Manchester United vs Stoke – Three key battles

Credit - The FA
Credit - The FA /

Manchester United will travel to the Britannia to face Stoke in what could be Louis van Gaal’s last match as manager if his side fails to secure a victory.

According to numerous reports, the Dutch manager was given an ultimatum of winning two out of three matches against Norwich, Stoke, and Chelsea. Having fallen surprisingly to Norwich on the previous weekend, Manchester United will need to win the next two to keep their manager in charge.

Unfortunately, traveling to face Stoke has proven difficult even for the Premier League’s top clubs – Manchester City was the most recent giant to lose at the Britannia, 2-0 on December 5th. Manchester United haven’t won a match across all competitions since November 25th against Watford (three draws, three losses), suggesting a victory would be against their recent form.

On the contrary, Stoke have been in tremendous form through exceptional technical play from the key players. Van Gaal will need to improve his defense that has surrendered seven goals over the last three games while also improving the attack that has been one of the worst in the League thus far this season. Several individual battles could be the keys to victory for either side, including these three battles:

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Matteo Darmian vs Marko Arnautovic

Assuming Darmian starts for Manchester United at right-back, he’ll have to contend with a decent attacker in Arnautovic. The Italian defender last featured for the Reds in the loss to Wolfsburg in the Champions League, but with Ashley Young inadequately filling in last week, Darmian could return to the squad. After an impressive start to the season, the 26-year-old has been average since.

Against Stoke’s left winger, he’ll need to improve his game drastically to secure United’s right side. Arnautovic has been in decent form of late, with the decisive two goals in the victory over Manchester City. He’s got a good combination of pace, strength, and technique to challenge any defender. Darmian’s best chance of containing the Austrian winger will be to pin him back in defense, something United can do if they maintain possession.

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Michael Carrick vs Xerdan Shaqiri

The English international will come up against one of the Premier League’s finest attacking midfielders, as Shaqiri has immense technical ability. Both midfielders are better in attack than defense – Carrick can shred the opposition’s back line with cutting passes, while his Swiss counterpart can create attacks from nothing with clever individual play and incisive through balls.

However, both are less formidable in defense. Manchester United’s midfield general can make an interception to halt an attack, but when he’s under direct pressure he doesn’t have the speed or tackling ability to match up. Shaqiri is also weaker in defense, but primarily due to his positioning as an attacking player.

As such, if Manchester United are to win the match, it will be crucial for Carrick to contribute his trademark passes while containing Shaqiri in defense.

Wayne Rooney vs Ryan Shawcross

With the Manchester United defense conceding easily in recent matches, the pressure could be on the attacking line to keep pace. The Red Devil captain will be the leader of the line, but his faltering form could play into the hands of Stoke. Despite his assist in the loss against Norwich, the England captain has shown signs of decline for some time now.

He’ll come up against one of Stoke’s better defenders in Shawcross. The 28-year-old has been a rock at the heart of the defense, particularly in set pieces. Rooney’s best chance of having an impact might be putting pressure on the Stoke defender as he looks to release pressure from the back. The centre-back is weak in possession, meaning United’s striker could look to capitalize on unforced errors.

Next: United injury updates ahead of Stoke

Goals have been hard to come by for Manchester United all season long, so the team won’t be concerned with how they come as long as they do.