Jose Mourinho had given short shrift to the premature title talk around his team in the wake of three convincing wins. He has never been the sort to allow players to fall into a comfort zone, which helps to explain why the Manchester United manager was emphasising in mid-week how he “doesn’t like the sea to be flat”.
Well, Stoke City certainly ensured there were a few waves on a turbulent evening at the bet365 stadium when Mark Hughes’s side took the lead and then were forced to come from behind to claim a deserved draw. Maxim Choupo-Moting was Stoke’s hero, the Cameroon forward scoring twice in what looks an excellent free summer signing from Schalke.
Jack Butland more than played his part, too, the England goalkeeper saving well from his own defender Kurt Zouma late on shortly after Romelu Lukaku had blown an excellent chance to win it for United when he fired Anthony Martial’s cross over the bar from close range.
United must have thought they had done enough to win it when Lukaku edged them in front after Marcus Rashford had cancelled out Choupo-Moting’s first goal but Stoke were dogged, determined and not short on a touch of quality. It was a tasty affair on the pitch, and off it, too.
When Mourinho sidled over to Hughes to talk about a foul Pogba had made that the Stoke manager was complained about, Hughes shoved his counterpart away. One wonders where his players get their edge.
United have found it heavy going in Stoke since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Lost, drawn, lost, drawn is their record in the league over the past four seasons. Tellingly, they trailed in all of those games and it was the same story here.
Mourinho will have been relieved that it only took a few minutes to restore parity after Stoke looked like taking a slender lead into the interval when Maxim Choupo-Moting put them in front with the first period drawing to a close. But the United manager’s pre-match expectations of a difficult, draining exercise were borne out. Understandably, he had sought to guard against that by stiffening the midfield.
Playmaker Juan Mata made way for Ander Herrera and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was pushed out of the No. 10 role to a position wide on the right but the change seemed to disrupt the attacking fluidity United had showcased in their opening three matches. Marcus Rashford’s cunning and relentless running ensured Stoke’s aggressive three-man defence could ill afford to nod off.
Certainly in the formidable Kurt Zouma, Stoke had a centre-half revelling in the challenge in front of him but this felt like a more workmanlike United. Stoke, in truth, made them fight for every inch. Mark Hughes had claimed United had “areas that are a little loose positionally” which his side would try to exploit. Presumably by that, he meant the left back area. If there is a weakness in this United team it is there – or at least it is accentuated when Matteo Darmian is deployed in the position. He is a curious one, Darmian. He offers little going forward and yet is no one’s definition of a sturdy Italian full-back.
Stoke’s brightest moments in that opening 45 minutes originated from United’s left flank, as did the goal. Had Darren Fletcher swept a ball out to Mame Biram Diouf on United’s right, there is every chance Antonio Valencia would have closed him down, or at least done enough to put off the Stoke player. Darmian, by contrast, was too slow, trundling along rather than putting everything in to get to Diouf. Take nothing away from the cross, it was a beauty, and Choupo-Moting made no mistake with the finish but the defending could have been better.
Mourinho bowed his head in the dug-out. He knew his team would now have to dig in even more. Hughes just wanted his side to get to half-time in front but the disappointment was soon his. Mkhitaryan whipped in a corner that was headed on by Nemanja Matic at the front post. Paul Pogba, unmarked, had a simple header but seemed to get his bearings slightly wrong only to watch the ball bounce in off the back of Rashford’s head. Hughes claimed offside but referee Neil Swarbrick was not having it.
Stoke had twice got behind United’s back four in the opening exchanges. Eric Bailly recovered to thwart Choupo-Moting first time around, then Jese shot across goal after Darmian and Phil Jones allowed goalkeeper Jack Butland’s long ball to slice through the pair of them.
It’s hard to know how England manager Gareth Southgate thinks Joe Hart remains a better bet for the goalkeeper’s jersey than Butland. Twice he frustrated Rashford, first denying his England team-mate after Pogba had split Stoke’s defence with a sublime through ball and then palming away a clever, disguised low shot from Rashford when other goalkeepers would have pushed the ball into the lurking Lukaku’s path.
Goals were shipped on both sides but, in truth, that had little to do with either goalkeeper. David De Gea was just as brilliant in United’s net. His instinctive reflex save to tip over Jese’s terrific volley from Erik Pieters’ outstanding left-wing cross was a show-stopper.
No one in the game is better at that sort of save than the agile Spaniard. It was just a shame he was rendered powerless from what followed at the resulting corner. Xherdan Shaqiri whipped in the ball, Jones slipped on his backside and Choupo-Moting could not believe his luck as he was left unchallenged to head home for his second. Mourinho will have been furious.
United had worked hard to force themselves in front. Darmian had made some amends for his earlier fumbling when he nicked the ball off Joe Allen, darted forward and slipped the ball into Mkhitaryan’s path. Lukaku timed his run well, Kevin Wimmer playing him on, and although Butland saved his first shot, the Belgian gobbled up the rebound.
Neither manager seemed ready to settle for a point. Mourinho stuck on Mata and Anthony Martial and soon after Hughes replaced Jese, who had led the line so well, with Saido Berahino. It had been a classic English scrap – thundering tackles, plenty of aggression but no whinging, no moaning, a game played by men for men.