1) History made…and a holiday from the real problems
It was the shock of the Premier League season so far. Stoke had never taken a point or even so much as scored in a league match at the Etihad before Saturday. Yet it was still, somehow, typically Stoke City. Having disappointed in the opening two games of our kindest start for years, we then go to the champions’ lair and produce arguably our best result since promotion. The easy way is to Stoke what lunch was to Gordon Gekko – for wimps.
There were rare groans for the team sheet prior to kick off, as Peter Crouch and Jon Walters were rewarded for their midweek Capital One Cup exploits, with no room in the starting XI for Bojan, Peter Odemwingie or Charlie Adam. Yet there was still plenty to be happy about, with Victor Moses getting his first start and the pace of Mame Biram Diouf utilised again, and Glenn Whelan shaking off his ankle knack to come back into the side. It looked as if we’d line up in a 4-4-2 with Diouf and Crouch up front, but in practice we saw a tweaked version of 4-2-3-1, with Whelan and Nzonzi deeper than the wide players but Diouf, behind Crouch, playing closer to the big man as more of a striker hoovering up the knock-downs than a number 10 floating around and pulling the strings.
It was hard to tell in the early going exactly how we were setting up as Manuel Pellegrini’s men penned us back in our own half almost immediately. Hughes had a plan however. Defend deep, cut off the space in the final third (much like Danny Higginbotham had suggested in the week) and hit them at speed on the break. It couldn’t have gone much better.
26% possession. No Stoke presence in the top 24 pass combinations. We rode our luck at times thanks to the wastefulness of the hosts, who played with an aura of lethargy and complacency that suggested they felt they just had to turn up to get the three points. Equally though, this was no smash and grab. We posed a regular threat on the counter attack, with Moses having joy down the left and Diouf denied a clear penalty when he was felled by Kolarov.
Still, we were relieved to get to half time with parity intact and were braced for the home side to crank things up a notch in the second half. Instead, ten minutes after the restart, we got the moment: When Erik Pieters headed a Man City corner into Diouf’s path about 35 yards from his own goal, it seemed the best we could hope for was that the Senegal international could run it out of the danger zone. Hell, after a performance at Hull that was slightly less coordinated than Rick Parfitt on Top of the Pops (skip to around the 2:50 mark), we’d have settled for him taking the ball a few paces without tripping over his own feet and doing himself a mischief.
But the instead the ex-Man Utd striker managed to shake off Kolarov’s heavy lean and set off into the Man City half. Fernandinho was the only man between him and the keeper and as he approached, Diouf knocked the ball under his legs and turned on the afterburners, blazing past him and into the box. Quite possibly knackered from his 80-yard dash and without much to aim at, he went for the time-honoured ‘hard and low’ option, taking Richard Keys’ advice and smashing it. Joe Hart had left an obliging gap (much like Jamie Redknapp’s friend in Keys’ story, allegedly) and the shot rolled through his legs and in, to spark disbelieving bedlam in the away end.
It was a goal that is sure to take on iconic status for Stokies in years to come, pitched somewhere between George Weah’s famous solo goal for AC Milan and a particularly frenetic episode of supermarket sweep, scored against one of the biggest, most expensive teams in the world on their own patch. It will be passed down from father to son for generations, irrespective of how Diouf’s Stoke career turns out.
The Citizens spent plenty of time in our box after that but we had further chances of our own, with Diouf inches away from a second when he just failed to get on the end of sub Odemwingie’s cross and Crouch beating two defenders to head Bardsley’s cross just wide.
Entering the last 15 minutes, our epic defending showed no signs of wearying, with even Charlie Adam, on for the injured Odemwingie, doing an effective job carrying the ball out of defence and eating up precious seconds winning a succession of free kicks. Then Yaya Toure went down in the box under Pieters’ challenge. Many disagree, but I’ve watched six or seven replays and to me it still looks as if Pieters plays the man and not the ball, but thankfully the assistant referee showed the same cowardice over this call that he did over the Diouf incident in the first half.
The release of pure joy and relief at the final whistle was unreal. What a feeling, what a performance, almost to a man they’d given their all, players and manager alike. It’s a result that instantly lends a respectability to our start to the season, cancelling out that shocking loss to Villa by doing to the champions what Paul Lambert’s side did to us.
It’s also a win that gives us a respite from the awkward questions plaguing our early season form. It’s perverse that this sort of game, against one of the elite, currently suits our style far better than the meat and potatoes games against our fellow lesser lights. There’s still no obvious answer to how we’ll approach games in which we’re expecting to take the initiative. Diouf was signed to replace Crouch – at present, it seems as if he won’t be nearly as effective without him. Can we find a system that consistently gets us playing to our potential while keeping the talents populating our bench happy? Can we succeed without an old guard we seem to be pushing towards the door despite them repeatedly showing their importance?
