1) 1-0 to the Stoke City
A second 1-0 home win in three weeks. Stoke have played some enterprising football in the second half of the season – and did so at times on Saturday – but we’re also showing we can grind out results with the best of them. These were the kind of games we were failing to win before Christmas. Now we’re doing enough to get the job done, and closing in on our best Premier League home points haul in the process.
Given the Magpies’ poor form we went into this one as strong favourites, but made a slow start in what was generally a pretty drab first half. There was a bit of an end of season vibe to proceedings, with both teams out of danger and firmly ensconced in mid-table.
Newcastle defended surprisingly well, getting men behind the ball and doubling up on Crouch and Odemwingie, ensuring both had their quietest games for a while. Stephen Ireland returned in place of Wilson Palacios, but didn’t manage to make a huge impression either. We were patient and probed for an opening but created little of note in that opening period. Crouch really should have headed us in front from close range from Arnautovic’s pinpoint cross after 10 minutes but instead his effort crashed against the post. Steven Nzonzi’s shot from just outside the box was heading goalwards until it deflected off Coloccini and went over.
Newcastle were physical and did cause us a few problems in the first half, notably when Dan Gosling found himself clear in the box but only succeeded in wafting the ball onto the roof of the net. We also got away with one when Geoff Cameron bundled over Cisse in the box, Mike Jones declining to point to the spot and helping ease the pain of the Martin Atkinson show on Boxing Day.
With half time on the horizon a breakthrough for either side looked far from imminent until we got another slice of luck. Erik Pieters got forward on the left and sent in a first-time cross that he got just a bit too much on, sending the ball sailing, to the surprise of pretty much everyone (not least Tim Krul), into the far post and then in. The Dutchman seemed almost embarrassed to celebrate his first club goal for six years, but he deserved it – he’s been a key player in our late-season bloom.
Stoke were far more fluid and dominant in the second period, especially once Charlie Adam replaced Ireland. Now the chances came thick and fast, almost all of them supplied by Arnautovic. First he crossed for Crouch to head over, then he played Adam in to shoot wide after being set free by a frankly delicious through ball from Steven Nzonzi. Crouch would have been celebrating his ninth goal of the season had he opted to launch himself at Geoff Cameron’s cross rather than awkwardly sort of stumbling into it, and we really should have put the game well out of the geordies’ reach.
Yet while Shawcross and Wilson both had very good games in the heart of our defence (the skipper making 14 clearances, the third-highest number made by any Premier League player all weekend behind Martin Skrtel and Gareth McAuley), we still looked vulnerable down the flanks, and could have been punished had Anita managed to get his free header at the back post on target after Ameobi was given way too much time and space to centre.
Still, the win was thoroughly deserved and boos rained down on Alan Pardew from the 3000 travelling away fans at the final whistle, giving some indication of what an unhappy ship Mike Ashley is presiding over. With the local media turning on him as well, Pardew is surely a dead man walking.
We, on the other hand, can be very content with our lot at the moment. It was a routine win, and those are not to be sniffed at – it’s only a few short months since it seemed as if the days of routine wins might be over.
2) Arnautovic gets better by the week
As well as Ryan played in his 200th Premier League game, you can’t help but feel that the sponsors’ man of the match award was at least partly inspired by sentiment. There was one man who towered above everyone else on Saturday, and that man was Marko Arnautovic.
On a day when the rest of Stoke’s starting front four failed to fire, Arnie reigned supreme, creating virtually every chance worthy of the name. Every time he got the ball you got the feeling he might do something special. The quality of his delivery was first-rate, with a varied range of crosses – low, high, looping, whipped – and had our finishing been sharper he’d have had two or three assists to his name. He had the beating of Taylor and Anita on every occasion and might even have got on the scoresheet himself had he not been cynically wiped out by fuzzy Toploader tribute act Fabricio Coloccini.
Our best play usually came down the left, with Pieters to Arnautovic our top pass combo, and the Austrian was the game’s biggest creative force by miles – indeed, only three players in the entire Premier League created more chances than him on Saturday.
Enigmatic, mercurial, frustrating – Arnautovic is all these things and that is unlikely to change. But we have struck gold with his form at the moment. His displays on the left and his excellent crossing should silence the debate about where to play him – his best form throughout his career has always come from wide positions and he wreaks more havoc there than anywhere else with his pace and trickery. After taking some time to bed in he is proving himself worthy of the number 10 shirt. But his best is surely yet to come.
3) Adam has earned another run in the side
It wasn’t hard to see why Mark Hughes went with Stephen Ireland for this one. He’s a clever player who was key in our fine win over West Ham, played well in the defeat of Hull, and saw his return to the team interrupted away from home, first by bureaucratic nincompoopery at Villa Park and then by illness at Chelsea.
