Mour­inho makes a point

Man­ager says ab­sence of Fel­laini cost his side vic­tory against Stoke

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Ja­cob Steinberg at the Bet365 Sta­dium

A game for Marouane Fel­laini: that was José Mour­inho’s as­sess­ment af­ter Manchester United dropped their first points of the sea­son. The rich­est club in the world had the at­tack­ing might of Romelu Lukaku, An­thony Mar­tial, Juan Mata, Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan, Paul Pogba and Mar­cus Rash­ford at their dis­posal.

Ne­manja Matic of­fered brawn in midfield, yet Mour­inho pined for his sharp-el­bowed Bel­gian, whose ab­sence with a calf in­jury ap­par­ently left a team con­tain­ing nine play­ers taller than 6ft vul­ner­a­ble to a clas­sic Stoke City aerial bom­bard­ment.

Mark Hughes, who was more than happy to con­tinue his touch­line con­tretemps with Mour­inho, bris­tled at the per­ceived dig at Stoke’s sup­posed long-ball tac­tics. His team might pos­sess phys­i­cal power but they also have flair play­ers and no longer rely on set-pieces or Rory De­lap’s long throws.

“That’s just an easy swipe at us, re­ally,” the Stoke man­ager said. “You could ar­gue United played more long balls, and why wouldn’t they, be­cause they’ve got power and pace and, if they can get those play­ers ahead of the ball with good ac­cu­racy, they’ve got pace and power to burn.

“I don’t know what the stats are but I’d ar­gue that in gen­eral play they played more long balls than we did . . . I think it’s a bit lazy of peo­ple to keep on re­vert­ing to that ‘Stoke are a phys­i­cal team’ thing.”

First big test

Mour­inho in­cor­rectly and un­gen­er­ously claimed that only one team wanted to win. The truth is that United did not do enough to take the vic­tory that would have taken them two points clear of Manchester City at the top of the ta­ble. Stoke, competitive and cre­ative, were good value for a point. The sense lin­gered that Mour­inho wanted to di­vert at­ten­tion away from United’s flaws af­ter they strug­gled to pass their first big test.

United had mo­men­tum af­ter beat­ing West Ham, Swansea City and Leicester City with­out con­ced­ing a goal but they drifted out of the ti­tle race af­ter a sim­i­larly dom­i­nant start last sea­son. They fin­ished sixth af­ter draw­ing 15 times. A dis­ap­point­ing league cam­paign was largely at­trib­uted to a short­age of ruth­less­ness dur­ing a tran­si­tional pe­riod. Fine play­ers spurned a lot of chances, a weak­ness that flared on Satur­day when Lukaku missed a late chance to score his sec­ond goal and make it 3-2.

Yet it is too sim­plis­tic to con­clude that bet­ter fin­ish­ing alone will make United cham­pi­ons for the first time since 2013. In at­tack they boast en­vi­able class and depth. They have skill, speed and craft. Rash­ford scored again, al­beit for­tu­nately, and Mkhi­taryan cre­ated Lukaku’s goal with a beau­ti­fully dis­guised through-ball. But this is still a team striv­ing for a smoother of­fen­sive rhythm. Too of­ten play was slow or pre­dictable and they did not cre­ate enough chances.

United have so many gifted for­wards that there will al­ways be in­di­vid­ual flashes that lead to goals, but stub­born op­po­nents such as Stoke are tough to wear down and that lack of re­fine­ment could hold them back.

A game for Fel­laini, though – what does that mean? That United, who were able to bring Mar­tial, Mata and Jesse Lin­gard off the bench when it was 2-2, would have had a bet­ter chance of win­ning if they had spent the dy­ing mo­ments hurl­ing the ball into the mixer for a big man to at­tack? Penalty box chaos: is this re­ally the way for­ward for a team of United’s am­bi­tions?

Of course Mour­inho spoke about Fel­laini in de­fen­sive terms. Stoke’s equaliser came when Eric Maxim Choupo-Mot­ing, who gave the hosts the lead in the first half when he beat Eric Bailly to Mame Bi­ram Diouf’s cross, eluded Phil Jones and headed the ex­cel­lent Xher­dan Shaqiri’s cor­ner past David De Gea.

But the ar­gu­ment that Fel­laini’s height would have helped was disin­gen­u­ous. United are not a small side, es­pe­cially af­ter Matic’s ar­rival. They were ready for a bat­tle, with Mour­inho bol­ster­ing his midfield by drop­ping the cre­ative Mata for the 6ft An­der Her­rera. They con­ceded be­cause of slack de­fend­ing. Bailly was doz­ing for Choupo-Mot­ing’s first goal and Jones was left in an em­bar­rassed heap for the sec­ond.

United are a de­vel­op­ing team. But wher­ever they are go­ing should be pos­si­ble to reach with­out Fel­laini.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: CARL RECINE/AC­TION IM­AGES VIA REUTERS

Mark Hughes ges­tures to Jose Mour­inho dur­ing the 2-2 draw at the Bet365 Sta­dium

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