The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 3-2 Arsenal 06.12.14

 

1)  Victory over Wenger tastes as sweet as ever

I don’t know about you, but I feel absolutely knackered after that. God only knows how the players can even muster the energy to get out of bed after the huge team effort that secured a huge and memorable win at the Britannia on Saturday. Regardless of the opposition, we needed a result and performance after three disappointing defeats in a row, and we got both. It feels somehow wrong to bandy about words like ‘warriors’ and ‘heroes’ after the presence of the veterans pre-match offered a reminder that the petty squabbles that surround this fixture are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. But we can be proud of our team – everyone gave everything.

Seven seasons on, the visit of Arsenal still feels like a big occasion. It’s one the players are usually bang up for, and one where the crowd is always at its most vocal and vociferous. The bond between the two is never stronger than when the Gunners come to town.

The influence of a home crowd can be overstated sometimes, but there was no denying the role it played on Saturday, feeling like a character in itself in the unfolding drama. From the first kick to the last, the stadium was at its loudest and most intimidating, ensuring that Arsene Wenger was essentially a prisoner in his own dugout.

The first half was simply beautiful – as good a 45 minutes as we’ve produced this century. It was a Stoke City Premier League greatest hit package, encapsulating everything from the storming, hell-for-leather early stuff – tempo, height, power, desire, aggression – to the latter day Sgt. Pepper/Pet Sounds experimental stuff based around possession, slick passing and twinkle-toed no. 10s.

The second half was like being shown Marathon Man at the dentist’s, or having Final Destination as your in-flight film: a terrifying, hysteria-inducing, exhausting ordeal – but one we successfully battled through to take what we deserved.

“We are currently experiencing turbulence.”

We set the tone with that remarkable early goal, Peter Crouch taking around 20 seconds to announce his return, and Arsenal, though they did muster the occasional half-decent opportunity (Giroud missed an absolute sitter in the first 10 minutes), for the most part looked completely overawed and unready for what we threw at them.

If the first was a gift for Crouch after Calum Chambers, with the England manager watching in the stands, made a right old hash of Nzonzi’s cross, the second was a work of art. We’d been stroking the ball around nicely when Geoff Cameron found Jon Walters wide on the right, and he whipped in a superb fast, low ball. Suddenly, there was Bojan, steaming in from nowhere to poke home first time.

It’s ironic, given Wenger’s penchant for ignoring the defective areas of his side to stockpile fancy no 10s, that the best creative player on the pitch (again) was Bojan – a player who, like Alexis Sanchez, arrived from Barcelona, but at a 70th of the price. He was at the heart of our best play, weaving magic between the lines, whether it was linking with Nzonzi, playing in the wide men or going it alone. Every touch, every shimmy, every drop of the shoulder was sprinkled with stardust.

Things were starting to get silly by the time we even managed to grab a goal from a corner, Walters, another one returning having missed the Man Utd game through injury, adding to his assist with his fourth goal of the season by stabbing into the roof of the net after Crouch had effortlessly won a header from Bojan’s delivery.

3-0 after 44 minutes, and you very much got the feeling that the scoring would continue. Stoke appeared to have addressed some of the problems that had been plaguing them, looking more ruthless in the final third and more solid at the back. Arsenal looked as if it was all too much for them. The half time whistle saved them.

The entrance of Danny Welbeck for the second half did make a difference, and Arsenal made a more lively start to proceedings, with both the former Man Utd man and the dangerous Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain having chances. Sanchez looked certain to reduce the deficit when he intercepted Nzonzi’s casual pass and raced past Muniesa, then around Begovic, but he was just off-balance enough to clip his shot against the post instead.

Stoke still posed a threat however, and the Gunners were still rattled, as evidenced by £37m Sanchez taking perhaps the worst corner of all time, gently rolling it into Begovic’s arms. Then came the turning point. As we broke once more through Bojan, the little Catalan cut inside and drilled a shot sweetly beyond Martinez to make it four. Players and fans celebrated, the scoreboard changed…and then, after a lengthy period of time, the ref was signalling no goal and awarding Arsenal a free kick. The suggestion was that Diouf was offside and in the goalkeeper’s eyeline. Yet that didn’t seem the case at the time and subsequently was proven not to be the case by replays.

