Manchester United twice came from a goal down to salvage a valuable 3-2 win over Stoke City at Old Trafford. With Marko Arnautovic’s free-kick late in the first half having put Stoke back ahead after Robin van Perise had cancelled out Peter Crouch’s early opener, United were staring down the barrel of yet another early disappointment in David Moyes’s reign. But this time they rescued themselves through two goals in quick succession in the final 12 minutes from Wayne Rooney and substitute Javier Hernandez.
The relief was clear to see in Moyes’s reaction on the sideline. Having won just one of four previous Premier League home games, a draw, never mind a defeat, would have left United in real peril. Moyes will surely now be hoping that the result and the dramatic manner of it can provide a springboard for better things going forward.
In truth, there was little other than the result by which to be encouraged. United were a shambles at the back and could have conceded more than the two goals they did to a Stoke side that had failed to score in their previous three matches. And, despite finding the net three times themselves, there was little to savor at the other end. The fluidity that was on show in the second half against Real Sociedad in midweek was sorely missing. Stoke boss Mark Hughes can reflect on an encouraging performance by his side, but should be disappointed at coming away with nothing after missed chances in the first half and late defensive lapses.
After conceding a late goal to drop points at home to Southampton last weekend, United will have been keen for an early start here. They got anything but, falling behind in just four minutes. Erik Pieters was allowed to get down the left and put in a deep cross that Crouch was left free to volley at goal. Although David de Gea made a fine initial save, Jonny Evans disastrously cleared the ball straight at the prone Crouch and the former Liverpool striker was able to poke the ball into the net.
That defensive calamity set the tone for further incompetence to come. Indeed, Stoke really should have moved further ahead. Another cross from the left, this time by the impressive Arnautovic, was met by a header back across goal by Jonathan Walters and Evans allowed Crouch to volley at goal, but just over the bar. An even better chance soon fell the visitor’s way. Incredibly, Crouch was allowed to chest a simple ball down into Walter’s path and he should have done better than volleying close enough to De Gea for him to make a save.
Things weren’t going much better for United further forward. The tempo and interplay displayed in midweek was nowhere in sight. Nani, brought into the side ahead of Antonio Valencia, was at his frustrating worst. On far too many occasions he conceded possession, while also slowing the pace of United’s play down as he tried his individual tricks. Still, the Portuguese produced two of United’s best moments of the half. After putting in a threatening shot that went just wide from 25 yards, he supplied the cross to get his team level.
The deep ball into the box went over the head of U.S. defender Geoff Cameron to allow Rooney to put in a header that Asmir Begovic repelled but only as far as Van Persie, who volleyed into the net from six yards out.
In times gone by that would have been a catalyst for United to take control of the game. But that is not the way things are going at Old Trafford right now. And within two minutes the hosts were behind once more. United’s defensive woes continued with Phil Jones conceding a needless free-kick on the edge of his own box; an error for which he would be punished severely. Arnautovic, with spells at Inter Milan and Werder Bremen behind him testament to his talent and arguably his failure to thus far fulfill it, produced a fine free-kick that curled in off the underside of the crossbar with De Gea just unable to keep it out.
Again an onslaught might have been expected of the hosts after the interval. Again it didn’t arrive. Nani’s exit was greeted with boos for the winger, while there were cheers for the arrival of young sensation Adnan Januzaj. United’s lack of width became even more pronounced, with now Kagawa and Januzaj cutting in from the flanks, but the teenager again provided a spark.
Still, United were doing little to suggest that they wouldn’t drop yet more points at this early stage of Moyes’s reign. It was left to the only player to have arguably met expectations for United so far this season to come good once again. Stephen Ireland was caught snoozing from Van Persie’s near-post corner, allowing Rooney to peel back toward the ball and glance a superb header into the far top corner.
The atmosphere inside Old Trafford had now shifted. Suddenly there was raucous support from the stands for United to push on and grab all three points. And the champions responded. Being so narrow further forward, any natural width was going to have to come from the full-backs. Evra it was who got forward toward the byline and supplied a superb teasing cross that allowed Hernandez to display his trademark movement to get free and header into the net from inside the six-yard box. Moyes’s reaction suggested his belief that it could be a turning point, but for that to be true his side will have to play an awful lot better.