The Red Devils recorded a 4-2 victory over the Potters, with Wayne Rooney bagging a brace either side of strikes from Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck.
A Rooney own goal had put the visitors ahead and an effort from Michael Kightly had also given them hope before the hosts closed the game out.
Here, The FA’s Peter Glynn analyses Saturday’s clash at Old Trafford.
Manchester United’s acquisition of Robin Van Persie was, in part, about eradicating old memories.
The goal difference which dramatically swung last season’s Premier League title in favour of neighbours Manchester City had caused Sir Alex Ferguson much regret.
That led the Scotsman to promise the title would never be squandered in such a manner again.
And he backed up his claim by splashing £24million to prise Dutch superstar Van Persie away from Arsenal in the summer.
Van Persie arrived at Old Trafford to a well-stocked attacking department. With Welbeck, Rooney and Javier Hernandez already at his disposal, Ferguson’s challenge is to find the balance and blend to get the best from his talents.
In the weekend victory over Stoke, Ferguson boldly deployed Van Persie with his two England internationals, Welbeck and Rooney, as well as Antonio Valencia in what resembled a 4-2-4 formation.
At the outset Van Persie and Rooney occupied the central attacking areas flanked by Welbeck on the left and Valencia on the right.
But it was only the positioning of the Ecuador winger that remained consistent during an afternoon that was defined by United’s fluid attacking movement and link-up play.
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With Valencia providing width on the right of United’s attack the forward trio of Rooney, Van Persie and Welbeck interchanged positions to occupy central and left-hand areas.
And the fluidity of the movement caused Tony Pulis’ men much anxiety as the afternoon progressed.
In the opening exchanges Welbeck was quick to leave his perch on the left of United’s attack.
The 21-year-old dropped deep to receive passes from Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and United’s backline who, with only Peter Crouch pushed up against them, were free to build play out from the back.
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With Welbeck dropping deep, it was common to see Rooney or Van Persie move to the left-hand side looking to receive incisive passes in behind Stoke’s right-back Geoff Cameron.
And it was from a similar movement that United recorded their first goal.
Van Persie moved into the space vacated by Welbeck crossing for Rooney to head home. Rooney then turned provider himself in the second period crossing from the right channel for Welbeck to put United 3-1 ahead.
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To talk only of United’s attack, however, would be to give only one side of the afternoon’s story. The home side surprisingly fell behind after 11 minutes when Rooney deflected Charlie Adam’s in-swinging free-kick passed David De Gea.
It was one of many anxious moments for United. Ferguson’s enthusiasm to blood his attacking talent meant that, at times, Carrick and Scholes were left exposed in the midfield third. In the first period Stoke regularly outnumbered United’s duo.
As is common with many visitors to Old Trafford, Stoke regularly deployed 10, and at times 11 men behind the ball when out of possession.
Steven N’Zonzi provided a defensive screen in front of his two centre-backs Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross, with wide midfielders, Jon Walters and Kightly dropping deep to ensure their full-backs were not left isolated one versus one.
It was a solid defensive block intended to nullify United’s embarrassment of attacking riches.
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When Stoke did win possession they looked to break out from their defensive shape in numbers.
Wide-men Walters and Kightly and central midfielder Adam were tasked with supporting Crouch when the ball went forward.
Although a United goal on either side of half-time made amends for Rooney’s early own-goal, Kightly’s individual effort midway through the second-half again highlighted a worrying frailty in United’s backline.
Only when Rooney tapped home Van Persie’s corner for United’s fourth following some unconvincing defending did the hosts begin to look comfortable.
But it was United’s embarrassment of riches up front that helped them earn the victory.
By repeatedly leaving two strikers, as well as Valencia, to play against Stoke’s backline the visitors defence struggled to follow any movement where one of United’s front men dropped into the spaces between Stoke’s defence and midfield.
Rooney and Van Persie spent the afternoon slipping off the front-line, unmarked, into deeper midfield positions, sharing the role of creator-in-chief.
On this evidence there is an argument that both Rooney and Van Persie are most effective when scheming from deeper positions.
United looked at their most dangerous when either of the pair were looking to slide incisive passes behind the Potters’ backline for Welbeck’s elusive movement.
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But United’s front-line is, however, still very much a work in progress.
Rooney and Van Persie could be spotted making the same runs and sharing the same operating space.
Ferguson has demonstrated a belief that clever players will, over time, develop understanding and there was enough alchemy on show here for the Scot to be encouraged.
The various roles that United’s front three adopted served to underline the importance of The Future Game’s statements about the evolving role of the modern-day attacker.
With all three of United’s front men showing their ability for creating, finishing, central and wide-play the role of the old-fashioned centre-forward looks increasingly dated at the top-level.
It is true of the evolution of many other positions on the field too.
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It would be a surprise to see Ferguson deploy Welbeck, Rooney and Van Persie together against more dangerous opposition.
Out of possession one of United’s three strikers had the responsibility to drop into the left of midfield, with Valencia doing the same on the right hand side.
But too often they looked vulnerable when possession changed hands. Against craftier and more incisive opposition, Carrick and Scholes would need additional support in midfield to ensure greater protection is afforded for the back four.
In 1999 Ferguson rotated Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham to great effect and winning the UEFA Champions’ League was the result.
The same strategic vision will be needed again to get the best out of his current collection of stars.
Key points for grassroots coaches:
- Encourage your players to play in lots of different positions. At different times here Rooney was centre-forward, right/left winger and central midfielder. Young players must become comfortable operating in lots of different areas of the pitch.
- Work on your players’ movement. When the opposition employ lots of players behind the ball, players must be intelligent in their movements in order to receive the ball. This might mean making multiple runs and changes of position before receiving the ball.
- Work on transitions (the changeover of possession). As soon as your team lose the ball, can they recover and make it hard for the opposition to attack? This often means narrowing and becoming more compact.
The Future Game Tactics Column will take a weekly look at a the evolvement of the modern game, linking to practices from The FA's Future Game philosophy and providing advice and tips for grassroots coaches.
For more information about The FA’s Future Game philosophy click here.
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