The amount of time that elapsed before the goal was disallowed, and the fact that it very much appears to have been the referee’s call as opposed to either of his assistants’, has the faint whiff of something fishy about it. Failed Howard Webb cloning experiment Anthony Taylor has form for helping out the big sides against Stoke. It was he who bottled giving Paul Scholes a second yellow card at Old Trafford two seasons ago, despite thinking nothing of doling out the yellows to our players for similar and lesser offences. He was also the man who awarded the infamous ‘Spanish penalty’ for Liverpool last January. His reffing style on Saturday was similar, booking Crouch and Muniesa for nothing offences while taking no action against Giroud for an appalling piece of playacting (from a man as addicted to cheating on the pitch as he is off it).

That denial knocked the stuffing out of us a little, especially since Arsenal won a penalty with their next attack, Diouf clumsily clipping Flamini’s heels. Santi Cazorla, easily Arsenal’s best player on the day, put away the spot kick, and three and a half sides of the ground felt their sphincters tighten. With good reason too, as it happened. Two minutes later, Aaron Ramsey was left ridiculously unmarked at a corner and his low volley made it 3-2…and suddenly we were staring into the abyss of the most painful of collapses.

Arsenal kept turning the screws, a situation partly of our own making after substitutions again had the effect of making us look a poorer side. Begovic saved from Welbeck, Cazorla and Podolski. Then some breathing space was granted when the visitors were reduced to 10 men, after the dismissal of cocky Johnny Bravo lookalike Chambers, who could have no complaints whatsoever over his two cynical fouls.

The future of the England defence, ladies and gentleman. “Woah Mama” indeed.

We did the necessary to see the game out.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was a very strong one, and even the second half demonstrated that we had the character to withstand the Arsenal fightback. It was vital that we stopped the rot and picked up some wins in this wickedly tough sequence of games over Christmas, and that urgency was ratcheted up after defeat to Burnley.

Ultimately though, this win, fine as it was, changes little. We know we have the measure of Arsenal at home. We know we can get results against the sides who come to play football and attack. The real acid test will come at home to West Brom three days after Christmas – the next ‘bread and butter’ home game against a team who will likely sit deep and give us little space.

For now though, there’s little left to do but savour, once again, the grimace tightly welded to Wenger’s face as he headed for the tunnel. It just doesn’t get old.

 

2)  Hughes gets it so so right, then nearly so, so wrong.

The starting XI raised a few concerns, but they were shown to be nonsense within a matter of seconds. On paper, there was little creativity in the side, with no guile out wide and no pace through the middle. We were 3-0 up by half time. The lack of a sitter gave the midfield a lightweight look. Instead the energy of the midfielders powered our display. The back four looked more settled and composed than it has in weeks as well, until Marc Muniesa’s enforced exit.

With meagre playing resources at his disposal, Mark Hughes made the right selections to take on Arsenal in every department. The willing runners on the flanks turned out to be exactly what was needed. Walters’ return was a no-brainer, his brawn, industry and menace so often causing Wenger’s team problems. Saturday was no exception, with a goal and an assist to his name in addition to his blossoming role as Bojan’s burly protector, his fizz and capacity to irritate defenders preventing them from devoting all their time to stifling the Spaniard’s sorcery.

Shifting Diouf out wide meant we retained that crucial pace in the final third but we able to accommodate Crouch, who, like Walters, has a skill set that is kryptonite to Arsenal’s wobbly back line.

In midfield, Steven Nzonzi built on his fine showing at Old Trafford with another influential display of strength and composure, even if he did come close to undoing everything with that awful, lackadaisical ball to Bojan that let Sanchez in and his less than proactive approach to recovering it. Nonetheless, more often than not, he and Krkiç were on the same wavelength – exchanges between the two were by a distance Stoke’s most common passing combinations.

A bigger surprise came in the shape of Geoff Cameron, granted another opportunity in the middle of the park despite, 20 minutes against Swansea aside, not convincing in that position. Against Arsenal however he was excellent, winning numerous tackles and interceptions and driving forward to get the team on the front foot. If he can find some consistency, he will make himself a strong candidate to rival Whelan and Sidwell for one of those roles alongside Nzonzi.

All of those savvy selections, however, were undermined by yet more dodgy substitutions that could have torpedoed what was shaping up to be one of the great Stoke performances of recent times. The injury to Muniesa meant a hole needed plugging in defence, and the decision to bring on Glenn Whelan and move Geoff Cameron back betrayed the manager’s lack of faith in Robert Huth’s fitness.

However, the American is altogether less convincing at centre back, and we really missed his vitality in the engine room. Both were factors in Arsenal’s growing dominance and ability to create chances, as our shape threatened to dissolve at times. Was Huth really incapable of playing 27 minutes with the score at 3-0? If not, why was he on the bench? Moreover, Whelan himself looked some way from fitness as he chugged around, off the pace, only really able to perform the basics.

