And it came to pass that United’s perfect start to the season was yet again undone by the first International break (at least according to Jose Mourinho). Suddenly the luxury of preparation that goes into a week ahead of a league game wasn’t available and it told. A changed team, albeit mildly, seemed to suffer momentary loss of confidence if not concentration.
Any confidence that United fans had started to have in the first choice defensive pairing of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones took a severe knock on Saturday when the club was desperate for their defence to hold still amid the directness Stoke have to offer. Bailly (not Darmian) was at fault for Stoke’s first goal, by first failing to hold the offside line and second, and rather uncharacteristically, not tracking his man to snuff out a dangerous ball in the box. His partner Phil Jones was at fault for the second; except that there was a striking similarity to Arsenal’s equaliser at Old Trafford last season. Approaching stoppage time, up rose Olivier Giroud whilst Jones collapsed in a heap. Free header. 1-1. On Saturday, Jones was tumbling backwards in a heap when Jean-Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting rose to meet the collector’s item that is a free header at the far post.
It was a shame in the circumstances because David De Gea had just produced a point-blank reflex save to deny Stoke an equaliser moments earlier. Jose expressed his frustration post match in this regard, pointing out that the save warranted that the team ‘defends the resulting corner with their lives’. Well, it was anything but and at venues such as the Bet 365, only resolute determination gets you over the line.
The aerial deficiency perhaps explains why Jose Mourinho was particularly frustrated with the Belgian National team for playing Fellaini with a calf injury, that effectively ruled him out for Saturday. The manager has since confirmed that he would have started the game but that injury! That will revelation will stun some fans who generally believe that the big Belgian has no place at Manchester United. It smacks of a curious case around him because as we all know, Belgium are not short of talent in any department and yet even a half fit Fellaini easily makes the team. It’s difficult to find a player in history whom pundits and fans alike struggle to evaluate in terms of importance and yet various managers that have employed him see qualities that can help their teams thrive.
In the end, perspective holds that United did not necessarily come away with the worst result on Saturday but there is a caveat to that perspective……and that is United have to move on quickly from this result and claim the next three premier league points available! The six game winless run the club suffered last season after the first International break cannot be repeated this time round. The culture of the club is to recover quickly as soon as a bad result sets in so as to keep confidence levels up.
It’s a good thing then that the distraction of the Champions league comes hot on the heels of the Stoke game. Europe will very much be about a step by step approach. United, whilst not having the most difficult group have a tricky trio of clubs against whom to negotiate passage into the last 16. The first requirement is to win all the home games to give yourself a platform to build on. FC Basel at Old Trafford therefore falls into the category of must win fixtures. Anything but victory will see the European adventure suddenly become steep before we even get comfortable with a return to Europe’s top table.
Ironically the suspensions of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones have come on the back of their first shaky performance domestically. Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling will come in on Tuesday night to deputise but a strong performance from the pair will suddenly have the manager thinking hard about his choice pairing for Everton at Old Trafford on Sunday!
First things first though; the agenda on Tuesday evening will be to get back to winning ways as fast as possible so as to get in the right frame of mind for another must win game at the weekend.