Van Gaal admits Potters were worth more than a point
Two points dropped or one gained? The table will ultimately decide in May. Louis van Gaal paid Stoke the compliment of expressing relief, claiming his Manchester United team were perhaps fortunate to extend their unbeaten Premier League run to 10 games.
Despite dominating possession, United were always vulnerable to the Stoke cosh, and at the game's end a point, their third draw in succession away from Old Trafford, had the feel of a bonus.
A goal down inside two minutes was no way to let in the New Year. The lingering weakness that Van Gaal seeks to eradicate at the heart of the United defence cost them as they failed to pick up first Peter Crouch and then Ryan Shawcross, who diverted the ball into the United net unchallenged from a corner.
It might have been worse had Mame Diouf not missed the target with only David De Gea to beat after hustling Jonny Evans into an error in the 19th minute.
In the second half, Stoke should have had at least one penalty, when Chris Smalling handled Crouch's header, and perhaps a second when Geoff Cameron was brought down.
Stoke are by no means expansive but they are organised and come with a plan.
The battering-ram approach was augmented by a vicious westerly that did little to promote United's preference for effete triangles. Defending in the face of it was more a matter of caprice than science, as Van Gaal acknowledged.
"The circumstances (conditions) were not great," he said, "but you have to adapt. It is not so easy with the long balls in the air. We are not so tall. Nzonzi is taller. Crouch is taller. It is not the first goal we have let in like that."
That said, Van Gaal made no excuses and did not seek to dismiss Stoke's approach: "Stoke deserved the victory more. I cannot say we were the better team today. Stoke was closer to the victory with the ball against the post and the chance to Diouf. They had two major chances and we didn't create too much, despite having time and space anda lot of the ball."
That the draw, achieved via the predatory boot of Radamal Falcao, who reacted quickest to Michael Carrick's flick from Wayne Rooney's corner, was considered fortunate is a fair measure of where the Van Gaal project is after six months.
A pleasing pattern is emerging on the pitch and the returns are on an upward trajectory, but three draws on the spin away from home tell their own story.
The point, however, ensured United go into the FA Cup weekend in third place, something Van Gaal would happily sign for.
STOKE CITY 1
MAN UNITED 1
STOKE: Begovic, Cameron, Shawcross, Muniesa, Pieters, N'Zonzi, Whelan, Arnautovic (Assaidi, 81 mins), Walters, Diouf, Crouch.
Subs not used: Butland, Bardsley, Huth, Wilson, Adam, Shenton
Goal: Shawcross 2
MAN UTD: De Gea, Young (Rafael, 75 mins), Jones, Smalling, Evans, Shaw (Januzaj, 64 mins), Carrick, Mata, Rooney, van Persie, Falcao (Herrera, 64 mins)
Subs not used: Lindegaard, Blackett, Fletcher, Wilson.
Goal: Falcao 26
Man of the match: Peter Crouch (pictured)
Match rating: 8/10
Referee: Michael Oliver