Our difficulties were compounded with the next Stoke change, which saw Diouf replaced by Charlie Adam. The Senegal forward was far from great on the left, and judging by his reluctance to run with the ball or shoot when played in, his confidence is at absolute rock bottom. Yet – and I don’t think people fully appreciate this – his pace, even without much else to go with it sometimes, is an asset in this kind of game and should have been replaced (which meant Oussama Assaidi, for all his own limitations, should have been the man to come on).

I’ve never understood this strategy of taking off an outlet when protecting a lead stuff. I didn’t get it when TP used to sub Etherington or Pennant for Whitehead, and I don’t get it now. All it does is ensure that you spend the rest of the game under pressure with no means of alleviating it. There were times when you could be forgiven for thinking that we were the team down to ten. The fact that Adam was a walking calamity when he came on didn’t help, as he stumbled from running the ball out of play under no pressure, to giving the ball away on the edge of his own box, to catching Sanchez with something resembling a sleeper hold.

No doubt learned from Scottish hero ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper.

Huth’s late introduction was a bright spot. The Berlin Wall was fired up long before he made his entrance, dishing out a fearsome tongue lashing to a ball boy who he felt was overly hasty in returning the ball and then winning two thumping, decisive headers when he made it onto the pitch.

Get well soon, sir. Really soon.

3)  Crouch shows what we’ve been missing…and what we still need

Eight career goals against Arsenal – Peter Crouch has the Gunners’ number, and wasted no time in showing it one more time. Stoke’s fastest goal since Asmir Begovic got his gusty freak on last November, Crouch’s close range side footed finish was also the quickest Premier League goal of the season so far.

The goal demonstrated perfectly why Crouch’s recall was such a shrewd inclusion. He won two aerial duels in the build-up before being perfectly placed to profit from the chaos in the Arsenal defence. It might have been a simple finish, but he was cool and clinical when presented with it, where other strikers, as we’ve seen in the last couple of games, might have snatched at it.

An awkward yet oddly graceful presence (most of the time), Crouch gave us an aerial option that Arsenal are still useless at countering, he made sure the ball stuck in the final third, and he brought the other forwards into the game. It was a welcome return and the most significant selection the manager made.

However, at the same time we could also glimpse the limitations that mean another striking alternative has to be a priority for our January wish list. Throughout the game we had nobody closing down their defenders when they brought the ball out to start attacks, and I really think we miss a trick by not doing this. Few teams can sustain a pressing game for 90 minutes every week, so you pick and choose the games, and the more ‘cultured’ sides are the ones to really try and stifle from the front. They found more and more space as the game progressed, but too often we didn’t even try to strangle their attacks in the cradle.

Though some did take that did that advice rather too literally…

Diouf is far better at this aspect of the game, yet we’ve seen there are myriad things he can’t do as a lone striker that Crouch can. Both are very useful options to have, but the total package – a Bony/Benteke/Pelle etc – continues to elude us. The search must continue.

 

4)  Are we finally edging towards the right back four?

The double whammy of a recurrence of Marc Wilson’s injury and a dearth of options in midfield meant that Marc Muniesa finally got his big chance at centre back, and for the 63 minutes he was on the field he grabbed it with both hands. You had to marvel at how much more solid we looked with the ex-Barca starlet alongside the ever-excellent Ryan Shawcross. The latter was the best defender on the park, relishing the challenge these games always provide and exorcising another demon with each passing victory over Wenger’s men. His leadership was vital and nobody made more clearances. If Chambers is in the next England squad and Shawcross isn’t, it’s finally time to cart Mr Roy off to the funny farm.

Muniesa, meanwhile, was intelligent, his positioning consistently top notch, and it’s remarkable how much tougher he seems when he moves into the centre. The secret of defending, like comedy, is timing, and Muniesa has the knack down to a fine art, be it on the deck or in the air.

“It’s the way I tell ‘em”.

There was one hairy moment where Sanchez breezed past him, and that lack of pace might be an issue, but the fact that he was on a yellow card (harshly) has to be taken into consideration there, and more illustrious defenders will struggle to cope with the Chilean before the season is out.

I can’t see a reason why a first team spot shouldn’t be his between now and either Huth proving his fitness or the arrival of a new centre back in January – or even beyond then.

A word of praise also for Erik Pieters, who was much improved this week after the roughest spell of his Stoke career, reading the game well and starting off attacks with confidence.

Muniesa’s departure left us panicky however, and as Arsenal’s onslaught intensified we became rash and sloppy, failing to track runners, giving the ball away and generally looking ragged.

One issue we’re having on an almost weekly basis is the back four taking it in turns to be the weak link. Virtually every defender on the books has had this fate befall them (the captain excepted), and this week the needle fell on Phil Bardsley. The right back did some good stuff in the first hour, looking dangerous going forward and coming close to scoring his first goal for the club when Martinez spilled his fierce 25 yard drive, as well as winning the most tackles of anyone.

He visibly tired as the game wore on though (likely as a result of his own battles with the dreaded lurgy), and by the last 20 minutes Arsenal were clearly targeting, him, realising they could get in behind him at will, with Walters constantly having to point and tell him who to mark, and Bardsley not always paying heed.

The Scotland international has done well since coming to the club and his fierce competition with Cameron for the right back role can only be a good thing, but both have weaknesses that can set your teeth on edge when we’re under the cosh.

You have to praise our resilience to hold out for the win, but with two more daft, avoidable goals conceded, a clean sheet looks as far away as ever.

5)  They who score first, laugh last

Scoring after just 20 seconds – against Arsenal – gave me such an intense burst of pleasure that I thought I might actually have a stroke. It was several minutes before my ears stopped buzzing and I felt as if my own blood was hissing things at me.

It was intense.

Not for the first time this season, the importance of scoring first was hammered home. We have dropped just four points out of 18 from the games in which we have taken the lead this season, but won just four from 27 in those in which we have fallen behind. It’s also worth noting that our best performances this season have generally been the ones in which we’ve started like a rocket (West Ham, Spurs, Arsenal).

When you set up to play on the break, getting that first goal becomes even more important, as it forces the other team to come out and play, thus leaving gaps for your quick players to exploit. Yield the opener and a team can just sit back and cut off all the space as Villa, Leicester and Burnley did.

There’s no question that we need a Plan B to the counter attacking game, but as long as Plan A is Plan A, we have to come roaring out of the traps. It’s fair to say we nailed that this weekend.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Liverpool 1-0 Stoke City 29.11.14

1)  Patched-up Potters can’t quite see it out

It’s the hope that kills you. It looked as if we might have weathered the storm. Our hopes were raised that a team ravaged by injury and Montezuma’s revenge could nick yet another 0-0 at Anfield…or better yet, pinch it. Then up popped Glen McLeod Cooper Johnson to bravely throw himself in harm’s way and win it, earning himself some stitches in the process and disproving once and for all the old adage about there being no sense where there’s no feeling.

It’s tempting to say it’s cruel, but Liverpool had been pushing for a winner, they’d had the best chances, and just about deserved their victory. Stoke gave a pretty decent account of themselves and created some great chances of their own, but the vulnerability at the back when the Reds attacked was always clear.

Mark Hughes picked a pretty sensible side given the options available to him, and we may well have looked at the £87m worth of talent on Liverpool’s bench (plus Steven Gerrard) and fancied our chances, had we not been drained ourselves by sickness and injuries.

Watching the first half was like being sucked into a time warp back to those dour, attritional goalless draws of the Pulis era, with neither side either impressing or threatening. The only incidents of note were an injury to Steve Sidwell, and a careless booking for Marc Wilson after hauling down Rickie Lambert.

After the break however, the game opened up considerably and was a lot more entertaining as a consequence. Liverpool found space through the middle and began to exploit it, while Raheem Sterling on the left was causing us more and more problems, as was Lambert, enjoying possibly his best game so far in a red shirt. Our defence racked up the yellow cards as the hosts advanced and missed a series of good chances. Lucas shot tamely at Begovic when virtually any other member of Liverpool’s front six would probably have scored. Sterling slalomed into the box and slipped a shot inches wide. Henderson clipped the bar from six yards with the whole goal to aim at.

We played our part in the contest though, knocking the ball around nicely and giving Brendan Rodgers’ side a fright when the opportunity presented itself. Indeed, we created more clear-cut chances in this game than all of our previous Premier League trips to Anfield combined. Bojan’s dizzying run ended with him slamming an effort into the post. Diouf went clear at an angle and forced Mignolet into a save, then Sterling denied him on the line at a corner. Walters should have done better with a close range effort after being teed up by Bojan. Mr Krkiç himself very nearly equalised with a breathtaking dipping volley that Mignolet pushed over.

We just couldn’t make that breakthrough, but we can be proud of our efforts. We’ve played better this season, and lord knows that’s one of the weakest, brittlest Liverpool sides we’ll play – but Anfield is still a difficult place to go and even a weak Liverpool team is going to be pretty well-stocked with talent.

All that’s small consolation, however, when we’ve lost two in a row and now go to Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Bad runs, like good runs, can gather momentum.

Unlike at Man City and Spurs, there was no happy ending on Merseyside, and that throws our home form into sharp focus. We cannot rely on pulling off shock results away at the big boys every time to consistently paper over the cracks at the Brit. We have to get our act together at home, and sharpish, if this season is not to end in disappointment – or disaster.

 2)  The thin blue line almost survives…but doesn’t

After 120 seconds of chaos cost us against the league’s bottom side last weekend, we could but hope that the return of the regulars could restore a bit of order. And it nearly worked – we were just six minutes away from our unlikeliest clean sheet of the season.

We did not always defend brilliantly, and it was at times more by luck than judgement that we kept the Reds at bay. Ricky Lambert is slowly finding his groove at Liverpool and gave our back line a real test, winning the most aerial duels and free kicks of anyone on the park, while Sterling’s quick feet worried the life out of us at times.

It was a weird game for our defenders, all of whom veered between looking assured and shaky. Marc Wilson, on his return to the side, made some calm interceptions and was composed in bringing the ball out of defence, but some of his messier clearances – like one first half header across his own box that Shawcross had to tidy up – offered a reminder of why he so often fails to convince.

Ditto Geoff Cameron. Nobody made more interceptions, and one particularly timely intervention stopped Coutinho’s mazy run just as he was about to pull the trigger. Sterling’s pace panicked him however, as was evidenced by his Sonko-esque takedown of him just outside the box, and those positioning issues again came to the fore.

Even the captain wasn’t at his best, guilty of ball-watching and another made edgy by Sterling’s runs, his own yellow card collected following a foul on the youngster that can only be described as a clothesline.

Worst of the bunch, however, was Erik Pieters, who, like Whelan, looked unfit and was slow to react all afternoon – most fatally when he failed to follow up Lambert’s header until it was too late, his desperate lunge to clear finding only Johnson’s skull. Coutinho, out of sorts and out of position, had him for breakfast without breaking sweat. The Dutchman has broken back into the Netherlands set up this term but is having a quietly rotten season at club level, and his poor form has flown under the radar primarily due to Wilson’s more high profile blunders and Muniesa proving an even less convincing option when asked to deputise.

 

3) The midfield vortex is cause for concern

The loss of Sidwell and Whelan was something of a double-edged sword. With Charlie Adam on the pitch, there was more cohesion to our attacking play, as the hefty Dundonian, playing in one of the deeper roles, was able to get the ball to Bojan and the wide players and help us transition to attack more quickly.

Yet with no defensive midfielder to speak of, Liverpool were able to run us ragged, and a lot of our issues at the back and the yellow cards amassed by the back four stemmed from that gaping hole ahead of them. With no disciplined sitter, Liverpool’s midfielders were able to run through at will, and that took its toll on our rearguard action, which was having to work twice as hard.

Sidwell has done really well since coming into the side and is thoroughly unlucky to see his run potentially come to an end in such circumstances. Whelan meanwhile, appears to have been rushed back following his broken leg and didn’t look right from the moment he set foot on the pitch. He was clearly off the pace, and it wasn’t a massive surprise to see him fail to re-emerge for the second half. If there were concerns over his fitness, you have to question why he was on the bench – did Glenn overestimate his readiness to return, or were we just that desperate to get him back into the fray?

If both are missing in action for any length of time, then we could be in trouble, as there are no viable alternatives for that screening/shielding role. We will in essence have to leave the gate open, with Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton all to play in the next few weeks.

Injuries have taken their toll on most areas of the side, but this could be the most damaging blow yet.

 

4)  Bojan is the bright spot again

Our search for a league goal at Anfield stretches into a 32nd year (your correspondent was a foetus when Paul Bracewell bagged our last one in a 5-1 defeat), but it was not for Bojan’s lack of trying. The little Catalan’s performance was far and away the highlight of Stoke’s afternoon and there was no better player on either side.

He was central to the vast majority of our best moments in the game. His ball into the channels to put Diouf (who was much-improved after a shocker against Burnley) in on goal was marvellous. His run from the left wing, nutmegging Henderson and going past another defender before shaping to aim for the far post and crashing his shot into the near upright was sensational. His venomous 25-yard volley near the end would have rivalled Crouch’s against Man City had it gone in.

He was absolutely knackered by the end and his defensive work and closing down of the Liverpool midfield tailed off as a consequence. Hughes should probably have taken him off to protect him. Doing so however would have been to remove our best chance of a goal, so it’s understandable that he didn’t.

