“A night at the theatre,” was what the match programme cover promised in this most alien season for Manchester United, whose stadium stands dark and empty each midweek while the continent’s best sides go to work. By the end, there was fuel for that burgeoning sense that the side are coming back to a level where they can occupy it once more.
They did not flatten Stoke and there was a scare at the death but they sent them home well beaten, on a night when the list of injured absentees sent a shudder of apprehension through the place. Four straight wins and one defeat in eight tell the story but so does the air of insouciance. Louis van Gaal’s United have lost the look of fear that was written across their games here last season.
A night match at Old Trafford in a season as barren of fixtures as this was a novelty for Van Gaal – his first in a competitive environment – and after all these weeks he is still trying to calculate what the best structure of his team might be, as injuries continue to force changes. The knock Wayne Rooney picked up against Hull City on Saturday kept him out as well as the expected absentee Angel Di Maria and it was a 4-2-2-2 formation he went for as 19-year-old striker James Wilson was given his first Premier League start.
It was not the sort of virtuoso display destined to create one of those nights of electricity that Van Gaal said Ryan Giggs had told him about. There was something more proletarian on offer from United, pressing Stoke hard and pegging them into their own half but with only the occasional glimmer of promise and passing that lacked a crispness.
Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic served up the first chance, carelessly clearing the ball straight to Robin van Persie, who you fancy would have advanced into the box and thumped it straight back past him in his Old Trafford pomp of two seasons ago. Van Gaal reiterated in his programme notes that the striker had been “lacking confidence” and when facing down Begovic he squared for Ander Herrera, who stepped up to the ball and blasted it over the bar.
Neither of Van Gaal’s strikers threatened, despite Wilson’s obvious pace and relentless chasing-down. So it was Ashley Young, dangerous in the left wing-back role he has reclaimed, and Marouane Fellaini who provided something imposing in the side.
It was a year ago this week that the wisdom of United signing Fellaini was sorely tested in the humiliating home defeat to Everton which saw him and Ryan Giggs given the run-around by Roberto Martinez’s young midfield, but his renaissance continues. Fellaini demands the ball now, marshals the midfield after a fashion, and there was something rehearsed about the way Herrera sought him out at the back post on 21 minutes – the Stoke full-back Erik Pieters left helpless as Fellaini arrived to deposit the cross past Begovic.
Stoke were by no means overwhelmed. Geoff Cameron more than handled Herrera, the central defence was compact and they crowded out United. That is the mark Hughes method at places like this and when Bojan Krkic unleashed his dangerous, rapier pace after half an hour, they did threaten.
Herrera cleared Krkic’s first threat, poking the ball out of touch as he prepared to receive a hard, low Pieters cross. But when Oussama Assaidi won a challenge with Fellaini – his histrionics ignored by the referee – Krkic ran at the United box and watched the ball rebound off Chris Smalling’s heel into the path of Steven Nzonzi, who fired home powerfully.
It is a measure of the different place they now occupy that United did not let the setback degenerate into something more serious. They began again with renewed intent after the interval, requiring some desperate defending from Stoke before the visiting side displayed another piece of vulnerability to the high ball which was once never a part of their make-up.
Juan Mata’s free-kick missed its intended recipient, Marcos Rojo, and also the entire Stoke defence, as it looped into the Stoke net.
It was then that something of the old United was restored: a propensity to burst out at pace as Stoke’s unstinting attempts to drive into their half came undone. We had the spectacle of Young, bisecting Krkic and Stephen Ireland, skipping into the left-hand side of the opposition box; Smalling stepping forward into the are like a virtuoso centre-half; and Wilson racing between Marc Wilson and N’zonzo, clearing the covering defender too, but firing wide in what looked for all the world to be the signature moment in his young career.
Van Persie was the one missing out. The Stretford End sang his name, exhorting him to stamp his own mark on the game, though once again he did not. Radamel Falcao arrived for Wilson, though it was Stoke’s Mame Diouf who nearly pulled a point of the game at the death – firing a shot at the far post which David De Gead clawed away, then forcing Young into a goal-line clearance after De Gea had made an instinctive blocked save from Marko Arnautovic.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies