from perfect
There is a certain kind of comfort in saying that Manchester United would have swept Stoke City aside on Saturday if Eric Bailly and Jones hadn’t made individual mistakes, but that notion simply isn’t true.
Stoke City had a plan to unhinge United’s back four and it worked. A litany of diagonal balls from right to left created endless problems for Matteo Darmian, who struggled with Mame Biram Diouf’s pace, and Jose Mourinho’s entire back line looked unhinged on too many occasions as a result.
Jean-Eric Choupo-Moting’s first goal, for example, saw a quick pass out wide played onside by Bailly before Diouf’s ball into the middle found the Cameroonian with all the time in the world to score.
United were virtually untroubled over their first three games, but Mark Hughes’ men revealed some glaring cracks in United’s defence that Mourinho will need to address.
Ander Herrera’s role is ambiguous
The Spaniard’s inclusion against Stoke – his first Premier League start of the season – ostensibly made sense. This was always going to be a ferociously paced encounter and having Herrera’s legs in the middle only felt logical.
In practice, however, his purpose wasn’t so clear. He wasn’t able to exert a physical influence on the game and, despite displaying lots of energy, didn’t cause much disruption to the direct attacking threat Stoke posed. With Nemanja Matic shifting play at the base of midfield and Paul Pogba bringing the ball forward, Herrera looked unusually incongruous.
This midfield three looks frightening on paper, but you can tell it needs more fusion to function properly.
Romelu Lukaku is in irresistible form
Another game, another Lukaku goal. If there was ever a figure that nodded towards the Belgian’s natural goalscoring threat, it would be that he now has 150 club goals at the age of 24. United needed an unapologetically ruthless goalscorer over the summer and they’ve certainly got one.
And it was fitting that his goal in the second half came through a run in behind Stoke’s back three. The Belgian had threatened on numerous occasions over the first half with well-disguised bursts into the box, and when Henrikh Mkhitaryan released him with an inch-perfect reverse pass there were no doubts he would put United ahead. He sits at the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts and now has nine goals for club and country since moving to Old Trafford.
There are goals in this team
This was a truly scintillating encounter for the neutral, with United pouring forward at will and Stoke battling hard to keep the visitors at bay while posing Mourinho’s men some problems of their own. Premier League football at its best, you could say: rapidly paced, crunching tackles, vitriol, numerous chances and goals. Not many of United’s draws were like that last season.
The result may have been the same as the year before, but the nature of this contest and the way Mourinho’s men approached the affair couldn’t have been more different. Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku, backed up by the brilliant Pogba, kept Stoke’s back three on their toes and Jack Butland had to make an array of saves to maintain the parity. It felt as if they could have scored with each foray forward.
A far from perfect performance, granted, but one that nodded towards a renewed potency in front of goal that simply wasn’t there last season.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan needs to play at No.10
The 28-year-old has been an effervescent force at No.10 sense this season, and Mourinho, in hindsight, may rue his decision to draft in Herrera, change the formation, and move Mkhitaryan out wide. It just didn’t work.
He was characteristically efficient in possession, picking out teammates and ghosting into space, but during what was, at times, a frenetic contest Mkhitaryan always looked on the periphery of proceedings lurking on the right hand side.
And it was fitting that, once given a chance to inflict damage in the middle, he supplied an inch-perfect assist for Lukaku which took out Stoke’s entire back three. The timing and execution was perfect. He now has six assists in four Premier League games, all produced in a No.10 position. Where he should play is self-evident.