We keep waiting for a dip in form but he keeps turning it on. He is the kind of player fans pay to see. It’s still early days, but the signs are that we have a new hero in the making here.

 

5)  Is Marko Arnautovic coming out of hypersleep?

It was a big afternoon for Marko Arnautovic. The injury to Victor Moses meant that, irrespective of whether he’d earned it or not, there was little option but to give him a run in the side.

It was a partial success. Yes, he’s received a lot of criticism for being asleep when his man scored the winner; he gave the ball away in dangerous areas at least twice; and his start to the game was slow and stiff, marred by a maddening tendency to stop dead when he received the ball, instantly killing our momentum.

His attacking play in the second half however did show flashes of the Arnie of old. Helped by the presence of Adam, both as an available option and someone to pick him out, Arnautovic was intelligent, found space in tight areas, and his confidence grew. He began to get into the box and was becoming an important part of our forward play when he was brought off, unluckily in my opinion.

It’s so hard to know if this represents a tentative step forward or just another false dawn as we desperately try to coax back that blistering form from last spring. Either way, any doubts concerning Moses’ influence have now been well and truly put to bed.

Arnie has just about done enough to retain his place for Tuesday night, but he really needs to step up to the plate. The green shoots of recovery shown at Anfield at least give us some hope.

But again, it’s the hope that kills you.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Southampton 1-0 Stoke City 25.10.14

The Top 5 Conclusions from Southampton 1-0 Stoke City 25.10.14

1)  A lack of courage?

It certainly could have been worse, as our old chums from Wearside showed seven days previously, but you can still colour me a tad disappointed with defeat down by the Itchen. Continue reading

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 2-1 Swansea City 19.10.14

1) A day when the result was everything

I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a ‘must-win’ game in October, yet going into this one, the need for a victory nevertheless felt overpowering. Continue reading

The Top 5 Conclusions from QPR 2-2 Stoke City 20.09.14

 

1)  Our start to the season encapsulated in one game

Well that was a kick in the nuts, wasn’t it?

Until the last 15 minutes or so, this was a game Stoke were never in serious danger of not winning. The home side had been desperately poor (Niko Krancjar aside), we’d had the bulk of the chances, and despite the game generally lacking a bit of quality, it was shaping up to be a relative cruise towards our second win of the season.

Instead, the timing and manner of the Rs’ equaliser means what was, in the cold light of day, a decent result and in many ways an encouraging performance felt like a defeat. We had this one in the bag and we chucked it away, thanks to the early season gremlins in our game that have cost us almost every step of the way so far.

Though we have at least managed to shift one gremlin off to Birmingham…

In 90 minutes, we saw what was essentially a greatest hits package of both the positives and negatives that have marked our start to the campaign. Once again, we showed that our set up appears far better suited to away games at present, and despite a formation tweak to more of a 4-3-3 to accommodate Charlie Adam, counter attacking was still very much the order of the day. We were dangerous when we broke too, through the pace of Moses and Diouf, playing either side of Peter Crouch. That front three was excellent – Moses was again our biggest creative threat, Crouch holds our attacking play together, and Diouf worked tirelessly to harass opposing defenders high up the pitch, while adding a fine, instinctive close-range header to that corker at the Etihad.

However, familiar issues at both ends of the pitch would deny us. In attack, our decision-making continued to baffle at times, as it has in our home games so far. There were numerous occasions when one of our front trio held onto the ball too long, ignoring an obvious key pass to play someone in, or taking a wrong turn. In the first half, Crouch had the chance to play a quick square pass to put Diouf clear, but instead opted to embark on a low-speed sojourn down the right wing that came to nothing. Diouf had an unmarked Moses to his left on the edge of the box but dithered and ended up seeing his attempt harmlessly blocked. Moses more than once couldn’t resist trying to take on one defender too many.

We did at least manage to create more genuine opportunities, but we were wasteful when it came to taking them – we really should have scored three or four. In the second half, a nicely worked sequence of play in and around the QPR box culminated in Adam teeing up an onrushing Steven Nzonzi, but the Frenchman snatched at his shot and put it wide when he had to at least hit the target. Erik Pieters found himself with a great chance following Moses’ beautifully lofted pass, but could only waft a leg and kiss the ball back to Rob Green. We’d have been heading back to the Potteries with all three points had he put his laces through it.

