Three Points: Points fairly shared between Stoke and Manchester United
STOKE-ON-TRENT, England -- A trio of observations on Stoke and Manchester United's 1-1 draw in the Premier League.
1. Another mixed away day for United
Louis van Gaal told his players to improve their away record this week but a point was all they could muster at the Britannia Stadium on a windy, grey day in Stoke. Manchester United dominated possession without creating chances, wobbled horribly at the back, survived what looked to be a clear penalty claim, yet extended their unbeaten run to 10 games.
United remain an odd, unbalanced side. This is only to be expected, of course, as we remain in the first year of a dramatic and costly overhaul. Yet there are issues that precede Van Gaal and David Moyes that continue to linger irritatingly, like a party guest in your kitchen at 5am.
With Ander Herrera on the bench and Darren Fletcher, out of sorts, alongside him, United still lack control of the central areas. Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney have their positives as midfielders, though few of them were in evidence here, as they were quickly overwhelmed by a midfield with the presence and tenacity offered by Glenn Whelan and Steven Nzonzi. Michael Carrick performed diligently in front of the defence but the options in front of him were constantly restricted by Stoke's pressing and their awareness.
But while the midfield remains as weak as it has done for several seasons, the defence has declined dramatically. It's hard to know where to start with United's back three -- Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans -- outside of pushing a shopping list under the door of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. They're not good enough, they've never been good enough, and it's astonishing that one of the biggest teams in the world continues to think that they might be.
It took only two minutes for Stoke to open them up. Smalling lost Peter Crouch on Marko Arnautovic's corner and Jones lost Ryan Shawcross, who scooped the knockdown into the back of the net. Smalling would later redeem himself with two fine saving tackles, but for Jones and Evans the ordeal was only just beginning.
Evans looked anxious from the start, giving the ball away once in the middle of the park and then, more damagingly, on the edge of his own area after 19 minutes. As soon as Mame Biram Diouf began to canter up behind the Northern Irishman, everyone in the stadium knew what was going to happen.
Evans attempted to hold the Stoke striker off but offered all the resistance of wet toilet paper. He was fortunate that Diouf -- who only scored once for United in his three-year spell at the club -- slipped in on goal and lofted the ball over David de Gea's goal. Jones' failure to hold off Crouch brought a similar incident four minutes later.
2. Attacking threat is not consistent
United found their way back into the game in the 26th minute with a set piece of their own. Rooney's corner was headed on by Michael Carrick and Radamel Falcao contorted himself to convert the chance from close range. With the exception of a free kick, blasted high over the bar by Rooney, it was their first proper chance of the game.
In United's favour is that they always have enough players of the highest calibre to get them out of trouble. They may not boast a confident defence or a formidable midfield, but there are players elsewhere who only need a single chance to score. Which is handy because that's often all they'll get.
Falcao's equalising goal was well-taken but he and Robin van Persie found the going tough once again. This was the first time the Colombian striker has played three games in a week since joining United, and it was no surprise that he was withdrawn early.
After so much time out following a serious knee injury, there's little to be gained in overworking him. Criticism of him seems a little churlish, especially given his goal, but there will come a time when he will be expected to offer more.
Van Persie has had his own terrible luck with injuries in the past but there was something unconvincing about his display for which recuperation could be no excuse. This is the player who galvanised the club in 2012 after signing from Arsenal and spearheaded their romp to the title.
However, he doesn't look like that player anymore. He too will need to sharpen up in 2015 or even his close relationship with Van Gaal will provide little protection. In a season when no team outside of Chelsea and Manchester City look capable of playing consistently excellent football, that may be enough to secure a Champions League place. As for the title itself, that will have to wait.
3. A worthy result for Stoke
Yes, Stoke are still good at set pieces and, yes, as Eden Hazard discovered last week thanks to Phil Bardsley, they're not averse to an old-fashioned challenge, but under Mark Hughes there is rather more to them than that.
This not a collection of rock trolls playing smash ball; it's an organised football team capable of playing with variety and verve. And when they start as they did here, like a home side expecting to win, they look dangerous.
Arnautovic and Jon Walters were excellent, offering a cutting edge going forward without neglecting their defensive duties. Whelan and Nzonzi were tireless in the centre and shifted the ball about well.
Up front, meanwhile, Crouch was having the time of his life, looming over Smalling to dominate the box. He came close to scoring the winner in the second half, bouncing a header off the post and, four minutes after that, Stoke were denied a penalty that could easily have sealed the victory.
Smalling could easily argue that he had no time to react to the ball when it was smashed into his arm in the 69th minute, but he'd have a harder job arguing that his hands could be considered the sort of natural position that would indemnify him against punishment. Stoke's supporters were furious with referee Michael Oliver, and with good reason.
Hughes' men can take solace from the fact that this was no plucky draw snatched against the odds. They were well worth their point. Stoke accrued more points in 2014 -- 54 -- than in any other calendar year since they arrived in the Premier League. On this evidence of this, 2015 will be just as profitable.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.