Manchester United huffed and puffed at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday before a last-gasp effort by Wayne Rooney – his record-breaking 250th to become club’s all-time leading scorer – helped saved the blushes of manager Jose Mourinho and the hordes of travelling fans who still harbour a glimmer of hope that the Red Devils could still hunt runaway leaders Chelsea down to claim the Premier League title.
This was a full-squad with all the regulars including leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But the performance, if not the result, laid bare a stark reality: United are gradually becoming Zlatan-dependent.
An off-day for the big Swede demonstrated that Manchester United may have become too reliant on the striker which means when he’s unavailable or marked out, the team will struggle.
Ibrahimovic has scored 14 league goals; Pogba and Mata are the next-highest scorers with four each.
With the former Barcelona frontman marked superbly by Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi, Mourinho needed one of his other forwards to seize responsibility as the game threatened to drift away from United.
Paul Pogba had his moments, almost equalising with a fierce volley in the first half and prising Stoke open with several driving runs and astute passes, while Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were pretty, but ineffective in the areas that mattered.
That lack of ruthlessness continues to harm United’s chances of Champions League qualification while Mourinho deserves criticism for an overly functional starting XI.
Stoke are vulnerable to pace but Marcus Rashford was on the bench – and Anthony Martial was left out altogether.
United are still mathematically in contention in four competitions and Mourinho will need to get his other players scoring if he desires to win any of the four.
Tactically, he could tweak the team around in such a way that it becomes less-reliant on one single player but optimizes its efficiency as a collective fighting unit.
Or, on the contrary, he could keep hoping that the 35-year old will keep being in pristine condition and keep scoring more and more goals to see United through to the glory days.