At the back, we were rarely troubled by QPR, but on the occasions when they did threaten, we had a tendency to dissolve into a gooey mess. Does anyone still want to argue that giving away cheap, stupid goals every week isn’t a problem? The hosts’ first equaliser was a farce – there are so many Stoke players not doing their jobs at that corner. Asmir Begovic was all over the place, Ryan Shawcross will be having nightmares for weeks about the ease with which Steven Caulker lost him, and the less said about the efforts of the three wise men attempting to hack the ball clear as it spun goalwards, the better. It was like a music hall comedy – all it needed was a sad trombone sound effect.

“Baggy Trousers! Baggy Trousers! Baggy Trousers!”

Steve Sidwell will get pelters for the rash challenge that led to QPR’s second, but it was a challenge that was symptomatic of our defending at the time. We appeared to switch off after the second goal, our tempo dropped, and we took our foot off the gas – it certainly looked as if the players were convinced their job was done. Then QPR stepped things up as they pressed for a late equaliser and we weren’t prepared. Both full backs and Shawcross were guilty of clearances and attempted passes out of defence that went straight to the feet of Rangers attackers. The amount of space players like Krancjar and the impressive Matt Phillips were able to find between the lines was frightening, and our reaction every time seemed to be to hack them down – Krancjar had already been crudely wiped out by Shawcross minutes before Sidwell blundered in on the edge of the box.

There was an air of inevitability about the free kick – you tend to develop a sixth sense for when one is going to go in. It was an ideal position for a player of the Croatian playmaker’s abilities, and as he shaped to dink one over the wall you just knew we’d blown it. It looked as if Asmir showed him an awful lot of the goal to aim at by positioning himself left of centre just before the kick was taken, but even if he’d been better positioned, it would have taken a special save to keep it out. We then immediately surged up the pitch and into the QPR box to put the hosts under pressure again, underlining just how casual we’d been before the goal.

Nevertheless, other than that incredible win at the Etihad, this was our strongest showing of the season to date. It’s the first time in a decade that we’ve been unbeaten away from home at this stage of the season, and you have to go all the way back to 1975-76 to find the last time we managed that in the top flight. So there are plenty of positives to take; all the same, the fact that those problems in attack and defence show no sign of abating casts a big, black cloud over the result.

2)  Peter Crouch is irreplaceable

Peter Crouch was BT Sport’s man of the match and deservedly so; the big man was magnificent, every bit as good as he was at Man City. His hold up play was a joy to watch, and QPR’s defenders simply didn’t know how to deal with him. As he invariably does, he won the most aerial duels and made some great flick-ons for Diouf, but his work with his back to goal and near the halfway line was just as good. The ball stuck to his feet under pressure and his strength meant nobody could get near him as he brought our quick attacking players into the game. He did an important job defensively too, even if he didn’t cover himself in glory for QPR’s first.

His import was highlighted by the goal and assist he provided: the consensus seems to be that he committed a foul in heading on for Diouf for the opener in climbing on Rio Ferdinand – for me there wasn’t much in it – we’re not talking a Brent Sancho moment here.

His goal was superbly taken – the pass he received was slightly behind him yet he adjusted his body slightly and showed flawless technique to arrow a first-time shot powerfully into the net.

With Crouch pushing 34 and in the last year of his contract, the worry is that we don’t have another target man striker who can do what he can in terms of link play. It doesn’t look as if Diouf can do it. Bojan certainly isn’t that type of player. Walters isn’t either.

Last season ended with some of our most electrifying attacking play being played in Crouch’s absence, courtesy of the potent, pacey trio of Odemwingie, Arnautovic and Assaidi, and it looked as if his time might be up. This season however, when Crouch hasn’t played we’ve had no effective link man to get our forward players on the ball, and we haven’t scored a goal without him on the pitch.

We have a spine of irreplaceables. Begovic and Shawcross (despite their indifferent starts to the campaign), Whelan (who was excellent again and does in the first third of the pitch what Crouch does in the final third), and Crouch. There is nobody in the current squad who can step in and do their job if they get injured or sold.

Small wonder that the manager is desperate to keep him. Peter Crouch has never been more important to Stoke City.

 

3)  Moses dazzles again

Victor Moses is well on the way to adding his name to that aforementioned list of untouchables. He has been Stoke’s difference-maker-in-chief in every game since he arrived – the man is simply different class. Like Leicester, QPR tried to double up the Nigerian star, and as against the Foxes, that didn’t stop him – he simply went past them, half dancing, half bludgeoning his way through.

