The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 1-0 Newcastle Utd 12.04.14

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.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Chelsea 3-0 Stoke City 05.04.14

1)   A dead parrot of a performance

Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If we hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. Yep, that pretty well sums up the account of themselves Stoke gave at Stamford Bridge, a display that by about the 20th minute had shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.  It was a game in which Petr Cech’s goal was never seriously threatened, and but for poor finishing and brave goalkeeping, the scoreline would have been a lot more embarrassing.

Our good run had to end at some point, and the smart money was always on that happening at the home of a team that may yet be able to call themselves champions by 11th May, and who remain unbeaten at Stamford Bridge under Jose Mourinho. There had been optimism among our fans that our fine form and their recent wobble made it a good time to play the Blues, and the fact that Hazard and Oscar started on the bench, while we went with the side that eviscerated Aston Villa, gave these hopes another boost. Yet on the pitch we never truly looked as if we believed we had a chance, in a contest somehow more dispiriting and one-sided than our insipid FA Cup exit on the same ground in January. Certainly it was a million miles away from the spirited showing there last season, against a stronger Chelsea side. Nope, this had the feeling of one of those dreaded ‘bonus games’ of seasons past, written off practically before a ball had been kicked.

In all fairness we didn’t start too badly, seeking to keep the ball and move it quickly with some near, short passing. We forced an early corner through Arnautovic’s cross, and Odemwingie managed a shot on target from distance, though he really should have played Arnie in instead. Before long though, the hosts started to deliver the response expected of them after two defeats in their last two games, cranking up the pressure and creating chances, and we were not equipped to deal with that change of pace.

By the half-hour point we were ragged, with the Blues finding ridiculous amounts of space. Torres, Lampard, Salah and Ivanovic all got into shooting positions but did little to sufficiently test Begovic. A second, deflected shot from Willian did produce a fine stop from our number one though, and a courageous dive at the feet of Torres delayed the inevitable that bit longer after a horror show from Erik Pieters let the striker in.

A goal was always coming though and a string of calamitous errors gift-wrapped one for the home side. A Chelsea throw down the Stoke right saw Odemwingie lost on the wrong side of Matic, giving him the freedom to pull back to an unmarked Salah, who fired into the opposite corner off Begovic.

That all but ended the game as a contest but we grimly hung on until half time, though Ivanovic, enjoying himself with some marauding, unchecked runs from right back, did have the ball in the net but was rightly ruled offside. Nothing was sticking up front for us, with Crouch isolated and pretty much invisible and our wide players required to defend more than attack – a feat that was often beyond them.

Mark Hughes made a double change at half time in the hope of putting up more of a fight, but what followed was a disastrous second half that saw us give the ball away cheaply, chase shadows all over the pitch, and defend with all the grace, poise and awareness of Oliver Reed on an 80s chat show.

Just past the hour mark, Chelsea sub Hazard backheeled to Salah, who dashed past one of Hughes’ changes, Andy Wilkinson; Wilko proceeded to commit a tackle of Sonko-esque proportions, a wild, mistimed slash that gave Lee Probert the easiest penalty decision of his career. Begovic did well to keep out Lampard’s spot kick, but the rebound was not kind, and Chelsea’s record scorer was left to clean up his own mess and make it 2-0.

We danced to Chelsea’s drum for the rest of the game, which was capped off by a superb run and curling finish from man of the match Willian. Ryan Shawcross has been criticised for giving the Brazilian too much space, but the damage had been done before then as he was allowed to run unchallenged, Shawcross effectively attempting to do the work of three men as he pointed to runners that needed tracking while attempting to do some tracking of his own.

The game got progressively nastier as things got further and further away from us. Our other half time arrival, Charlie Adam, had taken his frustrations out first on Schűrrle and now did so on David Luiz, while the Brazilian defender in turn took vengeance on Erik Pieters with a vile over the top challenge. Neither was so much as booked.

Arnautovic’s control let him down at a crucial moment in our best chance of the game, otherwise Odemwingie’s snapshots continued to be our likeliest hope of a goal, one effort cannoning off Terry for a corner, but our set pieces were invariably wasted. Both sides ultimately settled for 3-0.

Few teams emerge from Stamford Bridge with much but we didn’t even leave with our pride. A night to forget.

 

2)  A rotten night for the back four

Erik Pieters’ terrific run of form came to an abrupt halt with an absolute nightmare in West London. He often seems to struggle against the top sides, with similar problems against Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton this season, and he simply could not contain the eager to impress Salah, seemingly rarely in the same postcode as the Egyptian winger, who always managed to find time and space in good areas on the Chelsea right. Panicked by the pace and movement of Chelsea’s attackers, his horrendous attempted chested backpass to Begovic inadvertently put Torres in on goal, and he has to take a large share of the blame for the opening goal, which left Salah in oceans of room in the box. Awful stuff all evening, unfortunately.

At least he wasn’t hooked at half time, like the hapless Geoff Cameron. The American’s weaknesses have been on show for a while now and he looked out of his depth on Saturday, constantly on the wrong side of Willian, making some dreadful decisions, and again seemingly unsure where to position himself. His use of the ball was perhaps his most consistent failing, his sloppiness in possession underlined by a pass rate of 67%, by a distance the lowest of any outfield player who started the game. Geoff needs a spell on the bench, but has likely been spared due to his replacement being even worse. Step forward Ryan Shotton?

Marc Wilson was decent enough on the ball, wasting little and passing sensibly and accurately, but off the ball he played as if he was in a trance, at sixes and sevens whenever the pressure was on and losing men at set pieces and from open play. Shawcross was, as always, the pick of the bunch but it’s safe to say he’s had better days at the office as well.

In fairness, the defence wasn’t helped by a poor rearguard action in general. The midfield offered less protection than usual, the level of help Pieters received from Arnie was zero, allowing Ivanovic to get forward at will, and Odemwingie, aside from his poor marking for the first goal, has developed an irritating habit of dithering in dangerous areas when the situation calls for him to get rid at all costs.

It’s four years since Asmir Begovic’s Stoke City debut in a 7-0 defeat at the Bridge, and but for him, this would have been another absolute humping.

 

3)  Subs made sense but were undermined by performances

When Mark Hughes threw on Adam and Wilkinson at half time, the changes were logical. Adam could provide some creativity, a goal threat, and a much-needed link to Crouch, while Cameron was routinely having his backside handed to him and a pure defender was arguably needed to shore things up.

Yet neither player brought those qualities to the table and the duo swiftly set about becoming the two worst players on the pitch for the remaining 45 minutes. I like Wilko a lot but he looked lost and miles off the pace, and the penalty he conceded was nothing short of amateurish. He was no better going forward, getting into good positions but making an unholy mess of his delivery, overhitting one cross by miles and trickling a daisy cutter into Cech’s grateful arms under no pressure whatsoever. I was in favour of the club’s decision to offer him a new deal in the summer but I hope this was a case of rust rather than the injuries taking their toll. He has been a fine and underrated right back over the years – our best of the Premier League era by a wide, wide margin – but on this evidence he did not, sadly, look fit for purpose.

Adam had a miserable time of it as well. There’s been hysteria about him being victimised by the media, with the press and Match of the Day highlighting his follow-through on Schűrrle that ended the German’s participation and his Paul Gascoigne ’91 cup final tribute act introduction of his studs into Luiz’s chest. But if he doesn’t want that kind of publicity, he needs to stop fuelling it. Either he’s the Mr Bean of tackling, clumsy to an almost supernatural degree, or there’s some intent there. You can never be sure of intent and you always want to give your own players the benefit of the doubt, but the fact is that these incidents are following Adam around. Sooner or later the excuses have to stop. If he feels he’s being victimised, he needs to stop giving them reasons to talk about this side of his game.

Such flashpoints always seem to happen when Adam is frustrated with his own performance and he had every reason to be. He routinely gave the ball away (only Cameron and 78th minute sub Walters had worse completion rates) and his set pieces were a joke. He has done his claims for a recall no good whatsoever.

 

4)  Lightning doesn’t strike twice for Palacios

After a storming, box-to-box performance at Villa Park, Wilson Palacios got the nod when Stephen Ireland was taken ill. But there was no repeat performance here for the Honduran. Though he started brightly, making three good interceptions in the first 10 minutes, the pace of the game soon proved far too fast for him, and he started to get caught in possession and give away silly free kicks. Some slackness in possession 30 yards from goal almost let Schűrrle in and attacking moves broke down when the ball was passed to him. By the end of the half, Chelsea were running rings around him and it was no surprise when he failed to emerge for the second half. The odd good performance here and there simply isn’t good enough for a player paid his wage. He needs to be jettisoned.

Palacios was typical of the woeful slowness in the Stoke midfield, as he, Whelan and later Adam were consistently second to their opponents in mind and action. Whelan kept the ball well while he had it at least but was uncharacteristically lax off the ball and was conspicuous by his absence when Willian was running through en route to the third goal. Only Steven Nzonzi can hold his head high after a busy, bustling game in that more advanced role. It was he who produced Stoke’s one moment of quality with a sumptuous 50-yard ball to Arnautovic, who was in on goal had he been able to get it under control. Since his return to the team the Frenchman has been a model of consistency.

 

5)  Defeat must not derail our momentum

As disappointing as the manner of this loss was, it’s out of the way now, and we need to show it hasn’t damaged us or sapped our confidence. Few teams, after all, get anything at Stamford Bridge and our remaining games are all eminently winnable. We’ve come back from worse; after the 7-0 game we followed up with a hard-fought draw with Everton and an away win (!) at Europa League finalists Fulham (!!).

We must bounce back on a demoralised Newcastle at the Brit on Saturday. There’s still plenty to play for – a highest Premier League position, points total and goal tally – and we also have the chance to play grim reaper with Cardiff, Fulham and West Brom all to play us. Hopefully that parrot was only resting after all…

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 1-0 Hull City 29.03.14

1)  A solid if unspectacular victory

The Britannia Stadium is a happy place at the moment, and there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere about the place as Stoke’s biggest home crowd of the season turned up after the fantastic, goal-laden displays of the last fortnight. That feeling of contentment and optimism was of the variety not felt since those heady days of spring 2011, and it could even be felt in the away end, as Hull’s fans contemplated their forthcoming trip to Wembley.

If this game didn’t exactly rain on anybody’s parade, it’s fair to say that it didn’t exactly crank the party up a notch either. There was an element of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ in the wake of the seven goals stuffed past brothers in claret West Ham and Aston Villa, with Stoke struggling to find a breakthrough against Steve Bruce’s well-drilled Tigers.

This was particularly true during a flat first half. Though we put together some nice exchanges in and around the box through the industrious Ireland, Crouch, Odemwingie and Whelan, we couldn’t find a clear sight of goal, as Hull’s back three (in reality a back five off the ball) squeezed us out, cut down the space, and ensured our flair players were forced kept on the periphery. By the half hour mark, we appeared to be running out of ideas.

To make matters worse, even though Hull were seeing a lot less of the ball, they were creating the better chances. Just nine minutes had elapsed when Asmir Begovic was forced to tip Tom Huddlestone’s well-struck shot round the post, while Peter Odemwingie lost Liam Rosenior, who should have got his second goal in as many weeks but instead guided his free header well over the bar from about 10 yards.

Things initially looked more promising after the break, with Odemwingie’s fierce effort forcing Steve Harper into his first serious save, but soon fell into the same pattern, our static front line unable to find a way past Hull’s stoic defending. There was another scare at the other end as well, when our old chum David ‘not dead after all’ Meyler popped up to hit a shot from distance that deflected off Geoff Cameron, producing an incredible reaction save from the wrong-footed Begovic. We then got lucky as Jelavic spooned the rebound wide from close range.

That was a turning point. Now we started to threaten, with Odemwingie twisting and turning and Cameron able to get further forward on the right, while Arnie, quiet after three barnstormers out of his last four, woke up on the left. It took a tactical switch and a heinous error to finally get the ball in the net though. Ireland and Odemwingie switched places, with the Nigerian pushing up into more of a central attacking role and Ireland operating as quite a narrow right-sided midfielder. Almost immediately, Odemwingie intercepted a dreadful cross-field ball from Elmohamady and set off for goal, easing past a defender before firing low from just outside the box beyond Harper’s clutches and into the bottom corner. Cue wild celebrations.

