Two points dropped or one gained? The table will ultimately decide in May. Louis van Gaal paid Stoke the compliment of expressing relief, claiming his Manchester United team had perhaps been fortunate to extend their unbeaten Premier League run to 10 games.
Despite dominating possession, United were always vulnerable to the Stoke cosh, and their third draw in succession away from Old Trafford had the feel of a bonus.
A goal down inside two minutes was no way to let in the new year. The lingering weakness Van Gaal seeks to eradicate at the heart of the United defence cost them as they failed to pick up first Peter Crouch and then Ryan Shawcross, who diverted the ball into the United net unchallenged from a corner.
It might have been worse had Mame Diouf hit the target instead of the ether with only David De Gea to beat after hustling Jonny Evans into an error in the 19th minute.
With the wind at their backs in the second half Stoke should have had at least one penalty, when Chris Smalling handled Crouch’s header, and perhaps a second when Geoff Cameron was brought down after yet another Crouch header came back off a post.
Stoke City 1 Manchester United 1 player ratings
Stoke City 1 Manchester United 1 player ratings
1/22 Asmir Begovic
Demonstrated confident handling in blustery conditions. 7
2/22 Geoff Cameron
Did the job effectively in defence. 6
3/22 Ryan Shawcross
Dominant at the back, his early goal was the perfect Stoke start. 8
4/22 Marc Muniesa
The Spaniard showed was a strong figure in dealing with Falcao. 7
5/22 Erik Pieters
The left-back coped well with the runs of Young and Van Persie. 7
6/22 Steven N'Zonzi
An athletic presence in the Stoke midfield. 6
7/22 Jonathan Walters
A willing runner, he lacked the flair of the absent Bojan. 6
8/22 Glenn Whelan
Competed well in the centre of the pitch. 6
9/22 Marko Arnautovic
His precise passing was a constant menace in the first half. 8
10/22 Peter Crouch
His headers from set-pieces saw led to the opening goal, the woodwork being struck and a huge penalty appeal. 7
11/22 Mame Biram Diouf
His power and pace gave the United defence an uncomfortable afternoon. 7
12/22 David de Gea
Few opportunities to demonstrate his shot-stopping abilities. 5
13/22 Chris Smalling
Fortunate not to concede a second half penalty for handball. 5
14/22 Jonny Evans
Struggled to cope with the physical presence of Crouch and Diouf. 5
15/22 Phil Jones
The most resolute of United's three central defenders. 6
16/22 Michael Carrick
Typically tidy performance was capped with the assist for Falcao's equaliser. 7
17/22 Wayne Rooney
Was unable to influence the game as he can from either midfield or attack. 6
18/22 Ashley Young
Impressed again in his new wing-back role before a hamstring injury curtailed his afternoon. 7
19/22 Juan Mata
Windy conditions made it hard for the Spaniard to play his natural game. 6
20/22 Luke Shaw
Steady on the left-wing on his return before being replaced. 6
21/22 Robin van Persie
Despite a quiet afternoon, the striker nearly won the game with a tremendous volleyed effort. 6
22/22 Radamel Falcao
His sharp performance was rewarded with a first half equaliser. 8
Stoke are by no means expansive but they come with a plan. No team is safe from their hostile raids. The ball is shunted up the pitch as quickly as possible, demanding unremitting vigilance from visiting defences.
The battering-ram approach was augmented by a vicious westerly that did little to promote United’s preference for effete triangles. Defending in the face of it was more a matter of caprice than science, as Van Gaal acknowledged.
“The circumstances [conditions] were not great,” he said, “but you have to adapt. It is not so easy with the long balls in the air. We are not so tall. [Steven] Nzonzi is taller. Crouch is taller. It is not the first goal we have let in like that. We want to play another kind of football than Stoke City.”
That said, Van Gaal made no excuses and did not seek to dismiss Stoke’s approach. “Stoke deserved the victory more. I cannot say we were the better team today. Stoke was closer to the victory with the ball against the post and the chance to Diouf. They had two major chances and we didn’t create too much, despite having a lot of the ball.”
That the draw, achieved via the predatory boot of Radamel Falcao, who reacted quickest to Michael Carrick’s flick from Wayne Rooney’s corner, was considered fortunate is a fair measure of where the Van Gaal project is after six months.
A pleasing pattern is emerging on the pitch and the returns are on an upward trajectory, but three draws on the spin away from home tell their own story. A shared outcome at Stoke is not to be taken lightly, yet this is just the kind of game champions win – witness the 2-0 victory by Chelsea here 10 days ago.
The point ensured United go into the FA Cup weekend in third place, something Van Gaal would happily sign for. Stoke’s disappointment at the draw was viewed as a sign of progress by Mark Hughes.
The manager felt Stoke were the better team, denied the opportunity to establish superiority by referee Michael Oliver. “We had two clear penalty claims which should have been given,” Hughes said. “Smalling lost Peter and tried to get something in the way of ball and made an intentional movement with his hand. The ref was right there. Why he hasn’t given it I don’t know.
“Cameron was taken out after Peter hit the post with a header. If you look at those two situations and other opportunities – Mame Diouf should have done better – not to finish it was disappointing. We would have been 2-0 up and I don’t think United would have been able to come back.”
Evans was a lucky boy. He hesitated, allowing Diouf to nick the ball off him. The shot was woeful. Evans’ instinct is always to play, never to stop, but he might need to change that under Van Gaal.
Carrick was at the centre of all that was good about United, the finest of cogs in the Van Gaal wheel. This was not a day for Juan Mata, though he probed busily.
Falcao has a finisher’s instinct but can be sluggish in general play. With Robin van Persie also lacking killer pace, United looked laboured at the point of attack.
Falcao made way for Adnan Januzaj as United looked to add velocity in the final third, but it was Stoke who looked the more dangerous, hitting the post in the 68th minute via the head of Crouch.
Ashley Young pulled up with a hamstring problem to bring a productive personal period to an end. Young has arguably profited more than any under Van Gaal, making a fist of the left wing-back position.
On Thursday he switched to the right to accommodate Luke Shaw without any diminution in output. Van Gaal estimates at least a month on the sidelines for Young, continuing a worrying injury trend at the club.Reuse content