Unlike the Leicester game however, Moses’ end product was deadly. Both goals came from his crosses, and his ball for the first seemed to stem from some kind of sorcery. His route was blocked by two defenders, he had virtually no room for manoeuvre, but he somehow managed to loop a perfect ball over for Crouch in the middle of the six yard box. The second goal showcased not just his pace but his work ethic, as he picked Isla’s pocket and again refused to be crowded out, pulling back for Crouch to boom it in. Yes, it was slightly behind the striker, but it was the kind of ball that’s incredibly difficult to defend and which our wide players don’t attempt enough – fast, hard and low.

There is a slight concern, as I wrote last week, that we’re already relying heavily on him to magic rabbits out of hats every week. Things can change, and there are issues over his decision-making, but every time he gets the ball you sense he’s going to make something happen. To me he’s already looking like the most exciting wide player we’ve had at Stoke for years – and I include Etherington, Pennant and Arnie in that.

Even Kevin Harper…

If the only piece of business we do in January is securing him on a permanent deal, that would represent a good transfer window.

4)  Adam justifies his selection

The notable change in the starting line up was a first league start of the season for one Charles Graham ‘Charlie’ Adam. Many Stokies have been clamouring for the hefty Dundonian’s inclusion for weeks as we struggled to break teams down, but it was nevertheless a surprise to see him get the nod in an away game in which there was a good chance we’d be under the cosh for long spells.

In the event however, Adam, after taking 15-20 minutes or so to find his feet, really grew into the game. The 4-3-3 allowed him to play the deeper role to which he’s best suited, yet still afforded protection by not sacrificing a defensive midfielder.

Which is Plan B for Wilson Palacios…

As you’d expect him to, Charlie pinged a few quality balls for Diouf to latch onto, but more than that, he turned in a pleasing, understated, hard-working performance. The defensive side of his game, which can lean towards the calamitous, was surprisingly strong. He did a good job carrying the ball out of defence and won nearly three times as many tackles as anyone else on the pitch.

It was exactly the kind of system needed to get the best from Adam, much preferable to shoehorning him into the number 10 role or removing the safety net and rolling the dice by playing him in a midfield two. Credit to Mark Hughes for having the flexibility to give it a go, and credit to Adam for a mature performance.

I hope we see it again.

 

5)  Did Hughes get the subs wrong again?

With a substitute giving away the free kick that led to QPR’s late goal, it was inevitable that some fingers would once again be pointed at the manager and the changes he made.

The introduction of Sidwell has been characterised as negative – shutting up shop and protecting the lead. Personally I thought it was the right change to make at that time. Adam was flagging, and the ‘ginger Iniesta’ was the obvious replacement – not only would he stiffen the midfield, but he can also get forward and offer a goal threat himself. Sidwell had actually done pretty well for the most part. He was energetic in closing down Rangers’ midfielders and made a couple of good tackles and some decent blocks. Yes, he conceded the fateful free kick, but as discussed, he was hardly alone on mistiming his challenges at that time, or in struggling against Krancjar’s one man show.

The selection of Marko Arnautovic to come on for the cramp-stricken Moses however, was the wrong option in my opinion. The Austrian did do some good work off the ball when he came on, helping Pieters out when we were on the back foot. Yet Moses had provided an important outlet to relieve pressure and help us break at pace, and a similarly direct winger was needed to help get the ball as far up the pitch as possible, as quickly as possible. It should therefore have been Oussama Assaidi, rather than Arnie, who came on. It wasn’t Arnie’s fault, but the loss of Moses saw us come under more sustained pressure through the loss of that pressure valve.

His approach to substitutions has arguably been the manager’s Achilles’ heel in his time in the Potteries so far, but I don’t think he can really be blamed for Sidwell’s indiscretion at least.

Overall, despite the disappointments, I think there are signs that we’re getting incrementally better as things start to click. The Leicester performance was better than those against Villa and Hull. This performance was better than the Leicester one, and if Hughes has found a way to utilise Adam in our quest to unlock defences, normal service may be resumed on our own patch imminently.

That optimism though is tempered by those continuing problems at both ends of the pitch – the dodgy decision-making in the final third and the amateurish goals conceded. It’s Hughes’ job to ensure these things are worked on and eradicated, yet there is no sign of that happening. If those issues aren’t addressed, I suspect the honeymoon for ‘Mark and his team’ will pretty soon be at an end.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 0-1 Leicester City 13.09.14

 

1)  One manager reacts, one manager doesn’t

So here we are again. A fortnight ago I wrote that the incredible win at the Etihad represented a beautiful holiday from the real problems that had blighted our start to the season. Saturday was our first day back at work – and immediately another bad day at the office.

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