We can worry about all that in a fortnight. Until then, let’s wallow in what was simply a great day to be a Stoke City fan.
2) Crouch is the glue that holds Stoke’s attacking play together
It was a sensible move to restore Peter Crouch to the starting line up. The big man had added a new dimension to Stoke’s forward play in every game he’d featured in this season and scored in midweek, so he’d more than earned his recall. It was a decision vindicated by a man of the match performance. Crouch was the player through which most of our best moves in the final third went. While in the past his lack of pace as the line-leader has been a problem, now, with quicker players around him, he is able to draw defenders away and create space for them. Not only did he (unsurprisingly) win the most aerial battles, but his touch was exquisite, plucking the ball out of the air with his chest or instep and holding it up or making room for a shot. With him as our final third fulcrum, there was finally a cohesion to our attacking play, the ball sticking in attack and some decent interplay developing rather than fizzling out before we could get anywhere near the box.
The impact Crouch’s impact had on Diouf was also telling. Having struggled up to now as a lone striker, he was transformed by having the target man to play off – not just in terms of having a bit more freedom and less pressure on him (his confidence was evident in that incredible run for the goal) but in his all round game. He had more touches and made more passes than in either of his two previous appearances, looking neat and tidy in his exchanges with Crouch and Nzonzi and going past players. His pace made him a real handful and no player was fouled more. He even did well when the injury to Odemwingie saw him move wide right, doing a professional job in keeping the ball and winning throws and corners high up the pitch.
It’s a bit weird that Hughes had seemed so certain of the system he wanted to use, but then made several new signings that don’t necessarily fit in with that set-up, and so has had to tweak it. The number 10 role that was set to become so important in Crouch’s absence may now have become obsolete thanks to Crouch himself. It was widely anticipated that he’d be phased out of our attacking plans…instead it appears that we might have to build them around him. Given he’s approaching 34, that’s only going to be a short-term solution though. And then what?
Again, they’re questions that can wait as we marvel at this unique, graceful
model pro who has continually done well and played a selfless role for the club in difficult circumstances. His quality on the ball is vastly underrated and though the ‘good touch for a big man’ thing has gone from cliché to parody, his skill on the ball really is great to watch. Just as some were hasty to write off Diouf, those who’d written off Crouch are being made to eat their words.
3) Victor Moses looks like the real deal
It’s early days yet, but the season-long loan of Victor Moses might just prove to be our signing of the season. It’s one thing to impress against the stiffs of a League Two side as he did on Wednesday night against Portsmouth, but he was equally dangerous against the champions. He looked hungry, confident and tricky, always eager to run at defenders and giving the debuting Bacary Sagna a tougher afternoon than he’d have been expecting. He also again showed the kind of strength you don’t see from many wide men, able to comfortably stand his ground and retain possession under the attentions of Sagna and other defenders. That ability to take players on and head for goal brought the kind of directness that was conspicuous by its absence in our first two games.
There’s been some discussion of the merits of the kind of inverted winger/inside forward type wide players Hughes seems to favour versus the chalk on the boots, byline-and-cross variety that served his predecessor so well. Early indications are that Moses offers the best of both worlds, at times turning provider, such as with his loving gift-wrap of a cross for Walters against Pompey, and at others cutting inside and shooting himself.
He’s also showed an admirable willingness to chase back and help out his full back. No player made more interceptions, and even when he began to flag during the second half, he still played a part in the rearguard action – indeed, his last contribution before being substituted was to make a vital block to stop Kolarov’s cross. If this is him when he isn’t fully fit, he’s going to be frightening when he is.
Despite being right footed he looks a natural fit for the left flank, which could force Arnautovic to abdicate to the right when he comes back into the side (which he will), though whether the Austrian would be able to form the same understanding with Phil Bardsley as he’s developed with Erik Pieters might be open to question – there’ll be plenty of time to experiment and switch, at least.
Peter Odemwingie will also be part of the debate of course, assuming the knee problem that saw him exit on a stretcher isn’t too serious. Stoke’s attacking play looked a lot more balanced when he replaced Walters at the start of the second half. The Irish international has been praised by many for his performance in that opening 45 minutes, but while his endeavour, as always, couldn’t be faulted, he offered nothing going forward and at key moments his defending wasn’t too hot either. His attempted crosses into the box were just woeful and he was often nowhere to be seen when we needed an attacking option wide right, while he totally lost Kolarov for Citeh’s best chance of the first half, when the unchallenged Serbian fed David Silva, who played in for Toure to fire over. Had that gone in, Walters’ band of detractors would have been out in force.
Against Leicester, I hope we see two proper wingers given a go as we try and crack that ongoing problem of breaking down stubborn defences.
