Manchester United suffered another setback at home over the weekend, this time against Stoke City in the Premier League.
United piled on the pressure against Mark Hughes’ side but failed to take three points in a bitterly disappointing result.
But this was a setback that was different to the last few United have experiences. Three losses in a row last month against Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford were disappointing because United were playing poorly, whereas this time United played quite well.
Here are five things we took away from the match.
ONE OF THOSE DAYS
As usual when United do not win, the temptation for some to hammer the team, manager Jose Mourinho and the club as a whole has proven too great.
Once again, too many of United’s players are apparently, “not good enough”, despite the fact that United dominated most of the game and really, it was only a mixture of poor finishing, outstanding goalkeeping and bad luck that cost United the win.
Stoke goalkeeper Lee Grant made eight saves alone to deny United, most of them absolute worldies, while Paul Pogba hit the cross bar with a thunderous header – albeit after missing a genuine sitter in the first half.
Last week against Leicester City, United could not miss and everything they touched turned to goals in the first half. This week, the ball just would not go in. Frustrating, yes. Terrible? Far from it.
Who would have guessed that playing Juan Mata in his best position would completely transform United’s attacking play?
Alright, so most United fans have been calling for such a change for a long time now – but it is pleasing to see the spectacular results the shift is producing.
The subtle Spaniard glides around the pitch effortlessly and his ability to link midfield and attack is second to none at the club. It is no coincidence that the gluttony of chances created by United in the last two Premier League fixtures have come with Mata operating as the number 10.
Given how little the back four was troubled, it was somewhat alarming to see how quickly Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Daley Blind were unravelled when Stoke had their inevitable run of play in the second half.
The forwards were guilty of not taking more chances and leaving United in a vulnerable position, but the defence should have dealt with Stoke’s brief periods of dominance better than they did.
Hughes’ introduction of Peter Crouch unsettled Smalling and Bailly while Blind was guilty of giving a cheap throw-in away in the lead up to the goal when he really could have cleared the ball down the line.
David De Gea is not at fault either and his rare mistake was crucial to Stoke taking the lead, but all-in-all the goal was a cheap one to give away. All that said, it would have been irrelevant had Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co. done their job at the other end of the pitch.
It was a big relief to see Anthony Martial return to the pitch after coming off looking a little worse for wear against Watford two weeks ago, and even more so to see him get on the scoresheet.
Martial looked a real game changer when he came on. United had already had plenty of success in carving open the Stoke defence, but his direct running only served to further scramble the Stoke defence.
After watching Ibrahimovic and Pogba squander several great chances, it was most refreshing to see him pick out the top corner after fellow substitute Wayne Rooney – king of the accidental assist it seems – bundled the ball back into his general direction following his surging run into the box.
Hopefully the goal provides him the platform to build on what was a promising debut season last time around.
TRADITION STILL GOING STRONG
This is not so much a lesson as much as just a pleasing note.
It has been great to see, despite the concerns of so many after Jose Mourinho took over from Louis van Gaal, that the Manchester United academy and development of young footballers continues to have such an obvious influence on the club’s first team.
Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard are both academy graduates, while Pogba played a fair chunk of his youth football with United. Even David de Gea, while not a United product, arrived at the club as a teenager and has developed into one of the world’s best in his position, even if he did not show it on Sunday.