Having edged in front, we proceeded to have our best spell of the game, aided by Bruce taking off one of his centre backs (the one his seed created, no less) and throwing on a forward in Aluko, thus ensuring there was more space for us to exploit in the final third. Chief beneficiary was a rejuvenated Arnie, who now started to get into good positions, and we forged a few more decent chances, the best coming when the Austrian played in Ireland, who saw his shot palmed over by Harper.

Hull turned up the pressure again in the last 10 minutes, aided by our own dodgy subs, but we defended well enough and they lacked the quality to create anything of note, even during the five minutes of injury time the officials conjured from somewhere.  Indeed, the best opportunities continued to come our way courtesy of Odemwingie, who tricked his way into a great position in the box on the left but opted to try and feed John Guidetti (who’s already pretty well fed) rather than going for goal himself. He was similarly unselfish when he bamboozled his way through again on the right.

The points didn’t seem in genuine jeopardy once we scored though, and that’s 40 points reached with six games to spare. We’re still a punchline in some lazy circles, still a provincial club the snobs and hypocrites in the London media wished would go away. But we’re still here, and we’re getting better. Hard luck lads. We’ll stick around.

 

2)  Stoke are not the finished article

That said, it’s important that we don’t, to paraphrase Winston Wolf, erm, get over-enthusiastic in our self-congratulation. This game saw many of the problems that have blighted our build-up play all season resurface. There were times where we overplayed at the back, passing for the sake of passing and almost getting ourselves into trouble in the process, while the first 60 minutes saw a criminal lack of movement and ideas at times.

As good as our home form remains, our Achilles’ heel has been a failure to break down teams who come and put men behind the ball and who press us, and this well-organised Hull side did both. The success we’ve had has come against teams who either can’t defend, like Villa, or who have attacking ambitions of their own, like the top sides or West Ham. Present us with a team whose main intention is to keep it tight though, and we struggle to create. That needs to be worked on.

It didn’t help that Arnautovic, who’s been so influential in our fine form, was some way from his best for much of the game, seemingly reluctant to make runs and instead pointing out other players to pass to rather than making himself available, which was frustrating. There were times when the likes of Nzonzi and Pieters were stood with the ball, waiting for him to move and he simply wouldn’t. He also seemed to want to get rid of the ball too early, whether that was snatching at shots or misplacing passes. He did improve though and was creating chances by the time of his substitution.

Peter Crouch had a good game but Curtis Davies, unlike Nathan Baker, wasn’t prepared to let him have all his own way and the flow of knockdowns wasn’t as constant as it has been. Stephen Ireland was also decent enough (though I’d like a few pints of whatever the sponsors were drinking to award him man of the match), especially defensively, with nobody winning more tackles and no Stoke player making more interceptions. With the benefit of hindsight however, you do wonder if Charlie Adam’s talents and penchant for pinging passes around might have been better suited to unlocking a stubborn Tigers’ defence.

It wasn’t all bad by any means. The midfield did well, largely muzzling Huddlestone, with Whelan typically solid and Steven Nzonzi a strong contender for man of the match with an all-action display, chasing back to win the ball, bringing it forward well and completing more passes than any other player. Crouch was typically selfless, working hard to bring others into the game, and the full backs got better as the game went on. Erik Pieters’ boldness on the attack gradually increased, while Geoff Cameron, after a bit of a shocker last week, started clumsily but by the second half was taking the ball down with aplomb and using it cleverly.

We just need to iron out those attacking kinks. Hopefully the manager will be backed to address them.

 

3)  Odemwingie the punisher strikes again

Of course, whereas we have struggled to win games against our peers this season, we did manage to take all three points here, and we owe that to man of the moment Peter Odemwingie.

In tight games such as this you have to make sure you punish mistakes, something we’ve failed to do on too many occasions. Yet that is not an issue for the Nigerian, who followed up clinical finishes against West Ham and Villa with another well-taken goal. As even Bruce grudgingly admitted, Odemwingie still had plenty to do when he intercepted Elmohamady’s pass, and he showed pace, strength and skill to keep the ball glued to his feet as he raced forward before providing a precise finish from distance to beat Harper.

As I wrote last week, it’s been years since we had a striker who you know will score when faced with a one-on-one. As Hughes acknowledged recently, he brings that cutting edge that our play needed, proving the difference between one point and three. Imagine if we’d signed him earlier in the season – might we have got more from home games against Norwich, West Brom, Southampton, even Manchester City?

Odemwingie is a far better player than I gave him credit for. I’d always thought he was no more than your classic predator, playing on the shoulder of the last defender, relying on pace that is only going to recede in his 30s. But he’s an intelligent, skilful footballer who shielded and kept the ball well when playing out wide and who frightened the life out of a previously sturdy Hull defence when able to deploy his bag of twisty-turny tricks through the middle. He was a victim of his own unselfishness at times, and probably should have put the game to bed rather than his act of charity for Guidetti, but all in all, wherever he’s played, he’s been a total revelation for us, and an unbelievably astute piece of business by the manager, even if his impact turns out, like Beattie, to be short-term.

I’ve never been happier to be wrong about a signing.

 

4)  So here’s to you, Asmir Begovic

Saturday was the first time I’d heard the Boothen’s new ditty for our goalkeeper, and while I find it a little bit Enid Blyton, it’s miles better than the moronic seal clapping of “Bego, Bego, Bego”, and far more worthy of the man.

Our second clean sheet of 2014 was almost entirely down to Bosnia’s number one. The mark of an able goalkeeper is one who retains his sharpness and focus even when he’s given little to do, and that sums up Begovic’s performance. He had few saves to make, but the impact he made had a huge say in the destiny of the points. He made two world class saves: Huddlestone’s first half effort was struck well and heading for the corner and Begovic saw it late, but still got down at the last minute to divert it wide. The save from Meyler’s deflected shot was even better as he was able to shoot a hand up while heading in a different direction to the ball.

Begovic was also typically commanding in the air, claiming virtually every high ball into our box and averting danger before it could arise.

It feels as if his exit is on the horizon, and though almost nobody would begrudge him the chance to test himself at a higher level and we’ll get a good fee for him, the thought of losing him still turns the stomach. He is a keeper, in the grand Clough tradition, worth 10-15 points a season, and though we appear to have signed a fine young replacement, there’s a big difference between a good keeper and a great keeper. It’s been a long, long time since we had anything other than a very good keeper between the sticks, but Begovic is in a different class. Without him we would have been in deep trouble this season and last – our record without him in the league this term stands at W0 D1 L5. Assuming he goes, the adjustment period could be a painful one.

If that’s a gloomy prognosis, at least we can enjoy him while he’s here. Let’s hope for a miracle and that we can hold onto him at least one more season.

Heaven holds a place for those who pray…

 

5) S ubs make for a nervous finish

March’s results and performances have been, on the whole, terrific, and Mark Hughes is surely a strong contender for the manager of the month gong. It’s ironic then, after so much good work, that our win could have been snatched from us thanks to his baffling late substitutions.

His decision to wait so long to make a change seemed strange in itself, with Adam for the flagging Ireland seeming a no-brainer by the hour mark. The goal suggested that Sparky was right after all, but still we waited as the pressure grew, and when a sub was made, with eight minutes remaining, the man who came on was Wilson Palacios.

That in itself wasn’t a problem, as the Honduran had been excellent at Villa and him replacing Ireland would allow Nzonzi to push up. But instead mystifyingly, Glenn Whelan was the man removed in a like-for-like swap that deprived us of the one bloke who can actually play as a screening midfielder. Palacios did ok but he’s even slower than Whelan, which resulted in his customary booking within two minutes of his entrance, while a couple of notable misplaced passes allowed Hull to get back on the front foot.

Similarly, was there any real need to even use Guidetti with the game fairly finely poised? Again, Peter Crouch is the only target man we have, and we needed someone to help the ball stick further up the pitch and win headers in both boxes. The still unfit-looking Guidetti certainly isn’t that man, and though he’d have put the game to rest had Odemwingie managed to find him, the overall effect was that we lost another valuable layer of protection.

Those two changes were the equivalent of easing a train into the station by cutting the brakes. I can usually see Hughes’ thought process in his tactics and selections but I really couldn’t here. Still, it’s nitpicking after another valuable three points have been accrued. No harm done. The feelgood factor is alive and well.

Sorry for mentioning Steve Bruce’s seed.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Aston Villa 1-4 Stoke City 23.03.14

1)   A milestone win in so many ways

Go on then, tell me you saw that coming. I dare you. Even given Stoke’s current run of good form, the sheer scale of the thumping meted out to Aston Villa couldn’t have been foreseen. The horrors of our away record are well documented, with just three wins on the road in the last two seasons, while Mark Hughes’ own away record since 2008 is equally miserable, losing 58% of his 78 matches. Bearing those figures in mind, and the fact that we were taking a patched-up squad to the second city, deprived of four attacking players who accounted for 47% of our goals this season, it’s nothing short of astonishing that we were able to notch our best ever Premier League away win on Sunday.

It certainly wasn’t on the cards early on, as for the second straight week we conceded a soft goal after four minutes. Fabian Delph turned Geoff Cameron far too easily on the Stoke right hand byline, while Ryan Shawcross allowed Christian Benteke too much space to control and fire into the top corner.

In theory, conceding the early goal played right into Villa’s hands, meaning they could play their favoured counter attacking game as we were forced out in search of an equaliser. Certain teams – and let’s be honest, certain previous Stoke teams – would have crumbled following such a setback. But not this team. We didn’t panic, stuck to the plan, and patiently probed for openings, sometimes playing it long from the back, sometimes playing through the middle with Whelan and the recalled Wilson Palacios dropping deep to collect the ball. Peter Odemwingie fired a warning shot against the Villans’ boughs when he twisted and turned and shot just over. 120 seconds later, it was the Nigerian who would draw us level, controlling a Crouch knock-down before running on to slot the ball past Guzan. It was no more than we deserved.

From that moment there was only one team in it. Stoke grew in confidence and as they did so, more and more fluidity and swagger crept into their attacking play. Just four minutes after the equaliser they were in front through a beautiful move that took in a raking 40-yard ball from a centre half, a backheel from our maverick into the path of a marauding full back, and a pinpoint sidefoot finish from our target man, with Nathan Baker echoing Shawcross’ earlier effort and standing off Crouch, who needs no invitation to punish opponents.

Villa’s heads began to drop and it was around this time they started dishing out the rough stuff and trying to knock us off our stride by, simply put, kicking us. No dice, boys. Stoke controlled the game, with our midfield imperious, Whelan anchoring things brilliantly, Palacios displaying a little-seen tenacity, and Nzonzi relishing his advanced role. The home side couldn’t get near our goal, while we continued to use the flanks to stretch them. Just before half time came the game’s best goal. Stoke were playing some tidy, one-touch keep to see out the half until Erik Pieters sent Marko Arnautovic away. We got  touch lucky when his pass cannoned of Baker straight into Nzonzi’s path, but his first time low drive was struck clean as a whistle from 20 yards and flew into the bottom corner. We were in dreamland.

Stoke made a slightly complacent start to the second half, sitting deeper, and getting sloppier in their passing. Yet Paul Lambert’s side still posed no serious threat to Asmir Begovic’s goal and the better chances kept falling our way, as Odemwingie again created the space to get in a fierce effort that Guzan couldn’t hold onto, the rebound just too far ahead of Crouch.

We were doing a professional job keeping Villa at bay, but the men in claret and blue were their own worst enemies. Frustrated and niggly, they continued to rough us up, with Baker and Albrighton particularly committed to thuggery. Five Villa men would go into Mark Clatternburg’s book (and El Ahmadi might have been punished further for an awful early lunge on Palacios), but this only served to kill any momentum they were building and take the sting out of the game…which was fine by us.

The game was fizzling out quite nicely from our perspective, but we still had one last sting to administer. Palacios found Arnie on the left, and he skipped past Bacuna before pulling back for Cameron to dart into the box and slam home his second of the season and our fourth, a delicious, frosty icing on an already towering cake.

Nearly 12 months ago, Aston Villa came to Stoke and taught us a lesson. We looked like a team of dinosaurs primed for extinction. They were a vibrant team on the up. Things came full circle on Sunday. We looked every inch a side that is going places, and Villa looked like one running on empty. If the symmetry is pleasing, the way we went about it was electrifying. It was one for the ages.

 

 

2)  Palacios’ selection was another Hughes masterstroke

Our manager is in the midst of a Midas phase at present, apparently unable to do any wrong. Over the past two months he has deployed different formations, different gameplans, and been rewarded at virtually every turn.

On Sunday he did it again. I never wanted to see Wilson Palacios play for the club again, long tiring of his apathetic, wheezy showings. I’d sooner we’d moved Cameron into midfield and played one of the other right backs. But in the event Palacios was excellent. After a slow start, he found his rhythm and was tidy and positive in his passing, and shockingly mobile to boot, sometimes picking up the ball from the centre backs, sometimes running beyond the forwards into the box. Completing 85% of his passes, the Honduran was part of that brilliant passing move that led to the third goal, and his excellent angled ball out to Arnautovic set in motion the passage of play that created the fourth. This was the player we thought we were getting three years ago.

Palacios’ presence in midfield saw Nzonzi pushed further forward, where he excelled. He made more passes than anybody on either side, found plenty of space in dangerous areas, and linked brilliantly with Arnie. His laser-guided low driller into the bottom corner from distance was a thing of beauty, and even he seemed surprised to see it arrow so perfectly past Guzan.

Hughes keeps getting the big decisions right. His signings are starting to find top gear while a number of the old guard – Wilson, Whelan, Crouch, Nzonzi – have been rejuvenated under his care. It was a weekend where there were a number of candidates for man of the match – but the bloke in the dugout might just be the one most deserving of the accolade.

 

3)  Evolution evident in the goals

As we continued to fine-tune our hybrid long/short passing game, the promising fusion of ‘the old way’ and ‘the new way’ resulted in four very well taken goals.

‘Old Stoke’ was visible in our equaliser – a thumping, looping header up the pitch, followed by an up and under, followed by a Crouch knock-down into the box, before Odemwingie ran through and added some finesse by controlling and finishing expertly.

The second goal, however, displayed the extra strings we’ve added to our sturdy bow. There was nothing percentage-like about Ryan Shawcross’ exquisite long pass to Arnautovic, and his classy backheel set Pieters scampering away. He swatted away Weimann’s feeble attempt to contain him, giving the left back time to deliver with unerring accuracy a low cross to Crouch from the byline, and he instinctively shifted his weight to angle a shot perfectly into the corner where Guzan had no chance of reaching it. It was brilliantly constructed from start to finish.

There was plenty of stardust in the third as well. What started as a textbook keep-ball session as half-time approached, with crisp passing all the way across midfield, morphed into an attack when Pieters played a clever ball down the line to Arnautovic. Yes, he got a touch lucky when his pass rebounded off Baker, but Nzonzi’s laser-guided, turbo daisycutter death-strike could not have been struck more sweetly, fizzing into the bottom corner, a finish of emphatic potency after that 15-pass foreplay.

The final goal added yet more silk. It was visible in Palacios’ pass to Arnie. It was there in the drop of the shoulder and lightning footwork that saw the Austrian make a fool of Bacuna. It was there in Cameron’s late run and precise finish.

So let’s go through that checklist again. Flicks, tricks, backheels, lengthy passing moves, full backs scoring and creating, midfielders pushing forward. These flourishes, bolted onto that strong, direct core, underline that the days of being brutally, functionally one-dimensional are over.

A new Stoke City is emerging from its chrysalis. Let’s make sure its nourished and nurtured, not neglected.

 

4)  A mixed afternoon for the full backs

Erik Pieters recovered from his ankle knock, and he is getting better with every game. The erratic, reluctant to get forward, inconsistent left back of the first half of the season has been replaced by a player turning in textbook full back performances with impressive regularity. He was Stoke’s man of the match for my money.

Pieters was the starting point for many of our best attacks as well as providing that assist for Crouch. His understanding with Arnie is starting to reach telepathic levels, and he was strong defensively, not reacting to the treatment dished out to him and making some important blocks, while winning all of his attempted tackles.

It’s taken a long time for me to be sold on Pieters, but – whoever’s signing he was – he’s starting to look like Stoke’s best of the season.

Geoff Cameron had an altogether tougher time of things. Lost for the goal, when Delph rolled him like an oatcake, there were times when even the most basic pass went astray, while his crossing has deteriorated as the season has progressed, with balls into the box either overhit or fizzed into the goalkeeper’s grateful arms. He is fading after his fantastic start to the season and is the weak link of our back line as things stand, his positioning defensively and lack of end product providing cause for concern.

At least he scored a good goal.

 

5)  Crouch and Odemwingie show their ruthlessness

Having been guilty of missing chances on a fair few occasions this season, we were pleasingly clinical on Sunday, scoring with four of our five shots on target.

Odemwingie has been a big part of our new-found killer instinct – the first natural goalscorer we’ve had since James Beattie. As mentioned earlier, the way he latched on to Crouch’s knock-down was brilliant, instinctive striker’s play. He just does not miss those one on ones.

The big loser of the weekend, other than anyone in claret and blue, was Jon Walters. Seven goals in his absence and just two conceded has to finally convince Hughes that we can, in fact, play without him, and with Arnautovic and Odemwingie in the kind of form they’re in, and everyone in midfield, from Adam to Ireland to Nzonzi to Whelan to Palacios showing their value in the past month, it’s hard to envisage Jon being a regular starter for the remainder of the season, and possibly beyond that. Progress might just have overtaken the great untouchable. It’s bittersweet, but that’s football.

Having let their former striker score the winner against them in December, it took a special kind of idiocy for the Villa back line to stand off Crouch when he was presented with the ball in the six yard box, and he punished them once again. It was another selfless display by the big man, who has been transformed since he got some runners to play closer to him. He was an absolute monster in the first half, winning everything in the air, and the Villans just didn’t know how to deal with him. After the break, they decided they could only handle him by impeding him at every turn, which played into our hands, and he made some important defensive interventions as well. Now our top league scorer with seven, he has made himself an outside contender for our player of the season accolade. Three seasons in, it seems we’re getting our money’s worth from our record signing after all.

 

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 1-0 Arsenal 01.03.14

1)  Arsenal’s Brit-phobia continues

It was supposed to be the match where Arsenal finally conquered their Britannia Stadium hoodoo once and for all. The Gunners were in the unfamiliar position of still being in the thick of the title race by March, while many feel that this Stoke side lacks the bite and aggression of the Pulis era.

That wasn’t what transpired over 95 minutes on Saturday however, as the Potters proved the better side and once again sent Arsene Wenger and his charges scurrying back to North London with their tails well and truly between their legs.

The bad blood between the sides ensured a raucous atmosphere from the get-go, but on the pitch the first half was a curiously flat affair for what was supposedly a grudge match, with neither side exactly catching fire. Some of our play in the final third was very tidy, with Marko Arnautovic looking purposeful when he was able to get on the ball and Erik Pieters providing able support, frequently getting beyond the Austrian. As usual though, that final killer ball just wasn’t there, and our best chance of the half came from the rather unlikely source of Glenn Whelan, who, teed up by Arnautovic, smashed one on target (!) from 20-odd yards, forcing a full-stretch save from Szczesny.

On other occasions though, those same old problems were again on display. There was some very odd decision-making when we had the ball at the back, with Asmir Begovic and the centre backs tempted to play the ball into dangerous areas where the recipients were immediately closed down. There was also an inordinate amount of, for want of a better term, fannying about unnecessarily rather than getting the ball up the pitch and away from danger. Up front meanwhile, the lack of movement was again a concern.

Yet we were not punished by an insipid Arsenal, who created very little themselves and lacked incision. Other than Lukas Podolski’s rushed, spooned shot that went wide, their best opportunity came when Santi Cazorla was allowed to run through unchecked, but his effort was easy for Begovic.

The second half was much feistier, and referee Mike Jones, who hasn’t always been our best buddy in the past, had a fairly sensible game. There were a number of challenges and incidents that arguably crossed the line into the realms of ‘naughty’ (of course, those perpetrated by Arsenal players have been largely glossed over by the media, as they don’t fit the narrative), but could just as easily be filed under ‘clumsy’. It’s not clear which of these categories Charlie Adam’s stroll along Olivier Giroud’s ankle or foot-first jump into Arteta fell into, nor Tomas Rosicky’s late lunge that caught a marauding Erik Pieters in full flight.

We started to look more dangerous as the game wore on. Adam and Arnautovic provided good service into Crouch, who had two decent chances. One of these saw the big man glance a header that Szczesny tipped round the post, the other one he chose bizarrely to attack with his foot when it was begging for a header. A goalmouth scramble presented Geoff Cameron with a sight of goal right in the middle of the penalty area, but the ball just came out to him too quickly, and he poked high and wide.

Despite our huffing and puffing, a 0-0 seemed on the cards until Jon Walters ran onto a Crouch knock-down and attempted to flick the ball into the box past Laurent Koscielny, bouncing onto the Frenchman’s raised, outstretched hand in the process. Though there’s been a furore over Jones’ subsequent award of a spot kick, with the ‘must be deliberate’ aspect of the law being quoted ad nauseum, but it was the kind of incident that refs do tend to award penalties for and there was no need for Koscielny to have his arm in that position. With Adam off the pitch, Walters snatched the ball up and took the kick himself, sweeping it into the bottom corner to give us the lead with 15 minutes to go.

Arsenal introduced Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo and the three subs did make them look marginally more dangerous, with Özil bursting into the box and firing wide and Sanogo missing a glorious chance when he shot over from close range. Yet that was the sum total of the Gunners’ threat.

During a mystifying five minutes of injury time Arsenal cranked up the pressure and we defended magnificently, holding out fairly comfortably in the end to garner three points that our team performance thoroughly warranted.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth from Wenger and Arsenal fans as they sought to cry about and explain away the result was music to our ears.

 

2)  The bearpit did its job

There was a school of thought that said it was time to move on from the feud between the two clubs – and put everything from the toxicity of the Ramsey/Shawcross incident to the programme seller in 1972 and everything in between firmly in the past.

That’s a sensible, noble, grown-up approach…that was shown by Saturday’s game to be totally the wrong one.

We chose to embrace the edge that this fixture brings and it provided a critical advantage. Our hostility towards Arsenal, ratcheted up by the usual bilge in the media in the build-up and by Wenger’s traditional attempt to influence the referee days before, ensured everyone was well and truly pumped up well before kick off. There was a bit of a cup final vibe, with kids waving flags surrounded the pitch and the big screen showing all of our goals against the Gunners in the Premier League era.

The crowd was loud from the outset, with Wenger getting some well-deserved stick and booming tributes to Ryan Shawcross from the first whistle, while the booing when Arsenal had the ball seemed to contribute to their subdued performance. At their best, in their comfort zone, Arsenal are capable of playing some irresistible, flowing one-touch football, but they never came close to finding their stride at the Brit, were second to everything, and looked like they couldn’t wait to go home.

If a lifeless first half quietened everyone down a bit, the home support came literally roaring back when the game came to life after the break, with the team urged forward and given terrific backing, with a liberal sprinkling of abuse for the visitors as well, from references to Özil’s aquatic appearance to classics like ‘he didn’t see that’ and ‘doing the Wenger’. There was an energy in the team’s performance and in the stands that was in perfect synchronicity. Conversely, nary a peep was heard from Arsenal’s posse of travelling librarians, but then their team didn’t give them a lot to shout about.

I’m generally pretty sceptical about how big a part the crowd plays in football, having seen us lose at home in successive seasons to Millwall before an empty away stand and a Wimbledon side in its death throes who brought fewer supporters than you’d find in your average bus queue. But on Saturday it definitely seemed to have an impact on both sides – in very different ways.

 

3)  Take a bow, Jon Walters

Though his continued selection continues to be a source of contention among fans, Jon Walters again showed the zeppelin-sized bags of character he possesses with a typically indefatigable, matchwinning display.

