1) Stoke and mirrors
Aw wow! Three goals – away from home! A first-ever point at the Liberty Stadium! The scorching white-hot kiss of progress is at long last ravishing our red and white lips, no?
Erm, not quite. Despite scoring two good goals and finally (successfully) changing our penalty taker, there were precious few positives to emerge from our trip to South Wales, in what was Stoke’s worst performance since September’s home calamity against Norwich.
Though we were impressively clinical in scoring with each of our three shots on target, for the most part we were a complete shambles – shapeless, second to everything, hideously incapable of keeping the ball and generally incompetent. But for our goalkeeper (again), the hosts’ profligacy, and good, old-fashioned luck, we’d have lost this by a cricket score.
Though the result is undeniably a good one, performance-wise there should be an entire wall of alarm bells ringing, like in Doc Brown’s house at the start of Back to the Future.
Yet against a Swansea side 72 hours removed from a 2,500 mile journey back from Russia, who were without two key men in Michu and Vorm, we started surprisingly brightly. We asked the early questions, pressed high up the pitch and won two corners in the opening 90 seconds. Keeping the tempo up, we were duly rewarded after seven minutes when Jon Walters collected Crouch’s flick-on and went clear, celebrating his 100th consecutive start (slightly later than I’d suggested) with a cool finish to make it 1-0.
As the Swans came back at us however, panic set in, and we presented them with chance after chance. Thankfully, Wilfried Bony missed them all, planting a free header straight at Begovic, putting another one wide and being thwarted by the Bosnian after an appalling back pass from Erik Pieters put him through on goal.
It was a reasonably bad-tempered affair, featuring eight bookings, the first flashpoint coming when Ashley Williams clattered into a nasty studs-up challenge on Steven Nzonzi, for which he was lucky to avoid a dismissal. Nzonzi also escaped when he stupidly raised his arms to despicable wind-up merchant Chico Flores, who should also have been punished for throwing himself to the deck and writhing around in an attempt to get the Frenchman dismissed. This sort of thing really should be clamped down on – maybe a klaxon could sound every time it happens, the playacting replayed on the big screen and a five-minute ‘point and laugh’ period enforced?
Somehow, the next time the ball ended up in the net it was again Stoke who were celebrating. A delightful triangle of passes between Walters, Crouch and Ireland saw the midfielder race into the box, control and fire past Tremmel to put us in dreamland.
We backed off and backed off but made it to the interval unscathed and could, despite our disjointed, jittery, loose performance, feel pretty pleased with ourselves. We’d done what we hadn’t been doing in the league – taken our chances when they fell to us.
It was clear, nevertheless, that an early Swans goal in the second half would have us in trouble, and after a brief spell of resistance it arrived in disappointingly basic fashion, De Guzman’s cross from the right headed in by Bony, with both provider and scorer allowed all the time they needed.
Stoke defended deeper and deeper and on the rare occasions when someone did break, there was so little support for them that the ball always ended up back with the home side long before we could do anything with it. Mark Hughes made some decidedly curious changes, replacing Arnautovic with Etherington (to zero effect) and attempting to shore up the middle of the park with the powder puff combo of Adam and Wilson. Swansea, on the other hand, had the livewire Nathan Dyer and Jonjo Shelvey to throw on, and they each caused us significant problems. It was Dyer who would level the scores with 17 to go, pouncing to bounce a bobbling shot into the corner that Begovic stood no chance with.
You really did fear the worst for us after that, as we’d long surrendered the midfield and our full backs were consistently going AWOL, and sure enough Swansea completed the turnaround within 12 minutes with another elementary goal, Shelvey turning Shawcross too easily and Huth losing Bony again, for the Ivorian to sidefoot his second of the game despite putting in a largely terrible all round performance.
When the board revealed five minutes of injury time to be played it seemed as if Michael Laudrup’s team would kills us off altogether, so superior had they been. Then came the twist. We forced a corner and Asmir Begovic came up, seeking a second goal in as many games. Ryan Shawcross was the man who got his head to the ball however and it appeared to come off two Swansea players before going wide. We awaited another corner for what would surely be our last chance, only for referee Bobby Madley to unfathomably point to the spot, apparently for handball by Wayne Routledge. Every replay I’ve seen makes the incident look innocuous, and there was a distinct lack of appeal from our players in contrast to the horrified disbelief etched on the faces of Swansea’s men. We weren’t about to gaze mouthwards at this particular gift horse however, and Charlie Adam nervelessly blasted home for a richly undeserved equaliser.
“The result”, Xavi Hernandez famously said, “is an imposter”. That was certainly the case in the Valleys on Sunday, but all we can do is greedily grasp it with both hands and hope that the next game brings an improvement in terms of points and performance.
2) Defensive chickens come home to roost
Last week, I warned that we couldn’t keep getting away with defending as poorly as we had been, and that point was emphatically driven home by Swansea this week. We conceded three of the most basic, sloppy goals you can imagine – goals you’d scream at your mates for giving away in a kickabout in the park. We were lucky not to concede double that number.
