Jones shows way ahead for United despite failure to control Crouch

Stoke City 1 Manchester United 1

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The Independent Online

Peter Crouch and Phil Jones proved the key figures when it came to the decisive incident in this match, but their influence on their respective clubs' fortunes will extend way beyond Saturday's division of the spoils at the Britannia Stadium.

The summer arrivals of Crouch and Jones exemplify one of football's truisms: if a club does not evolve it falls behind. The Britannia may not appear the obvious place in which to find evidence of football evolution. The residents are notorious for playing an antediluvian game featuring towering defenders, giant attackers, and a human missile-launcher. Yet there was more to the contest than a cartoon battle between brain and brawn, just as there is more to Stoke City than Robert Huth, Rory Delap and Crouch.

For certain a trip to the Potteries demands a degree of physical courage. Accepting that is one of the reasons Manchester United always do well there. "When you come here, you really have to embrace the challenge of facing Stoke," said United's Darren Fletcher. "It's a unique style in the Premier League and if you come here with any fear it will tell in your performance and cost you. When you are well prepared like we were, and do a lot of work on the training ground, then you can relish the battle."

United did that, but they also had the mental courage to try to impose their own game. This has for some years been about keeping possession, switching play and rotating the ball. As has been noted it is also, this season, about trying to emulate Barcelona's one-touch play by making swift, short passes around the goal area. That was a factor in United's 27th-minute goal, Nani playing a one-two with Fletcher before weaving his way through Stoke's defensive forest to score.

Jones has, though added a new dimension. The teenager consistently stepped out of defence, going on buccaneering runs that took him into the heart of opposition territory. When he did so Anderson or Fletcher dropped back to fill the hole. It was intriguing to watch. With United's overlapping full-backs – in this case Antonio Valencia and Patrice Evra– a well-known threat, opponents have begun leaving space in the centre as they cover the flanks, space which Jones attacks.

Similar runs in United's last two matches, against Bolton and Chelsea, created goals for Wayne Rooney. One wonders what Rio Ferdinand, who in his youth showed a similar facility for stepping into midfield, only to be discouraged by club and country, thought of his young team-mate's freedom.

Of course, supplementing the attack is the secondary part of Jones' job. Defending is the prime one and he was found wanting when Crouch, with a feint and a shimmy, lost him in the box to head in Matthew Etherington's corner for Stoke's 52nd-minute equaliser. Given Crouch's height advantage Jones had to block his run, or at least jump with the striker in an attempt to off-balance him.

It was Crouch's first goal since his move from Spurs and while he will hope to score 10-15 times a season he has never been especially prolific, except for his startlingly good record with England (42 caps, 22 goals). He has also been bought for how he can help Stoke's game develop. While he may be lampooned as a beanpole Crouch has a good touch and is adept at holding the ball up. He is also excellent at laying the ball off, and Rafael van der Vaart especially benefited from this at Spurs.

This is where Stoke are going to have to adapt their game. With Jermaine Pennant and Etherington on the wings Crouch is now in a team where he will get service, but too often on Saturday he would win the ball in the air only to knock it down into a penalty area in which strike partner Jon Walters was surrounded by United defenders. To balance the inclusion of two ball-carrying wingers (another aspect in which Tony Pulis has evolved his team) Stoke play two holding central midfielders, but as the ball tends to get moved forward quickly they are rarely able to hit the box like Van der Vaart, or a Frank Lampard.

"We have to adapt to that and get [midfielders] closer to him when we can," said Dave Kemp, Stoke's assistant manager. "It is not always going to be one ball [forward]. We are playing more passes to get down the pitch and we are looking to get it off Crouchy's feet, playing people in, as well as off his head."

Another summer recruit, United's much-scrutinised goalkeeper David De Gea, will also feel happy with his display, the Spaniard making some fine saves and standing up as well as most to Delap's bombardment. "There was a lot of preparation going into the game, showing him plenty of videos so he knew what to expect," said Fletcher.

Euro watch

* FC Basle drew 1-1 at FC Thun on Saturday ahead of tomorrow's Champions League trip to Manchester United. Managed by Thorsten Fink, who faced United with Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, Basle led on 71 minutes through Marco Streller, only for Milaim Rama to equalise 10 minutes later. The result dropped Basle, who have Benjamin Huggel and Xherdan Shaqiri suspended for the Old Trafford trip, down to fourth place, five points behind the Swiss league leaders Lucerne.

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