Most of us felt queasy when he picked up the ball to take the penalty he himself had won, but he is nothing if not fearless, and though his spot kick - placed, not blasted as normal - wasn’t the cleanest strike, it was enough, with the keeper going the wrong way.

This kind of game, in which the bullying of big sides is required, is right up Walters’ street, as he proves a muscular irritant to opposing full backs, particularly in the air. It was nevertheless curious that in the first half we seemed determined to attack predominantly down our right, where JW’s lack of pace meant he rarely had the beating of Gibbs, especially since Arnie was looking a lot more threatening down the left.

Still, he did manage to find space at times and was always available for Crouch and Cameron to look for, and it was his well-timed run beyond Crouch that led to the penalty. He also did a strong job defensively, throwing himself into blocks and challenges high up the pitch and driving forward on the counter as best he could. Nobody on the pitch made more interceptions, and only three players made more tackles.

I still think that his gradual phasing out will be one of the first genuine signs of ‘pushing on’, and even now you wonder if there’s a place for him in games against the lesser lights where the onus is on us to unlock their defence. But Walters is one of the good guys, and in this age of the here today, gone tomorrow ‘stepping stone’ generation of player that clubs like us increasingly have to embrace, he, like Wilko and Shawcross, is a throwback to the days when there was a clearer connection between player and fans, and that’s why, even on his worst day, the vicious slating of him from some quarters just makes me sad.

Well played Jon. Still, let someone else take the next pen, eh?

 

4)  Fine performances all over the pitch, but Arnautovic stood out

This wasn’t quite up there with our best wins over Arsenal, like the two 3-1s or the Olofinjana stumbling winner game. Yet it was a match where grit and strength  were the primary ingredients required, and those were delivered throughout the side. We’ve come to expect excellence from Begovic and Shawcross as standard, the former being as dependable as ever, the latter again leading, directing, stopping and even playing one sumptuous 60-yard pass in behind the defence to Arnautovic.

Yet others stepped up the plate as well. Glenn Whelan had another very good game - a barbarian in the tackle, sweeping up at the base of midfield and playing some good forward passes into space for the likes of Walters and Cameron. Steven Nzonzi too was more positive, shielding the ball expertly and bringing it forward with real purpose. No Stoke player made more passes and the moment where he protected the ball just outside his own box and pivoted, taking three Arsenal players out of the game before setting off on the counter attack, was sublime. We also saw his importance his height brings in the middle as he won numerous aerial duels – only Crouch won more. At a time when question marks have again appeared over his future, he reasserted his status as the best midfielder at the club.

As you’d expect from our first clean sheet for 12 games, our defending was impressive throughout. Marc Wilson has had a tough time of things of late, his lapses costing us several goals, but he was every bit as good as his captain against Arsenal, showing his flinty side in sticking tight to Giroud and reading the game expertly. After Nzonzi and Whelan he was our most consistent passer.

We also saw arguably Erik Pieters’ finest game in a Stoke shirt. I’ve not always been convinced by the Dutchman but this was a textbook full back performance, as he regularly and intelligently got forward to support Arnie but was also a marvel at the back, making more tackles than anybody else and matching Walters in terms of making the most interceptions.Jones’ worst decision was the joke of a yellow card he dealt out to him for what was a fierce but brilliantly-timed challenge on Giroud.

Peter Crouch might not be a fan of the lone striker role, but once again performed selflessly in toiling away up front, acting as a final-third fulcrum for the three behind him to play off. Not only did he win loads of the knock-downs that are his bread and butter, but he also looked to bring the ball down and lay it off, pulled wide to make space for the likes of Adam and generally made sure the ball stuck to him high up the pitch. It was an important, unsung job and his commitment to it could not be questioned.

Arnautovic meanwhile, deserves to be singled out for praise. This blog has been critical of his insufficient contribution in many games this season but he has finally started to come into his own. His delivery has improved dramatically, with one dazzling curved cross in for Crouch being particularly good, and his touch is superb. He popped up all over the place, probing for space and making angles for himself and others, and is full of good ideas and ambitious passing. We’re also seeing greater acceleration as his fitness improves, which was important on the break as he was in effect our only outlet.

His double act with Pieters provided our most common passing combination and the duo were behind many of our most dangerous attacking moments, with the Austrian creating the highest number of chances of any individual in the game.

His idiosyncrasies can still annoy, such as his tendency to stand there, hands on hips, when he loses the ball rather than chasing to win it back, but as an attacking threat you get the sense that he’s about to explode and then we’ll really see the best of him.

With Assaidi out and the alternatives being either square pegs or an ageing Etherington, there’s an awful lot of pressure on Arnie now to be our chief creative threat out wide. If this display was anything to go by, he won’t disappoint.

 

5)  Hughes outfoxes Wenger (again)

One stat bandied around in the wake of this result is that Mark Hughes is now the first man to beat Arsenal with four different clubs. On the day, our manager got virtually every decision spot on. Being robbed of two of our only reasonably quick players through injury, Assaidi and Odemwingie, could have been damaging, but Hughes opted to return to the 4-2-3-1, restoring Nzonzi  to the side, and though this change possibly contributed to our overplaying at the back at times, overall it was the right move as both the Frenchman and Glenn Whelan played very important roles in our victory.

The decision to replace Charlie Adam just after he’d created a couple of half-chances was questioned by some (not least the Scotsman himself), but he was tiring visibly, had been caught in possession several times, and was walking a tightrope with the referee. Stephen Ireland buzzed around closing Arsenal’s midfielders down, which was just what we needed in the last 20 minutes. Adam’s retrospective three match ban is harsh, given bigger names have got away with similar ‘offences’ and intent is almost impossible to determine, but his absence could prove a blessing in disguise. Teams are wising up to his influence, and he endured a difficult afternoon, with Wenger clearly earmarking him as our danger man (which he, erm, proved to be in some ways). The ban gives him a rest so that he comes back fresh for the run-in, and he’ll only miss one home game. Away from home, there’s an argument that Ireland is better-suited to a counter-attacking style anyway, as he moves the ball quicker, while there’s always the option of trying Arnautovic in that position again.

Wenger’s team selection was very strange. He always seems to second-guess himself on visits to ST4, which should say something about his and his team’s mental block when it comes to playing in the Potteries.

Having spent the week leading up to the game droning on about physicality and our place at the bottom of the fair play table, you have to wonder why he picked pretty much the most lightweight team available to him. His midfield trio of Rosicky, Wilshere and Cazorla doesn’t exactly scream ‘ready for battle’, even if they did dish out their fair share of punishment, with Borstal-faced Wilshere particularly niggly. Why, in this game of all games, did he leave out perennial arse-kicker Mathieu Flamini, who could have provided protection for Cazorla? The Spaniard saw plenty of the ball but it was easy for us to prevent him doing anything of note with it. Similarly the broader, stronger Oxlade-Chamberlain caused us more problems in 16 minutes than Rosicky had in the previous 74.

Despite his shocker of a miss, the tank-like Yaya Sanogo has shown real promise in his first starts for Arsenal and would likely have given our centre-backs more problems than pantomime dame Olivier Giroud, whose regular bouts of histrionics at any Stoke player getting anywhere near him transmitted loud and clear to our boys that he could easily be wound up – something they wasted little time in doing, with Wilson, Whelan and of course Adam meting out the rough stuff.

This was the worst Arsenal performance at the Britannia Stadium to date. You just never got the sense, from about the 10th minute or so, that we were going to lose. Wenger is known as ‘Le Professeur’ but his teams have shown time and again that they lack mental strength and he has failed to rectify that. Like a counsellor at Camp Crystal Lake he appeared to fill his players’ heads with horror stories about the demons lurking at the Brit, and as a result they looked petrified almost before a ball was kicked.

The upshot is that Arsenal’s most significant title challenge in years lies in ruins thanks in large part to the club whose name they have spent so much time belittling and besmirching. Nasty, dirty Stoke City. And that feels pretty damn good.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 2-1 Manchester Utd 01.02.14

1)  The final giant falls

After six games without a win and an abomination of a deadline day, we couldn’t have wished for a better pick-me-up than this – three points, and thoroughly deserved ones at that - against the one top side we had yet to defeat as a Premier League team. And while victory didn’t feel quite as sweet or significant as it would have against Fergie’s vintage (a bit like seeing the Bootleg Beatles, great fun but not like the real thing), it will still go down as one of the great days of recent Stoke-supporting times.

We faced the daunting prospect of being the first team to face the unholy triumvirate of Rooney, Mata and Van Persie from the start, and Mark Hughes used Steven Nzonzi’s suspension to tweak his system, bringing back Marko Arnautovic and Jon Walters for the Frenchman and Oussama Assaidi and going 4-4-2. Stoke also opted to go far more direct in this game, with Begovic to Crouch and Pieters to Crouch being our top two pass combinations. We were happy to let them have most of the ball and attempt to strike on the break.

What followed was a very good game given the conditions. The visitors made the brighter start, and for the first 20 minutes or so their movement had us chasing shadows. They failed to create much of note despite that dominance however, with Wayne Rooney’s off-target effort and Robin Van Persie’s deflected close range header being as good as it got from them in the opening period.

When we did get on the ball we looked promising, with Charlie Adam, playing in a deeper role as part of a central midfield two, using his vision to good effect with some clever balls into the channels for the wide men. Jon Walters, deployed as part of the strike duo, pulled wide to flash across a few good crosses that Peter Crouch might have done better to get a connection with, while an up-for-it Arnautovic made some good runs from the left flank into the middle to pressure the Man Utd defenders high up the pitch.

Still, in a first half that was only really notable for injuries to United’s two centre halves, the goal, when it came, was something of a surprise. When Smalling felled Walters, Adam stepped up to belt the ball into the wall, where it struck the ever gormless-looking Michael Carrick, totally deceiving David De Gea and bouncing into the net. It was a fortunate way to take the lead, but as Mark Hughes’ noted in the aftermath, if anyone was due a bit of luck, it was us.

When Moyes’ men equalised just 37 seconds into the second half it seemed a grim collapse might be on the cards. There was more than a hint of offside about it but we only had ourselves to blame, with another Marc Wilson error being at the centre of things, his poor clearance getting us into trouble. Robin Van Persie needed little invitation to expertly clip the ball past Begovic.

Far from crumbling though we showed the testicular fortitude to get back in front within just five minutes. A fine crossfield ball from Cameron to Walters in the box was nodded back towards Arnautovic. The Austrian missed his kick, but right behind him was Adam to strike a picture-perfect, Racey’s rocket-type missile into the top corner from 25 yards. You don’t save them.

We then suffered a couple of injuries of our own that had the potential to derail our afternoon. First, Walters, whose tracking back had been important defensively, went flying into a challenge with Smalling at some force, possibly due in part to the slippery pitch, possibly though red mist at being booted in the head by Rafael moments earlier. Our number 19 was arguably fortunate only to see yellow, but less fortunate to see the lasting collateral damage force him to hobble out of the game. Next, Arnie, who was having a fine game down the left, combining with Pieters, playing some telling passes, having the beating of Rafael with some tricky play and going desperately close with an effort inside the box that curled wide, went down heavily under Rafael’s challenge and had to limp off with ankle trouble.

Yet Stoke continued to create chances. Arnautovic’s replacement, Assaidi, broke away and had two unmarked players he could have played in, but greedily opted to try and replicate his Chelsea heroics. He went even closer when a half-cleared corner fell to him and he blasted a wonderful first-time volley that De Gea tipped over. Shawcross was inches away from getting his head to another corner, while Adam twice drove forward in search of his hat trick but couldn’t quite get the power in his shots.

As we entered the last quarter however, the Red Devils had us under the cosh and a strong rearguard action was required. Asmir Begovic saw Wayne Rooney’s free kick late but managed to claw it away brilliantly and we survived the resulting scramble. Welbeck and Rooney both got into the box more than once but were crowded out by our defenders. All the injuries led to seven nervy minutes of injury time, but the storm was weathered. By the time Neil Swarbrick, (who didn’t get everything right, but did resist the visitors’ attempts to referee the game, not least the deplorable way sub Darren Fletcher tried to instruct him how to deal with Arnie’s injury from the sidelines) blew up, we’d kept the ball further up the pitch.

