Neil Humphreys: Man United are severely short on speed
STOKE CITY 1
(Ryan Shawcross 2)
MAN UNITED 1
(Radamel Falcao 26)
Louis van Gaal's New Year's resolutions are remarkably straightforward.
Fix the defence and find some pace in 2015.
Manchester United's unbeaten run stretched to 10 games after the 1-1 draw at Stoke City last night, but the statistic's a smokescreen.
Their annus horribilis may belong in the past, but their problems remain very much in the present.
Three into four still doesn't go at the back and they can no longer borrow their tactics from The Tortoise and the Hare.
Slow and steady does not win the title race. The need for speed in United's line-up is overwhelming.
Stoke tested United's brittle boys at every opportunity and were the width of the post and a terrible penalty decision away from a deserving victory.
Van Gaal can't pull the thorn from his side soon enough. His defence is a permanent source of pain that should be cured in the transfer window.
Stoke needed just one minute and 45 seconds to make a mockery of his reckless template. His three-man defence will never succeed while he lacks the personnel.
Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and particularly Phil Jones are competent centre backs most of the time, but lack the mobility to patrol the entire penalty box without sufficient support.
Asking them to command their defence simply because they are defenders is like asking One Direction to make music like The Beatles simply because they are musicians. They'll fall short in most instances.
From Stoke's first corner, the trio failed to clear the cross. Displaying breathtaking indecision, Jones lost both Ryan Shawcross and Peter Crouch.
Smalling thought about challenging Crouch, but thought it best to leave the job to Luke Shaw, one of the shortest men on the pitch.
Crouch nodded the ball towards Shawcross, who was also inexplicably unmarked, and the defender smashed the early gift high into the net.
Stoke almost doubled their lead when the simplest of balls over the top left Evans spinning body and head like a dog chasing his own tail.
Mame Biram Diouf brushed him aside and curled his effort wide from 12 metres. Evans was spared humiliation, but United's defending often veered from clumsy to calamitous.
The defensive comedy of errors continued, as expected, but at the other end, which was less expected.
Michael Carrick, hardly an aerial Spitfire, flicked on a corner at the near post and the ball eluded a trio of Stoke defenders before reaching Radamel Falcao for a tap-in.
The goal was United's first shot on target after 26 minutes and undeserved.
But the set-piece blunders were as good as it got for a mind-numbing 65 minutes. Both sides contributed to a glowing endorsement for an EPL winter break.
Mother Nature contributed the only real movement in the game, with fierce winds and incessant rain blowing away the players, particularly Robin van Persie who was mostly anonymous again.
A painful New Year's Day hangover was only remedied with the most controversial moment in the 65th minute, when Crouch headed against Smalling's arm.
The header was goal-bound until Smalling intervened with his Funky Chicken routine. It was a penalty. The officials disagreed. United were lucky.
But their collective anger at least roused the Potters and Crouch flicked a wind-assisted header against the post.
A week earlier, Chelsea has coasted past Stoke in an immaculate display. United were erratic and unconvincing throughout.
Pace remains a perennial problem. United don't have it.
Apart from his goal, Falcao operated in second gear, van Persie played in reverse and Wayne Rooney retreated so often to retrieve possession he almost kept David de Gea company.
Carrick and Juan Mata's talents are obvious, but so is their lack of speed.
From front to back, United are overburdened with workhorses but light on genuine speedsters.
Van Gaal's three-at-the-back philosophy depends on a near-telepathic understanding between his defensive trio and counter-attacking pace.
United have neither.
They'll go the distance in the chase for Europe, but they're far too slow to maintain a place in the title race.
'It's a definite penalty'
Peter Crouch felt that Stoke City deserved a penalty after Manchester United defender Chris Smalling raised his arms to block his header in the second half of the 1-1 draw last night.
"I know I won the header cleanly, it was on target and Smalling had his hands up. I thought it was a definite penalty but I'd have to see it again," said Crouch after the match at the Britannia Stadium.
"We had chances, we've hit the post, we would have liked to have won it but, in the scheme of things, maybe a draw was fair."
Stoke boss Mark Hughes was frustrated by not just the handball appeal, but another penalty shout after Crouch's header against the woodwork.
"We've had two penalties not given," he said. "The obvious one was when Crouch headed towards goal and Smalling basically batted the ball down.
"Then, when Crouch hits the post, you see Geoff Cameron waiting to put the ball in and he gets taken out."
On his team's overall performance, Hughes said: "Tactically, we were spot -on, they found it very difficult to get their key players on the ball.
"I'm disappointed but pleased we've got more points on the board and a good performance once again."
United manager Louis van Gaal admitted that his team were below par and were lucky to escape with a point that stretched their unbeaten run to 10 matches.
"We didn't deserve any more than a draw," said the Dutchman. "They were closer to a winning goal than us. We should have played better today."
The United boss revealed that Ashley Young could be out for "many weeks" after he limped off with a hamstring injury.
Van Gaal also admitted that his side "had difficulties defending long balls" in an awkward swirling wind.
Jonny Evans was particularly thankful to see former United teammate Mame Biram Diouf miss a clear chance after the Northern Ireland international misjudged a long ball.
"It was scrappy, hard to judge the ball with the wind, but that's the challenge for us," said Evans.
"(Diouf) made a bit of a mess of it and I'm thankful for that."
Crouch admitted that Stoke had to go "back to the old school" given the weather conditions.
"With the conditions today, it was a little bit back to the old-school days," said the lanky striker.
"It's another string to our bow, we've got good players now and we can get the ball down and play, but we are strong at set-pieces - although we conceded from one today, which was disappointing."
Crouch has been linked with a move to West Brom to join former Stoke manager Tony Pulis, but Hughes insisted that there is "nothing" in those reports, adding "Peter's a big part of what we do here."
The Stoke boss also revealed that playmaker Bojan Krkic will be out for another "10 days to a couple of weeks" with a hamstring problem. - PA Sport.