Individually, the back four were, to a man, dreadful. This was Geoff Cameron’s worst game for some time, his positioning, decision-making and use of the ball all leaving a lot to be desired. Pieters was even worse, with much of Swansea’s attacking coming down his flank. He left huge gaps, nearly gave one goal away with an abhorrent backpass and was nowhere to be seen when De Guzman swung over the ball for Swansea’s first. The Dutchman has had his moments since arriving but away from home he has provided cause for concern.
Shawcross and Huth were overrun and overworked, but hardly covered themselves in glory either, with Huth in particular having a shocker, appearing confused and ill at ease when it came to positioning and losing his man throughout the afternoon.
Again the midfield didn’t exactly help matters either, with Ireland failing to track back, Palacios decent enough on the ball but non-existent off it and Nzonzi now lapsing into outright liability with his awful attitude and casual play. It’s time the Frenchman was dropped – he’s an active thorn in our side at the moment.
More worrying than the individual stinkers though is how poor we are defending as a team. It seems to be optional these days. Having spent being organised to within an inch of their lives, the team’s attitude now is akin to a classroom of unruly kids faced with a hapless supply teacher – anything goes. Every cross into the box on Sunday caused us problems. There was a distinct lack of interest in winning the second ball. The pressing game we developed early on was soon discarded, and by the second half we weren’t getting anywhere near tight enough, and after we lost the ball several players could be found actually standing and watching as Swansea surged forward.
We displayed the appetites of a relegation side.
3) Does Sparky know where it’s going wrong?
Despite the three goals, this frequently bore the hallmarks of the worst of Tony Pulis’ away days – negative changes, sitting back too early and being wasteful in possession. As discussed, we only actually managed three shots on target – it’s a good thing we scored them all.
What we had was the worst of both worlds – the drawbacks of the last manager’s approach only without his devotion to defending. Whereas Pulis’ had a gameplan for our travels that pretty much never worked, it’s not currently clear that we have one at all.
Mark Hughes has hardly allayed these fears with his post-match comments. Hughes seem to veer between a shrugging ‘these things happen stance’ (“there will be times when we’re going to be elated and times when we are going to be disappointed”) and flat-out denial (“we will always try to be positive, and we were against Swansea…to concede three goals in that manner isn’t what we have been about…The substitutions Swansea made gave them a bit more energy and so the momentum totally shifted”). Pish and fipsy Mark. Instead of ho-humming, do your job and organise the defence. Swansea were in control long before the changes, we sat back after the second goal and we’ve been defending poorly for weeks.
These weren’t the words of a manager who knows what the problems are, and that is the biggest concern of all.
4) Goals provide the silver lining
You can’t afford to miss chances when you’re in a dogfight and so it was impressive that we were as clinical as we were at the Liberty. There was also a pleasing mix in the goals we scored. The first was deliciously old school, as Ryan Shawcross pumped the ball forward, Peter Crouch flicked it on and Walters got in behind and kept his head to neatly slot the ball into the net off the post. Even though I’m not convinced I’d start him regularly, Walters showed what he does bring to the team in getting into those dangerous positions. You couldn’t help but be pleased for him as he marked his milestone with a goal.
Our second was excellent and the best league goal we’ve scored this season. Peter Crouch’s first time ball into the box was good; Stephen Ireland’s control was even better as he brought the ball down beautifully and sidefooted past Tremmel. Crouch was our best outfield player on the day and having midfielders running beyond him into the box when we’re attacking is definitely the best way to use him. Ireland has also got himself into dangerous positions this season, clearly wants to get himself among the goals and it paid off very well here.
Hearts were in mouths when Charlie Adam stepped up to secure our ill-gotten gains in the 95th minute, but most of us watching were a lot more confident with the chunky Scot over the ball than Mr Walters and it’s good that the duty has been passed on. Adam’s spot kick was powerful but precise and reflected an admirable coolness under pressure.
It’s hard to argue however that Adam warrants a place in our best side, and Hughes seems to agree, which begs the question of who should have the responsibility of our regular XI. Anyone but the number 19, please…
5) Boskamp revisited
Though aspects of the performance were reminiscent of some of our poorer away showings of recent years, overall this season so far brings to mind the Boskamp season. Strip it down to the basics, removing the bizarre sideshows and the fact that the manager is a ram-headed Welshman as opposed to a chip-munching lunatic from the Low Countries, and the parallels aren’t hard to spot. A new manager facing a difficult job of whipping a ragtag squad into shape. A more open style of play and a passing game that shows promise at times but also proves worryingly anaemic. A lack of bottle on the pitch. Disorganisation and uncertainty in abundance.
Perhaps that’s overstating things a touch but the two seasons aren’t a million miles apart. Seven years ago, we ultimately stayed up because the Icelanders, in a last throw of the dice, coughed up some money to bring in the likes of Bangoura, Hoefkens and Chadwick (plus Paul Gallagher on loan). Peter Coates will have to do likewise once again if this story is to avoid an altogether unhappier ending.