A famous win then, and the accompanying scenes of jubilation showed just how much this result meant to so many Stokies. We might not have seen any new boys on Friday, but the old ones aren’t finished just yet.

 

2)  A match won in spite of 4-4-2, not because of it

Danny Higginbotham must be feeling pretty pleased with himself, after the masterplan he outlined in his Sentinel column was essentially the one Hughes adopted for this game.

Many fans have been banging the 4-4-2 drum for a while, feeling that Crouch would benefit from having a striker alongside him and that our attacking threat would quicken and increase as a result. They will feel vindicated by this super win and performance.

My own view remains that 4-4-2 is not the answer, and that far from being a key factor in the result, this was in fact one we got away with despite it.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that our best performances all season, regardless of how we set up, have come at home to the big boys in games where they set out to attack us and in doing so left gaps for us to exploit. We also created a bagful of chances and scored three apiece against Chelsea and Liverpool and should have beaten Manchester City, using the old system. It also helped on Saturday that the visitors matched our formation, and once Rooney went into midfield and began to make a difference, we went 4-4-1-1 and had Walters (and later Ireland) operating deeper to combat him.

The reason I don’t see 4-4-2 as a long-term option can be found by looking at the matchwinner. By any measure, Charlie Adam had a fine game. He completed more passes and won more tackles than any other Stoke player. He scored another two vital goals, to take his tally for the season to seven, 14th in the league overall, the same as Christian Benteke, £12m Wilfried Bony and £27m Edin Dzeko and one more than Steven Gerrard and Samuel Eto’o . Hughes hailed him as the best striker of a ball at the club and his second goal, immaculately thrashed into the top corner with what I am obliged to describe as a cultured left foot, was as sweetly hit as any you’ll see.

On the ball he was terrific, seeing things before anyone else with some excellent incisive passing, and his fitness has improved dramatically as he lasted the distance and went on some mazy runs into the danger zone, leaving defenders in his wake. Simply put, he has made himself undroppable. Take his goals away and we’d already be plotting our trip to Bournemouth next season.

 

However…

 

And you’re not going to like this…

 

Off the ball he bordered on being a liability. The playground tendencies that make him such an asset on the front foot threatened to cost us at the other end. During that opening spell, when United were at their most dangerous, I lost count of the number of times he lost his man completely and could be seen, hands on hips, ball-watching. The most notable was when Rooney got into the box to shoot wide and Adam, who earlier in the move had been tracking him, was nowhere to be seen. At one point Walters had to visibly point and order him to pick up Cleverley, and this was a recurring feature of the second half as well, Adam basically having a free role that involved no defensive work whatsoever, with Walters and later Ireland detailed to do much of his running for him.

We can play 4-4-2 or we can play Charlie Adam, but we can’t do both, and Adam’s goals and creativity make it pretty clear which needs to be prioritised. Against a team who comes to the Brit with a three man midfield and is less gung-ho and frail than Moyes’ Mancunians, Adam’s neglect of the defensive side of the game is going to cost us if he’s part of a midfield two.

One thing that is hard to dispute is how little Steven Nzonzi was missed. We lost nothing defensively as a direct result of his absence and were able to transition from defence to attack far more quickly. I’d always thought he was indispensable but Saturday suggested otherwise in the strongest possible terms. Maybe when Robert Huth returns there is, after all, a case for switching Wilson to right back and deploying Geoff Cameron in that midfield carrying role? I’m not entirely convinced, but it might be worth a try.

It was Charlie Adam’s day though. We just need to make sure we play to his strengths. After all, we won’t be playing Manchester Utd every week…

 

3)  Moyes played right into our hands

The word ‘beleagured’ could have been invented for David Moyes, and the Manchester United manager was fooling precisely nobody (except maybe the irrelevance that is a semi-conscious Alan Hansen on Match of the Day) when he claimed his side were the better team and had been unlucky. In truth, genuine chances were few and far between for the visitors despite them having 62% of the play.

His frustrations are unsurprising, if misdirected. Just as he seemed to have turned a corner, with a pair of convincing wins and a marquee record signing, his stewardship has once again been called into question by defeat to a team without a league win since 21st December.

The Glaswegian redhead only has himself to blame however. His determination to shoehorn all of his attacking players into the team at the expense of any kind of balance was reminiscent of Steve McClaren’s ‘wally with the brolly’ England phase. Though MOTD claimed it was a 4-2-3-1, United set up as we did with a 4-4-2 – Rooney and RVP were largely up front together as a strike duo until Phil Jones’ injury forced Rooney into midfield. Yet opting for that system meant we weren’t outnumbered through the middle, while Carrick and Cleverly is hardly a powerful engine room combo likely to take a game by the scruff of the neck in the way that the midfielders in Man City or Spurs’ 4-4-2s can do. This meant we had relatively little to worry about in the middle of the park as they kept the ball in non-dangerous areas and we comfortably kept them at arms’ length for long spells. It also meant there was little in the way of service to that deadly front two.

Things might have been different had, say, Juan Mata been given free reign in his preferred no. 10 role, but just two starts into his career he, like Kagawa before him, has already been marginalised out wide, where he exerted no influence whatsoever.

Rooney had more of an impact when he dropped into midfield, but the trade-off was that Welbeck was an ineffectual substitute up top, and the removal of Van Persie on 78 minutes further blunted their edge despite them having more of the ball in and around our box for the last 15 minutes or so. Indeed, beyond the goal we gifted them and Asmir’s save from Rooney’s free kick, it’s difficult to recall a moment when our lead was in genuine jeopardy.

Before the game Moyes had plenty of kind things to say regarding Mark Hughes and the time and patience required for transition. They were the words of a man who knows full well that he is in the same position. Yet it’s difficult to see what change Moyes is effecting beyond turning the reigning champions into the team he moulded at Everton – plucky Europa League hopefuls. If that continues much longer, then the patience of the Old Trafford faithful is going to run out sooner rather than later.

 

4)  Odemwingie’s work rate impresses

His Trinidadian counterpart may have grabbed the headlines in South Wales, but Peter Odemwingie can be pleased with a busy display on his home debut.

Against the champions (easy to forget that’s what they are, isn’t it?) Odemwingie was one of Stoke’s best players, and put in the kind of shift that he is not exactly renowned for. The Nigerian was full of running on the right hand side, acting as a harrying nuisance to Patrice Evra and giving United a headache high up the pitch. Though I’m still be to convinced about the supposed pace he still has at his age, he’s certainly quicker than most of the other options in that position and with him on one flank and Arnie (and later Assaidi) on the other we were able to stretch the game in a way we haven’t been able to do for a long time.

However, I’d still prefer to see him used centrally and it seemed odd to have him out wide and Walters partnering Crouch. I thought the whole point of going 4-4-2 was to have someone more mobile alongside Crouch to benefit from his knockdowns. Walters isn’t that player, while Odemwingie, when used as a main striker at Sunderland showed he could create chances for himself and get into good positions.

I take the point that Walters did a lot of good defensive work in dropping deeper and covering for Adam, but if we’re sticking with 4-4-2 (and personally I’d rather go back to 4-2-3-1 with Odemwingie as the main striker), then maybe we could switch them (or give Walters a rest) and try PO as Crouch’s partner? There was certainly nothing wrong with the defensive side of the ex-West Brom man’s game against Man Utd, as only two players on the park recovered the ball more and only one made more interceptions than him.

It will be interesting to see how Hughes opts to line up at St. Mary’s.

 

5)  Plenty of the old ‘identity’ remains

All season we’ve been hearing how this team has lost its identity since the change in management and the accompanying changes in style. These have, so the theory goes, robbed us of our grit, our togetherness, our leaders, our defensive qualities.

I’ve never really bought into this argument. Those old qualities have resurfaced enough this season to show they’re still there, and this performance can be filed alongside the character shown to dig deep and win at West Ham, to come back against Chelsea etc as evidence of that.

Our defence and defending looked much more like its old self after a shaky few months, with the back four to a man doing well. It’s a shame for Wilson that he had another costly lapse, as the Irishman was much improved overall, giving defenders no time or space in the final third and (mostly) alert to any danger. Ryan Shawcross was customarily excellent, bravely throwing himself into tackles and showing no respect for reputations. Geoff Cameron’s disregard for marking at the far post still puts hearts in mouths at times but he was generally more solid than he has been. Erik Pieters meanwhile, after a run of stinkers, had his best game for weeks, with an intelligent, tidy and tough-tackling performance.

Our defending as a unit was better as well, with Glenn Whelan, facing the challenge of pretty much having to do the work of two men, showing he was up to the task and the wide men and Walters equally putting in a real shift in tracking back and closing down.

Yep, to varying degrees the old strengths are still there – the home form, raising our game against the top clubs at the Brit, that old grit (which has been absent at times admittedly over the past 12 months but never went completely). Hughes’ biggest failure has actually been an inability to address the bad stuff he inherited – the struggle to score goals, the lack of pace, set piece issues at both ends, the away form. Even the loss of on-field leaders in certain games was something that had crept in prior to this campaign. His job was to sort these problems out and so far, he hasn’t.

As good as this milestone result feels, in finally claiming the one scalp that had eluded us, it will count for nothing until we start to perform like that against our fellow bottom feeders – and get the wins in the bag at the same time.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Crystal Palace 1-0 Stoke City 18.01.14

1)  A contender for Stoke’s worst performance of the season

There was talk of war in the away end between the pro and anti Pulis factions, of banners, jeers, tears and fisticuffs. In the end, the pre-game tribute to Tony Pulis from the travelling Stoke fans was well-judged and classy – there was a loud rendition of “there’s only one Tony Pulis” and a few banners on show (veering between touching and homoerotic), then attentions turned, generally, to the task of cheering the lads on. Unfortunately, they gave us precious little to work with.

In short, Stoke found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of a classic Pulis home performance. We know too well that TP puts so much stock into his clubs’ home form, and if Palace were playing the role of Stoke City circa 2008/09, we were playing the role of the established but jaded, middling top flight side (Sunderland, Boro, Bolton, Blackburn etc) outbattled by the better organised, hungrier hosts.

It was a drab, insipid game that contained a familiar element of rope a dope: For most of the game Palace were happy to let us have the ball and we dominated long spells of the first half, with Jack Butland being a virtual spectator. After the break though the Eagles were a lot more proactive, ran at us at pace and, it has to be said, looked the fitter side. They punished us when they got the chance, and then comfortably kept us at bay for the remainder of the game.

Even in that first period, Stoke were skittish and wasteful in midfield. On the rare occasions we did make any progress, Walters got into good positions and even created some good opportunities for himself with his back to goal, but unfortunately had the killer instinct of a damp sheep, and our play petered out into nothing.

Oussama Assaidi was lively, and Marc Wilson had our best chance of the game when his downward header was pushed wide by Speroni, but we provided no consistent threat as the game became increasingly attritional.

Right at the start of the second half, Charlie Adam managed to control a nothing ball in his direction to fashion our other good chance, shooting inches wide. But then we gave that stupid goal away with a total comedy of errors, some weak play from Glenn Whelan creating a situation that led to an unfathomably poor backpass under pressure from Assaidi in his own box, which took the napping Wilson by surprise. Jason Puncheon stole in and still had plenty to do , but managed to turn and create enough space to wriggle a shot into the far corner.

And that was it. We were done for. Again we had plenty of possession (our highest-ever in a Premier League match in fact, at 56%), but no further opportunities of note. Adam put another long-range thumper wide. Crouch delivered a header into Speroni’s arms as if it were a newborn baby. Ireland, Arnautovic and new boy John Guidetti were thrown into the mix to little effect. By the end, we were reduced to going to a three man back line and pushing Ryan Shawcross, the one defender who could actually be relied on to do his job, up front. Needless to say we were suddenly more vulnerable to the counter attack, and only a great save from Jack Butland (who’d already had to make an unbelievable point blank triple save to keep us in the game) to deny Puncheon after Aaron Wilbraham’s clever dummy stopped us falling further behind. As the script demanded, our old friend from Newport was the one smiling at the end.