You’d have thought he might have had a point to prove after an unhappy loan spell at Newcastle several years ago, but on the day Ireland was subdued. In the first half he appeared to be on a different wavelength to the rest of the team, playing balls into space for runners who never came and failing to make the runs when the favour was returned. He did make some decent interceptions to win the ball back, and he links well with Arnie, even if the two do seem to spend large swathes of every game bickering like Maverick and Iceman.
Still, he had little influence on the game and it was only after Charlie Adam entered the fray in the 65th minute that we really took control of the game. The portly Caledonian, sporting a handsome mask after his latest bout of slapstick, made an appropriately sizeable difference, taking some of the creative burden off Arnautovic’s shoulders and helping us to gain a foothold by getting his foot on the ball, playing some clever passes into the channels and relentlessly driving us forward. It was the polar opposite of his frankly vile cameo last weekend.
Adam provided us with exactly the qualities we needed at the time. In this kind of home game against opposition we’re expected to beat, and where the onus is on us to force the pace and unpick a stubborn defence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he is our most influential – and best – option in that attacking midfield role. With four eminently winnable games remaining, he deserves to see out the season in the starting line-up.
The pendulum continues to swing between Adam and Ireland in their personal duel, but it’s a battle that has been beneficial to all concerned – revitalising two flagging careers and providing a vital source of goals from midfield. Long may it continue.
4) Cameron adds a splash of Jekyll after weeks of Mr Hyde
Few players of the current crop divide Stoke fans more than our number 20, and it’s fair to say that this blog has not exactly been in the pro-Geoff Cameron camp since the US international’s arrival on these shores. Despite an excellent start to this season, where he became one of the most influential factors in our attacking play, it wasn’t long before the old concerns about his positioning and use of the ball resurfaced.
This was a game that encapsulated his season. In the first half his defending was nothing short of shambolic. The nadir was his clumsy blundering into Cisse in the box, a nailed-on penalty that he somehow escaped censure for. Just behind that in the calamity stakes was a moment where the ball was lofted towards him in slow motion and he still somehow managed to misjudge its flight and let Paul Dummett steam past him.
Geoff is proving easy for wingers to beat and it was worrying that a player as deeply mediocre as Dummett danced around him effortlessly on a number of occasions. It was highlighted before the West Ham game that up to that point, he’d been dribbled around by attackers 39 times – making him statistically the third easiest full back to beat in the Premier League (and 24th of 382 overall). Going forward, he added another couple of shanked crosses to his personal blooper reel.
Happily, Cameron improved significantly after half time. It helped that Stoke spent much of the second half on the front foot, but his marauding runs forward were second only to Arnie in terms of the threat they posed. His crossing was also dramatically better, and he delivered at least two perfectly judged, tantalising balls into the danger zone that really should have been capitalised on – notably the inviting curler that Crouch could only head weakly at Krul. Nzonzi was the only Stoke player to make more tackles and Shawcross was the only player on the park to make more clearances.
After a fairly rotten run of form it was encouraging to see him end the match on a high. He needs momentum going into the world cup, while he may well find he has some serious competition next season and will need to be at his very best to hold onto a first team spot.
5) Ninth place is there for the taking – if we want it
Much has been made of how poor Newcastle were but they were nowhere near the rabble I was expecting. Far from being a depleted, demoralised shell of a team, one that had conceded 11 goals in their previous three games without reply, they were organised, muscular and could consider themselves unlucky to go into the interval behind having matched us for most of the first half. Their front two were busy, with Shola Ameobi putting himself about in a way he singularly failed to do in a Stoke shirt, and had they got that early penalty, or even if Anita had equalised with his close range header, things might have turned out very differently. They are ninth in the table for a reason.
Then again, had we taken all our chances, we could have had five or six despite being some way below our best. The momentum is firmly with us, and with the Toon having a much tougher run-in than us (with Arsenal and Liverpool still to play), we have every chance of catching them.
The difficulty will be staying motivated. There could be a temptation, as we have seen in previous seasons, to knock off now safety has been secured. It might seem harsh, but I think we might have seen a couple of glimpses of that already, in effectively writing off last week’s match at Chelsea and in some of the performances on Saturday, where the likes of Crouch, Ireland and especially Odemwingie, though well-shackled by the Newcastle defence, scarcely got out of third gear. There was a sloppiness in midfield at times, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that we had less possession despite trying to play a passing game (passes from the goalkeeper or defenders to Crouch were way down our top combinations list, we played our lowest number of long balls in any game since our defeat at Manchester City in February). We were worryingly casual at times in our passing at the back, even when under pressure, and in the first half our lack of movement in the final third was again a problem.
Regardless, we still created a host of scoring opportunities and of course took all three points, so I won’t make a mountain out of a molehill, but with our best top flight finish for 39 years well within reach, it would be a shame to take our foot off the pedal now.