4) The defence is back in business
Going into this game, it always seemed likely that we’d get scoring opportunities with our pace on the counter, but the notion that we wouldn’t concede against the title winners who’d scored 102 goals last season was inconceivable – especially given how shaky the back four had looked thus far. An incredible defensive effort was going to be required – and it was duly delivered from start to finish, all over the pitch, as the players carried out the game plan superbly.
The midfielders snapped at the feet of attackers and denied them any space. The wingers (generally) got back to help the full backs. Diouf buzzed around closing down midfielders around the halfway line. Crouch made clearance after clearance in his own box. Bodies swarmed around the home side’s attackers, getting in the way of every shot, cross and through ball they could.
The highlight of our defensive heroics, however, was that the defence looked much more like its old self. That was definitely true collectively, with the centre backs joining Crouch as the joint-highest clearance makers, and Bardsley, then Shawcross, then Wilson making the most blocks. But it was also true individually as well.
Asmir Begovic reclaimed the no. 1 shirt from the nervy impostor of the past fortnight, easily collecting every ball that came his way and making at least two world-class saves, the best being a one-handed claw away of Toure’s fierce strike just before the goal.
Phil Bardsley is improving game on game and turned in a committed showing, full of running and physicality. Many defenders are cowed by an early booking, but Bardsley’s intensity didn’t drop one iota after his 21st-minute yellow card, traversing that tightrope like Dick Grayson (without the tights).
Marc Wilson, maligned for two costly errors in two weeks, was excellent, constantly alive to danger, keeping a cool head and not giving Aguero or Jovetic a moment’s peace.
But the star of the back line was the captain, who was simply superhuman, stopping everything that crossed his path – he was first to cross after cross fired into the area, first to loose balls and 50/50s, his impeccable positioning always putting him one step ahead of the £90m worth of striking talent trying to find a way through. He was pumped up for this one from the get-go, and could be seen clapping and rallying the troops from the 3rd minute, when an early Citeh onslaught was halted by an injury to Aguero. It was a masterclass of pure defending.
If there was a downside to the defending, it came not on the pitch, but from the bench. While the organisation, game plan and execution were up there with the very best defensive displays of recent times, the decision to replace the exhausted, injured Moses with Marc Muniesa was a negative change reminiscent of the worst of the TP playbook. It removed a key outlet when our backs were against the wall, and had we conceded in those remaining 10 minutes (plus four minutes’ added time), that decision would have garnered a lot more attention than it has.
This game showed how strong the defence is when its expecting to have a difficult afternoon that requires its full attention. The problems start, as we’ve seen, when they have long spells with little to do and are given occasion to switch off. Hopefully we’ve heeded our early wake up calls, and Saturday was an indication that our season is finally up and running.
5) The midfield impressed on and off the ball
Midfield was another area of the side that had come in for criticism in recent weeks, with calls from some quarters for both Whelan and Nzonzi to be dropped.
At the Etihad, the engine room was in effect shorn of a member, given that Diouf was operating much more as a striker than the kind of number 10 who drops deep to forage for the ball. Yet the Franco-Irish duo, the cage-dwellers of old, rose to the challenge admirably. Whelan cast aside doubts over his fitness with a fired-up display against his old team, chasing and harrying and getting into surprisingly advanced positions. He was calm on the ball and brilliantly disciplined off it, never letting any of the home side’s cultured attackers have any time or space. No Stoke player won more tackles, and the high point of his afternoon came in the first half, when he caught Fernando napping on the ball and effortlessly pinched it from under him to kick-start a Stoke attack from nowhere. The Brazilian looked as if he’d been hit by a train, and was forced to retreat to the sidelines and add some extra letters to his name, returning as his fearsome altar ego ‘Fernandinho’. .
Nzonzi meanwhile, was terrific, back to his Rolls-Royce best. Despite the fact that, as Stoke’s leading pass-maker, he only completed around one-third of the number completed by his Man City counterpart Yaya Toure, nobody went past more players over the 90 minutes than Nzonzi, and the sight of him lolloping forward with the ball, opponents unable to get near him, was a joy to behold. Time and again he collected the ball, turned on a centime and strode forward, shielding the ball brilliantly before laying it off. The heartbeat of Stoke’s on-ball play, he outclassed the loftier, more expensive midfielders on show.
The two man midfield worked very well, but it has to be said that the opponents were playing the same formation, with Jovetic playing more as a striker than an attacking midfielder. It might prove trickier to pull off against a team using a three man midfield.
With just 26% possession, this was a game where the off the ball stuff was what really mattered and we did a brilliant, professional job in that respect.
Steven Nzonzi made a mockery of any calls for him to be dropped, but then again, if he played like that every week, no one would ever complain about him.