Wobbly and workshy at the back, lifeless and creatively bereft going forward, this was easily our most comprehensively rotten display since September’s defeat to a similarly quality-deficient but well-drilled Norwich. Positives were few and far between. After over a month without a victory (albeit with a tough run of games), we’re back into ‘where’s the next win coming from?’ mode. Unless the manager is backed in the transfer market this month, this bleak midwinter will turn frostier still. It may do anyway.

 

2)  The first goal was always going to be crucial

As we know ourselves, TP is a big believer in prioritising home form, and it was always going to be tough to break Palace down once they managed to get their noses in front. We’ve seen it before a fair few times. Indeed, of the 179 home league games Pulis took charge of during his 10 seasons as Stoke boss, we won 69% of the games in which we scored first.

Surprisingly, Palace were not as direct or one-dimensional as expected. Though there are signs that certain sections of the Holmesdale faithful are started to mutter about some of our old gaffer’s foibles, they played through the middle and had plenty of pace and attacking talent at their disposal. Indeed, it was frustrating to see him set up this side to play to their strengths as a counter attacking unit when he ultimately spent a fortune to stop Stoke playing to the very strengths he himself had instilled.

Nevertheless, we fell prey to a number of the old Pulis classics. Whenever we got into the final third the sheer weight of Palace men who got themselves behind the ball was impressive. Other playbook favourites included meticulous organisation, holding and blocking off at corners and time wasting.

It has to be said though that we made it incredibly easy for the Eagles to close out the game. Once again  we demonstrated that while we can exploit the extra space against teams who force the pace and attack us, we have no idea what to do when up against outfits who close ranks and defend well.

Our attacking play was characterised by a lack of ideas, with punts, hopeless long shots, dreadful, sloppy passes and backwards balls the order of the day. As has frequently been the case, we were awfully ponderous in possession. The midfield has copped some fearful flak for slowing down our attacks, but what are they supposed to do when there’s so little movement up front? Of the front three, only Assaidi was making the kind of runs for a midfielder or full back to pick out, and even he didn’t do so with enough regularity. As I’ve said for verging on three seasons now, a lack of pace in attack makes us woefully easy to defend against, and that will be the case until it is addressed.

Mark Hughes’ reaction to falling behind didn’t impress me either. The subs he brought on were the right ones, but two of them should have come on at least 10 minutes earlier than they did (Arnautovic and Guidetti didn’t appear until the 72nd and 79th minutes respectively), and the removal of Assaidi, one of the few players who could have made something happen, was needlessly conservative in a match in which there was nothing to lose.

Some fans see a return to 4-4-2 as the answer to our problems. Personally I don’t, as I don’t think we have the players to play that system and there would be no room for our few creative players like Adam, Ireland and Assaidi. However, this was one of those occasions where it might actually have worked, given that Palace were happy to sit deep and soak up the pressure. Instead, Hughes went for a bizarre 3-4-1-2, shoving Shawcross up front with Guidetti in behind him and Crouch. It smacked of desperation, and only had the result of making us more vulnerable at the other end.

Ultimately, Palace had a gameplan and we didn’t. Hughes has had a pretty easy ride over our away form this season but that has to end now. We may be more ambitious on the road, but we are no less inept. It is not acceptable.

 

3)  Our defence is now in full crisis mode

The back four still appeared traumatised by its horror show against Liverpool and was about as secure and stable as Marilyn Monroe for most of the game. Only Shawcross could be pleased with his performance. His tackling and positioning stopping Palace’s attacks in their tracks, and he was impressive in pushing up the pitch with the ball in the first half, with the best pass completion rate of any Stoke player.

The rest were a shambles.

After a second consecutive nightmare, Marc Wilson is fast undoing the good work he was rightly praised for when he first came into the side to deputise for Robert Huth. He has to shoulder some culpability for the goal, given he was asleep when Assaidi played his foolish backpass to him. Had he been alert to the danger, there’s every chance we’d have cleared our lines. His slowness of thought on the ball also threatened to put us in danger more than once.

Erik Pieters has also quietly embarked on a shocking run of form, and Yannick Bolasie had the beating of him all afternoon. There was a laziness and carelessness to his defending at times, with certain defensive ‘efforts’ stretching to idly flicking a boot out to try and stop a ball going past him, while the switch to one of a back three served to confuse him altogether, and he was twice done up like a kipper, completely losing his man on one occasion and being flummoxed by Wilbraham’s dummy on another as Palace threatened to make the game safe.

It wasn’t Geoff Cameron’s finest 90 minutes either. He attacked gamely but delivered little of note, while his panicky decision-making and poor use of the ball (only Walters had a worse pass completion rate, making for a defective right hand side) made for some uncomfortable moments despite Palace’s limited threat. The low point of his afternoon was his Billy Big Bass impression, a writhing fresh air attempt to head clear that allowed Palace a second bite of the cherry as Butland pulled off that magnificent triple save.

To be fair to the defence, they were not helped out by the midfield. It was probably Glenn Whelan’s poorest game since his return to the side, sluggishness and sloppiness too often proving a feature of his game. Steven Nzonzi was even worse: the real problems with him lie not on the ball, but off it, where he’s becoming a liability of almost Palacios proportions, failing to drop back and help out his defenders when the hosts had a man free.

Our defending seemed to have improved during our good pre-Christmas run, but it has gone to pot again. Hughes has identified the need to “nip in the bud” this problem but it’s hardly a new development – it’s practically a full-blown thorny rosebush by this point. We need to get back to basics on the training ground, and Robert Huth’s shaky form this season suggests that his return won’t necessarily solve the problem. An alternative partner for Shawcross probably is required after all, unless Wilson can redeem himself quickly.

 

4)  Butland prevents an embarrassment

Though bright spots from Saturday were hard to come by, the performance of our goalkeeper was undoubtedly one of them. Jack Butland was rarely called into action but, one sloppy kick aside, he didn’t put a foot wrong. He was more vocal, assured in the air, and stopped our goose from being well and truly cooked with that outstanding triple save, first from Ward, then, when we failed to clear, following up with a point-blank reaction stop from Puncheon, before finally denying O’Keefe with an outrageous leaping starfish (no sniggering at the back there) block. Then he made another brave stop from Puncheon at the end.

There’s more to goalkeeping than shot-stopping of course, but these were special saves that were the difference between a poor defeat and a damaging hammering at the hands of Anthony’s new charges – make no mistake about it, a pasting by Pulis could have seen things turn very nasty indeed in the away end. After a shaky baptism of fire against Liverpool last weekend, Butland had the character to bounce back and make an impact – very encouraging stuff.

 

5)  More praise for Charlie Adam

Aside from Butland and Shawcross, Charlie Adam was the only other player to emerge with any credit, as his fine form continued. Creating more chances than anyone else on the pitch and making more attacking third passes, the occasions when we did forge anything half decent all had him at their heart. Looking trimmer than he has in a while, we’re now seeing him run past players more often and he remains the only player in the side who can create something from nothing, as his control and shot just wide early in the second half and his ambitious first time attempted lob underlined.

Though his set piece taking remains bafflingly sub-standard, I was wrong about Adam. I’d have been happy to have seen him sold in the summer and as recently as December would have had him as Ireland’s understudy every day of the week. But the Scot is making the attacking midfield role his own and has put the hard yards in to make himself one of our most dynamic, influential players this season. This is his best run of form since he was creating all that ballyhoo at Blackpool. More power to you Charles. Keep it up.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 3-5 Liverpool 12.01.14

1)  The lesser spotted ‘enjoyable defeat’

If you were being uncharitable, you could argue that the main difference between this year’s home game against Liverpool and last year’s was the concession of a further four goals. Stoke can however be proud of their efforts in defeat to a Reds team far superior to the one they destroyed last Boxing Day.

Though there was shambolic defending on display from both sides, we never looked overawed by Liverpool, played some good, positive football throughout, and had enough chances to have taken something from the game. We showed the character not to crumble at 0-2 down, and even fought back again at 2-4 to pull one back before two great opportunities at 3-5.

The game’s labyrinthine pattern was set within minutes of kick-off. Having forced two corners inside the opening minute, Stoke found themselves a goal down after only five when Sterling’s clever chipped pass into the path of the onrushing Cissokho saw the French defender cannon a shot that slammed into Ryan Shawcross’ hip and changed direction, giving Jack Butland no chance. It was a cruel way to go behind, but while it seemed a real kicking might be on the cards, we were soon back on the offensive. A never-more-up-for-it Charlie Adam was making things happen, while Geoff Cameron was having some joy down the right, and we forced a succession of corners, our best chances coming when Crouch’s header was blocked and Arnautovic challenged Mignolet in the air only to just come up short.

Liverpool had flashed a couple of dangerous balls across our box, but surprisingly they were at their most threatening when they knocked it long. One such instance where Marc Wilson got caught under the ball as he was pursued by the shark-like Luis Suarez (and I don’t just mean his teeth) foreshadowed the gut punch of a second goal: another big punt from Skrtel saw Wilson undercook his header back to Butland, and a further mix-up between the goalkeeper and Shawcross allowed the Uruguyan to sneak in and punish us.

Again Stoke responded impressively. Eight minutes after Liverpool had doubled their lead, Steven Nzonzi worked the ball left to Arnautovic, and the Austrian delivered an absolute peach of a ball in to Crouch, who in turn brilliantly stepped away from his marker at the last second to bury his header past Mignolet at the near post. A headed goal, at long last!

It was a moment that gave us real belief, but better was to come just five minutes later, when it was The Reds’ turn to lose their defensive marbles. Some good closing down high up the pitch by Arnautovic saw Liverpool hurriedly knock the ball into midfield, but Jordan Henderson’s pass was loose and accidentally fed Adam, who had time to fall over, get up, advance on goal and unleash a laser-guided bullet of a shot from 20 yards through a defender’s legs and into the far corner. It was the goal his first half display deserved. Despite our frequent forays forward, we were still pinching ourselves at this comeback when the half time whistle sounded.

Mirroring the start of the first half, the second period commenced with Stoke making the brighter start before again falling behind. After Glenn Whelan hastily bundled his shot over the bar, Liverpool were awarded a highly dubious penalty. Raheem Sterling’s arm clearly intercepted Wilson’s attempted clearance, and the England winger then collapsed in a heap under very little contact when our number 12 caught up with him in the box. Needless to say, referee Anthony Taylor hurriedly pointed to the spot and Steven Gerrard made no mistake, as he rarely does (when he’s not playing for England).

There was no let up in what was a hectic, hurly-burly display of English football at its most exciting and intense. Players were throwing themselves into 50/50s, both teams attacked and pockets of space began to invitingly open up all over the pitch. Stoke’s front four of Crouch, Adam, Arnautovic and Walters were all causing problems, with Cameron’s regular appearances in the final third adding another dimension. Though some of our interplay showed considerable quality, particularly in the link-ups between Adam, Pieters and Arnautovic, we were, not for the first time this season, guilty of overplaying at times, and Liverpool would again take advantage as they caught us on the break and scored the best goal of the contest. Making his first appearance for two months, Daniel Sturridge came off the bench to reinvigorate Rodgers’ team’s attacking play, and his delightful flick into Suarez’s path saw the Uruguyan sweep home a fourth against the run of play. Game over now, surely.

Not quite. Yet again Stoke pushed forward. Arnautovic, who’d nearly played in Walters before, now got his low ball right, and after turning Cissokho, JW scuffed a shot that crept in under Mignolet to reduce the deficit once more. Again though, Liverpool simply went up the other end and scored – Butland made one great save from Sturridge’s close range shot, but seemed surprised and statuesque when the ball stayed in play, allowing the striker to simply collect and pop in a fifth.

Still Stoke attacked, as four minutes of injury time were indicated. Crouch headed against the post; an inswinging corner nearly led to Gerrard heading into his own net. But a breathless game ended 3-5. It was an encounter nobody will forget in a hurry, but while the result was disappointing – especially in extending our poor end/start to the year to one point from a possible 12 – there was plenty of cause for optimism in the fight and attacking verve we showed. Hopefully, if any potential transfer targets were watching this game, they saw the potential in this team.

 

2)  The ‘Spanish penalty’ was pivotal

Fair play to both Anthony Taylor and Brendan Rodgers, both of whom have since acknowledged how soft the spot kick that restored Liverpool’s advantage was. Not that that’s much use to us now.

There’s been a lot of confusion (as there often is whenever Rodgers opens his mouth) about what he meant by referring to Raheem Sterling’s theatrical tumble as a ‘Spanish penalty’. My reading of it was that he was conceding that the ref helped out the bigger team, a nod to the numerous dodgy decisions that mysteriously go the way of teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona when they’re not winning a game they might expect to.

That’s certainly the impression we were left with, and more so than ever there’s an endemic of that kind of officiating in the Premier League this season – the disallowed goal that prevented Newcastle from equalising against Man City was another example on the very same day. West Brom being robbed by Andre Marriner at Stamford Bridge with another ludicrous penalty decision in November was another.

The penalty came at a crucial time in the game. Having recovered from a two goal deficit and started the second half on the front foot, the momentum was very much with us. Taylor’s decision to point to the spot shifted it straight back to The Reds.

Obviously, it’s noble of failed Howard Webb cloning experiment Taylor to hold his hand up and admit his error – there are plenty of refs who wouldn’t. However, it’s hardly the first time his default position in a controversial situation has been to favour the big club. It was Taylor last season who declined to give Paul Scholes a second yellow card in our game at Old Trafford for an identical foul to the one that had earned him a booking minutes beforehand. He was also dropped earlier in the season for wrongly allowing Samuel Eto’o’s goal against Cardiff to stand when he illegally robbed ‘keeper David Marshall of the ball. On Sunday, Taylor had plenty of thinking time as he ran over after Sterling went to ground. He could have conversed with his linesman, who was NOT flagging for the foul. Yet he gave the impression that he couldn’t wait to point to the spot and make himself part of the narrative – Liverpool’s glorious return to the title race. If his instincts are so easily and consistently swayed to side with the game’s elite, then maybe he’s in the wrong profession. Assuming that’s not what the powers that be want, of course.

Two sizeable parts of the problem were evident in Sky’s dissection of the game in the hours and days that followed. First, ex-ref Dermot Gallagher was made to look a total pranny in conversation with our old friendDanny Higginbotham by proclaiming virtually every controversial decision to be correct – even in identical instances with different outcomes. As long as there’s this mafia-style omerta involving referees (and you only have to see the stick Mark Halsey came in for after his book was published to see how fiercely referees protect this code of silence) the ‘respect’ campaign is doomed. Respect has to be earned, and for that refs need to be humanised and come out and talk more about their decision-making and the profession in general, rather than acting as if their decisions are 100% beyond reproach as Gallagher always stiffly does.

Second, on Monday Night Football, both Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher refused to condemn Sterling’s dive, choosing to praise it as “clever play” rather than decrying it for the act of cheating it was. While we have this culture that it’s ‘worth a try’ to con the officials and it’s ok to cheat to win, simulation and the other dark arts will become ever-more entrenched in the English game. Gentlemanly conduct and fair play have become outmoded, fuddy-duddy concepts, the footballing equivalent of flares or the mullet, to sneer at and mock. That isn’t the sport I fell in love with as a six-year-old.

 

3)   Stoke were guilty of some truly rotten defending

That woeful piece of officiating wasn’t the reason we lost however. Of the five goals Liverpool scored, it has to be said that a good three or four were absolute gifts. While there were mitigating circumstances involved in the tannings at Newcastle and Spurs, here our defence only had themselves to blame for an atrocious day at the office.

It was something of a baptism of fire for Jack Butland in goal, making his first Premier League start against a formidable attacking side, and the youngster was hesitant and nervous for much of the game, often not sure whether to come out and claim the ball and rooted to his line when dangerous crosses came in. Though he made fine stops from Coutinho and Sturridge, his uncertainty and failure to make the ball his was arguably a factor in the second and fifth goals. Jack’s day will come, but it wasn’t his on Sunday.

Geoff Cameron looked dangerous in attack but, as against Everton, his positioning left a lot to be desired and is a real Achilles’ heel for him. Uncertainty was also a feature of his game, and he and Walters between them never looked sure of who they were supposed to be marking. The gaps left by Erik Pieters on the left were equally frustrating.

Their displays were nothing compared to the nightmare the centre backs endured however. Both Ryan Shawcross and Marc Wilson seemed terrified of Luis Suarez before a ball had been kicked, and their jitters were evident every time the striker hared towards them. As Higginbotham noted, the higher defensive line we’ve been utilising this season plays right into Liverpool’s hands given the pace and trickery of Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez, and we looked vulnerable every time that trio attacked. It’s no surprise that the chaos caused by those three delivered all of Liverpool’s goals.

We gave them a helping hand on virtually every occasion. Cissokho should have been closed down long before he had chance to shoot but Walters was slow to get out to him. Wilson’s header back to goal for the second was awful, but had either Shawcross or Butland put a name on it it could still have been avoided. Handball and dive aside, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Wilson’s attempted clearance that set Sterling through on goal was just dreadful, sloppy and overly casual. And Butland and Pieters stood transfixed as Sturridge wandered in to stick the fifth past them.

Nevertheless, calls for the instant return of Robert Huth when he’s back to full fitness are harsh in my opinion. Wilson has been excellent in the vast majority of games he’s played at centre back this season, and one stinker doesn’t change that. It’s not like we looked super-solid with Huth in the side either let’s not forget, with the likes of Southampton and West Brom able to walk through us at will. Not necessarily Huth’s fault, but something to think about.

Only Norwich and Fulham have now conceded more Premier League goals, but just as our previously decent-looking defensive record in the season’s opening months didn’t tell the full story of a team relying heavily on a world-class goalkeeper, neither does the recent glut of goals raining into our net paint an accurate picture of our defending in general. It had improved a lot prior to Boxing Day, and Sunday was the only true shambles. If defending like that becomes a constant feature though, the only way is down.

 

4)  The Charlie Adam show

Charlie Adam played like a man with something to prove against his former employers. In the first half, he was Stoke’s outstanding attacking threat, running at defenders, making space for himself with some great skill and winning corners galore – even if his godawful delivery meant we were unable to capitalise. His thumping goal was the icing on the cake of a terrific first half performance.

After the break, others rivalled his influence, but he remained important, making more attacking third passes than anyone else over the course of the game. He wasted little, was always available, and most of our good play went through him.

Our midfield comes in for a lot of stick, but it’s the one area of the team that doesn’t really need any surgery. Adam’s only serious rival for the man of the match crown was Glenn Whelan, the one defensive player who did well, making the most passes, the most interceptions and most ball recoveries and crashing into 50/50s as if his life depended on them. Despite the boring and inaccurate ‘crab’ jibes, 36 of his 68 passes went forward, as he looked to feed the wide players and kick-start attacks. Reliable and brave, he has barely put a foot wrong since his return.

Steven Nzonzi has been criticised for his languid playing style, but only Whelan made more passes and like the Irishman he misplaced precious few of them to boot. He was perhaps mildly suspect defensively and we didn’t miss him as much as I thought we might when he was surprisingly subbed for Ireland, but on the ball he was as classy as always.

The engine room triumvirate on present form should be among the first names on the team sheet.

 

5)  Arnautovic’s epiphany

The first half told a familiar story for Marko Arnautovic, the one change from our last league game as he profited from Oussama Assaidi’s unavailability. Bits and pieces of what he attempted were good, and he was trying hard, dashing back more than usual to close attackers down. However, he was also once again cutting a frustrated, marginal figure, exerting little sustained influence.

From the moment his inch-perfect cross for Crouch’s goal left his boot though, he was a player transformed, and the Austrian emerged as Stoke’s outstanding attacking player of the second half, in what was his best 45 minutes since Old Trafford.

Intelligence, craft, vision and much better decision-making were all showcased as Arnie continually found space on the left and combined well with Pieters. Some fine footwork and excellent delivery almost played Walters in for one goal and then did provide him with another – leaving our number 10 with a very respectable two assists for his afternoon’s work.

Having seemingly rediscovered his confidence, he finally looked like the talent he is following that run of poor games. He deserves to keep his place for the trip to Crystal Palace, and if we can foster the kind of competition between him and Assaidi that we’ve got between Ireland and Adam, that can only be a good thing.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 2-1 Leicester City (FAC3) 04.01.13

1)   Hard work made of what was looking like a routine win

It’s great to be in the fourth round of the cup, especially given our opposition, leaders of the Championship, presented the famed ‘potential banana skin’ this stage of the FA Cup always throws up. In practice though, this was something of a ‘fillet o’ fish’ victory, cold, unsatisfying and barely nourishing, as Stoke at one point seemed determined to throw away a lead against a team who didn’t want to win anyway.

Nigel Pearson clearly prioritised his team’s promotion push by making five changes, leaving out the likes of St. Ledger, Nugent and Dyer, and in the first half they posed little to no threat at all, looking fairly disinterested.

Stoke, who made three changes, started brightly with some nice interplay between the wide men, Charlie Adam and Kenwyne Jones, but were again just missing that crucial final ball. Marko Arnautovic’s blocked shot after Jones smartly headed him through on goal was probably our best chance before we deservedly broke through on 16 minutes when the big Trinidadian leapt superbly to crash in a header from Oussama Assaidi’s cross.

When Leicester could be bothered they did look a physical, organised outfit who tried to stop us playing, identifying Steven Nzonzi as the man everything went through and putting two men on him throughout the contest. Their only danger man in the first period was tricky enemy of gravity Anthony Knockaert, who slithered his way into the box to test Jack Butland with a low shot that was scrambled away.

It still felt as if 1-0 was a scoreline that both teams were happy with though, and for most of the half after the goal Stoke, under little pressure, knocked the ball around at the back for an interminable length of time. I’m all for retaining possession, but this was frustratingly dull, like the parody of ‘soccer’ in The Simpsons: “…back to centre. Centre holds it. Holds it. Hoooooolllds it…”

Things were more open after the break as both teams woke up and decided they would have a go after all. As Adam’s influence grew we began to create more and more space in the final third, with Assaidi also having a bigger impact and Arnautovic and Jones combining well at times. Jones almost grabbed a second when his header from Pieters’ terrific centre squirmed out of Kaspar Schmeichel’s grip and trickled onto the post. Soon afterwards we did double our pleasure though, as Assaidi’s run into the box took defenders away from the marauding Adam, who advanced before thumping one in off the post from 25 yards. It was a great effort and just reward for a player who was running the show.

We did press for more, albeit at a slower pace, but as we’ve seen many times this season, we struggle to break down organised defences, and our reluctance to shoot saw us forced all the way back to keeper again and again. It was maddening. Our best chance to make it three came when Jones set Arnautovic clear, but the Austrian’s heavy touch just took it that bit too close to Schmeichel.

In a last push, Leicester threw on some of their first teamers like Nugent and Dyer, and suddenly looked dangerous. The addition of Martin Waghorn saw them start to bully us in the air. Dyer’s effort landed on the roof of the net. Nugent’s header forced a brilliant full-stretch save from Butland. Moments later the returning Ritchie de Laet’s cross (after it looked like he’d run the ball out of play) found Nugent who made no mistake with his close range header this time. The visitors briefly looked as if they might snatch an unlikely replay when Dyer went into the box, but some brave goalkeeping from Butland denied him.

Another chance for Stoke went begging when Walters, on for Assaidi, was just behind the ball when Pieters slung another great ball in, poking it wide when he should have scored.That was pretty much it, as we huffed and puffed our way to a win that was both deserved and a chore at the same time.

Positives to take include good performances from the goalkeeper, back line and matchwinner Adam, who was the creative centre of everything we did. He’s a player at the peak of his powers at the moment. Still, these Foxes were tame, and their impressive away following certainly deserved a lot better.

Rochdale at home would’ve been a nice fourth round draw. Obviously that didn’t happen…

 

2)  Butland makes a promising start

Circumstances presented Jack Butland with his big chance and it was one he took very well, despite having relatively little to do. Though the young goalkeeper looked slightly nervy early on, playing a couple of underhit passes to Ryan Shawcross and making a bit of a meal of Knockaert’s pretty tame shot. While there’s room for improvement with his kicking however, he was otherwise very solid. He barked instructions at his defence, which I always like to see goalkeepers do, was confident on crosses, and had no chance whatsoever with Leicester’s goal.

His brilliant stop from Nugent in diving to tip over a header he saw late that was arrowing towards the top corner was spectacular and reminiscent of Asmir Begovic, and his alertness and courage in throwing himself at Dyer’s feet was the most impressive piece of goalkeeping on show all afternoon.

It was an encouraging start that might just have seen him move ahead of Thomas Sorensen in the pecking order. It also offered reassurances about the future of the gloves. Might we yet have two goalkeepers at the world cup? Stranger things have happened.

 

3)  Whatever Hughes says, Jones surely has taken a step closer to the exit door

In the days following the game, Hughes was keen to stress that Kenwyne Jones wouldn’t be going anywhere this month. But the reality is that he has no future at Stoke, and his goal – if not his performance – put him in the shop window.

Jones is now firmly and rightly established as back-up to Peter Crouch. He’s one of the biggest earners at the club and his contract expires in the summer. Though he’s had some fine moments in a Stoke shirt and has at times been hard done by in his time here, he has not overall done enough to be worth an extension, and it doesn’t seem as if he particularly wants one anyway.

This game was therefore an opportunity for him to remind would-be suitors of what persuaded clubs such as ourselves and Sunderland to pay big money for him and years ago had teams like Liverpool and Spurs interested in him.

His goal, a trademark walloping header, was well taken, but his overall display told the story of his tenure here: there were occasions when he was lively, making some good bursts into space, playing in team mates and nearly scoring again with another header. There were others though, when he meandered around the pitch, not closing defenders down, strolling around the centre circle when we were on the attack and needed our main striker in the box. He’d given up a good 10-20 minutes before everyone else.

Kenwyne has done very well for Stoke at times, even this season. But ‘at times’ isn’t good enough for a one-time record signing. He could have made himself a hero. He’ll be remembered, ultimately, as an expensive disappointment.

If his opening goal does grease the wheels of his exit (and you’d think any half decent offer would see him on his way) then it’s best for all parties.

 

4)  Erratic Arnautovic

It was the right decision to have another look at Marko Arnautovic in this relatively low-pressure environment, but while he performed better than in his last few starts, he was still very hit and miss out on the right wing. There was some good stuff – he rarely lost the ball even under pressure in tight areas of the pitch, his movement in the second half was good, especially after he switched to the left and linked well with Pieters and Adam. Yet there were also more flicks to nobody, and there are times when he either won’t or can’t run. People defend him to the hilt for his defensive work but, as with Jones, it’s not enough to just do it sometimes. When he does lose the ball, and this was a trait that was evident not just on Saturday but in most of his games this season, he tends to stand there sulking about it while the player who has disposessed him surges forward unchallenged. That has to stop.

There’s an awkwardness to his play, something very stop-start, and I’m not sure if it’s just because he’s still adapting to English football or something deeper-rooted. He seems spooked by the lack of time on the ball you get in England, and is often on a different wavelength to his team mates. As it stands it’s hard to see him dominating or terrorising defences. Our other flair players all bring something – Adam on song can orchestrate things in the middle, Ireland and Assaidi both carry a goal threat – it’s hard to see exactly what’s going to be Arnie’s forte.

There was one moment that encapsulated his performance: The way he spun away from his marker to latch onto Jones’ flick into space was very skilful. But his heavy touch as he ran through on goal saw the chance go begging. You had to feel for him as he was hugely frustrated with himself and on some level he clearly wants to do well. It’s just that there’s no sign of things clicking into place for him any time soon.

Still, with Assaidi unable to play against Liverpool this weekend, he’s likely to be afforded another opportunity – with the Sky cameras in attendance – to show us the player his reputation suggests he is.

 

5) Why the reluctance to bring on subs?

As time ticked on and Leicester’s key men stepped off the bench to make an impact, Mark Hughes stood there impassively while the momentum threatened to shift in the visitors’ favour.

We were ceding ground to the Foxes, and they were creating chances for the first time in the game through Nugent’s movement, Waghorn’s power and Dyer’s trickiness.

Certain Stoke players, meanwhile, were running out of steam. The ball had stopped sticking to Jones up front. Arnie and Adam were both starting to flag. The change that was made, Walters on for Assaidi, was bittersweet. Losing the outlet Assaidi provided could have been damaging, but Walters, despite his miss, was bullying the life out of their left back and making life all kinds of difficult for him, and we were able to get back on the front foot more often.

It’s not at all clear why we didn’t make more changes though? Matthew Etherington was stripped and ready to come on when the final whistle went, but it would have made far more sense to get him on 20 minutes earlier, along with Crouch for Kenwyne. Hughes does seem averse to making more than two substitutions in any one game, and I can’t quite figure out why unless he’s paranoid about injuries? He got away with it on this occasion, but had his failure to sufficiently freshen things up seen The Foxes equalise, much more would have been made of this.

Anyway, another win. Bring on Liverpool! Palace! Pulis! Chelsea!

The Top Five Conclusions from Stoke City 1-1 Everton 01.01.14

1)   A ‘proper’ game of football

After a fairly shocking end to what has been a largely unhappy year for Stoke City, it was nice to kick off 2014 with just a good, full-blooded and generally honest contest between two famous old sides. There were none of the shenanigans, mind games, diving or cynicism that mars so many games at this level these days, with the stakes so high and the hype incessant. Everton are one of the Premier League’s more likeable clubs, and we can take heart from the fact that, though their undoubted superiority told for much of the contest, we were seconds away from victory. We needed a performance as much as a result after taking two shoeings on our travels in the previous week. On New Year’s Day, we got both.

It has to be said that our own goal threat was again less than rapier-sharp, and we were fortunate to make it to the break on level terms after Everton twice struck the frame of the goal, Mirallas thumping the underside of the bar before whipping a free kick into the post right on half-time with the crocked Thomas Sorensen well beaten.

Yet we were confident, stuck to our game, passed the ball around well, and in the second half started to look more dangerous. Charlie Adam was making things happen in midfield, while Pieters and Assaidi were combining well down the left. After a bright start and a couple of decent forward moves we finally made the breakthrough four minutes into the half, when an overhit cross from the right bobbled all the way out to Assaidi just outside the box on the left, and the young Moroccan sent a low shot whistling past Tim Howard. A third screamer in six games, Assaidi is showing that Mark Hughes was right to keep the faith with him and give him a run of games.

Stung, Everton piled forward and it took a heroic effort to keep them at bay, yet Jack Butland, making his Premier League debut, had surprisingly little to do as the brunt was borne by the back line – Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters and Whelan in particular were superb in throwing their bodies in the line of fire at every opportunity, closing down, making challenges, getting rid when they had to. It seemed as if we’d weathered the worst of the storm, until Leon Osman went into the box in injury time, seemingly going nowhere, and was wiped out by substitute Jermaine Pennant. Irksome though perma-tanned starstruck fanboy Andre Marriner is, he’ll never have any easier decision to make than the one Pennant gave him, and Leighton Baines casually rolled in the spot kick to knock two points off our day’s work.

Everton deserved at least a draw from the game, but it was still a gut punch to come so close to have a victory denied so late on. We can be pleased with our efforts though, and the positives of our defensive display and another fine goal for Assaidi mean we can start the year full of optimism for the rest of the campaign.

 

2)   The myth that Stoke have ‘lost their identity’ can be well and truly put to bed

The heavy defeats over Christmas saw quite a few pundits, some of them within our own support, again peddle the theory that under Mark Hughes Stoke have lost their ‘identity’ as a hard-working, rock-hard unit. It’s an argument that fails to take into account the mitigating circumstances in those games (being reduced to nine men against Newcastle; being consequently hugely depleted against Spurs) and also seems to forget that we were regularly turned over on our travels when this ‘identity’ was having its heyday. Happily this battling performance against one of the league’s best sides should finally kill this hypothesis off altogether.

While there’s no denying that earlier in the season we weren’t as watertight as we’d been in the past and perhaps the attitude of one or two members of the team could be questioned, the defensive effort was outstanding against the Toffees. Nobody won more tackles than Whelan and Wilson. Whelan also made more interceptions than anybody else. Pieters made the most blocks. Shawcross the most clearances. Nobody won the ball in the air more than Crouch. Only Gareth Barry recovered the ball more times than Walters. Everyone played their part. Both wide players constantly chased back to stop the runs of Everton’s full backs. The midfield was strong in combating the threat of Ross Barkley. Stoke showed commitment, heart and a tireless work ethic all over the pitch from start to finish

Hughes stated from the outset that he trusted the group of players he inherited (more so than many fans did, this one included). We’re now seeing that the old grit remains in abundance.

 

3)  Yet more magnificence from Shawcross

This blog has been fulsome in its praise of our captain in recent weeks, but this performance was possibly his best of the season. Romelu Lukaku wasn’t given a sniff as Ryan Shawcross dominated him, while being alive to any danger coming his/our way throughout. The three consecutive clearances he made in the first 10 minutes set the tone for the game’s standout display – this was the kind of thing he’s been doing most of the season of course, leading, winning the ball in the air, being the first to everything in his vicinity. But there was more. Not only was he called into action more by the quality of Everton’s attackers – and wasn’t found wanting once – he was much improved on the deck as well, showing a confidence in his distribution that we’re perhaps not accustomed to from him.

Most of the back four defended brilliantly, but Shawcross was the glue that held it all to together, always getting his head up, always barking orders, never hiding, putting his head and various other parts of his anatomy where other men fear to tread.

When fans talk about our player of the season so far, his name, in contrast to other seasons, rarely seems to have come up. That is a travesty. He is every bit as important to us as Asmir Begovic is and while we’re all but resigned to losing our goalkeeper, we should move heaven and earth to let Ryan know he has a home in ST4 for a long as he wants one.

 

4)  No need for a Pennant witch hunt

You’d have to go some to find a worse substitute cameo than Jermaine Pennant’s. In 20 minutes on the pitch he managed to make more fouls than anyone else had made in the preceding 72, one of them the costly and positively Sonko-esque challenge on Osman that cost us the win.

Pennant has been a cause celèbre for some Stoke fans this season, despite the fact that he’s contributed very little since 2011. Now, many seem to have turned quite viciously on him in the aftermath of his disastrous Wednesday. Both viewpoints are, in my opinion, wildly OTT.

Yes, it was frustrating and a dreadful, needless challenge to make, but I felt quite sorry for Pennant. He spent the whole of his time on the pitch desperate to impress (never a guarantee from a man who sleepwalked his way through a loan spell at Wolves last season), running around like a madman trying to get involved. And there was always a chance that something like this would happen, if not to Pennant then to someone else – Everton were well worth a draw and we were dealing with fast, skilful players all afternoon – that’s something we’ve struggled with in general if you’ve been paying attention recently, as the concession of three spot kicks in our last three games attests to.

Lord knows I’m no fan of Pennant and wasn’t in favour of bringing him back after his various transgressions, but here, though he did cost us, it was an honest mistake. Better a player tries and fails than doesn’t try at all.

 

5)   A selfless display from Peter Crouch

It was one of those afternoons where Peter Crouch wasn’t afforded much sight of goal, but that’s not to say he was anonymous. After Shawcross, he was my pick for man of the match after a committed showing in which he worked his backside off to play in his team mates and try and get our attacking play moving in the final third. He won more in the air than anyone else but again his intelligence and one-touch lay-offs on the ball were impressive. He was forced to come deeper and deeper to forage for the ball but when he did get it, it stuck to him more often than not as he took defenders out of the game and tried to bring the wide players into the game.

I’ve heard the argument that instead of investing heavily in a striker, we should improve our goal threat from the flanks by bringing in some more genuine competition for Assaidi, Walters and Arnautovic (presumably waving goodbye to our 2011 heroes Etherington and Pennant in the process). While I don’t agree (more striking options are clearly needed), it’s certainly true that more pace is required around Crouch to get the best from him, and as written after our last home game, he will still provide a very important ‘Plan B’ if and when a new front man arrives.