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

1) A day when the result was everything

I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a ‘must-win’ game in October, yet going into this one, the need for a victory nevertheless felt overpowering. Another defeat, especially at the Brit, would have served as one more compelling testimony that we are a struggling team, that the revolution has stalled, that our season has a slow puncture already. Doubts about our direction would get louder, especially without the safety net of the word ‘new’ prefacing it.

That desperation for a win pervaded the Potter nation. You could see it in supporters, on the forums. You could see it in the manager, loading his midfield with attacking players, gambling on a half-fit Victor Moses, the return of Erik Pieters his only concession to solidity. And you could see it in the sheer relief that radiated from 25,000 people at the final whistle as Pharell Williams’ sickly pap spewed from the PA system at the end.

This was an important three points, giving us a cushion, cancelling out the miserable defeat at Sunderland, hopefully acting as a springboard to get a bit of momentum going. It shouldn’t, however, be allowed to paper over the cracks. Stoke are still not playing to their potential, affected by the same problems, which show little sign of going away. There were times, especially during the first half, when we looked a poor side.

We could easily have been 2-0 down inside 10 minutes, a worryingly disoriented, wide open Stoke allowing Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ki Sung-Yueng two golden chances before we’d so much as had a shot of our own. The visitors looked fast, sharp, clever, fluid in the early going, while we were disjointed, predictable and static.

That lack of movement at times is probably my biggest concern. Each of our starting midfielders again felt the crowd’s wrath when they turned and played the ball backwards, but the forward ball too often simply isn’t there, with our wide players not making the right runs or flat out not running at all, standing there hugging the touchline when they needed to be on their bike, the full backs statuesque behind them. Small wonder we don’t carve teams open – beyond the goals, we again created few genuine opportunities, with Crouch’s header from a corner (that he probably should have done better with) and Adam’s early breakaway strike that went just past the post being the best of the rest.

It wasn’t all bad; there was some good, tidy stuff at times. Our most dangerous play invariably went through Adam, who shouldered 95% of the creative burden, always showing ambition, whether it was in dribbling forward through the middle or trying the spectacular. Add a well-taken penalty into the mix and the recipient of the man of the match award was a no-brainer.

The decisive second was beautifully crafted, a testament to Stoke’s post-interval improvement and the role of all three substitutes in that shift. It was also encouraging that we were able to show the character to claw ourselves back from a goal down to win – a gift we had in spades last season but which we had yet to recapture this term.

The three points don’t disguise the fact that as the season progresses, we don’t look much closer to cracking our home discomforts…but they’re nevertheless a blessed relief.

 

2) A penalty years in the making

So, who got Michael Oliver in the ‘make an example’ sweepstakes?

Make no mistake about it, the penalty awarded against Ryan Shawcross had been coming for a long time. He has long been the media’s bête noire when it comes to wrestling and manhandling at corners, cursed by not being a big enough name for pundits to turn a blind eye and tainted by association with a club they still lazily branded as bully boys. When Marouane Fellaini assaulted him two years ago at a corner, there was the implication from some quarters that Ryan had ‘asked’ for it with his grappling antics. In this season’s televised draw at QPR, it was highlighted again and again.

But we really can’t feel too hard done by. Yes, plenty of teams do it, yes, refs more often than not ignore it (something Mark Halsey actually admitted last season to BT Sports before he was silenced by the officiating omerta in place), but gaining an advantage by holding an opponent IS cheating, and Ryan was bang to rights.

Both penalties were correct, however much bug-eyed, brick-wielding Aled Jones lookalike Garry Monk might whinge about Victor Moses’ willingness to take a tumble. Rangel had hold of his shirt and, I can’t stress this enough, THAT IS AGAINST THE LAWS OF THE GAME. It’s a foul anywhere on the pitch, so if it happens in the area, it’s a penalty.

Ditto Ryan’s game of British Bulldog with Bony. Again, the attacker makes the most of it but that doesn’t mean it’s not a foul. It doesn’t wash to say complain that penalising such incidents “would mean refs were giving six penalties a game” – if a foul is being committed in the box, then they SHOULD be giving penalties, shouldn’t they? It’s up to the players not to do it. We say we want consistency from referees, then when the refs actually enforce the rules – the only way consistency can ever be realistically achieved – we moan about that as well.

Not that Oliver is any kind of doyen of consistency himself. He’s an unedifying specimen, the refereeing anointed one, naked ambition steaming off him like a cloud of dodgy cologne bought from Del Boy’s market. He got the two penalty decisions right but, as he did against Leicester, he made it his mission to show off his big boy trousers by going out of his way to show he wasn’t fazed by the bearpit, giving us the spot kick but little else while awarding the men from the valleys all manner of dubious free kicks. His conviction to punish shirt pulling also curiously evaporated when Peter Crouch clearly had his jersey tugged in the area.

It will be interesting to see if refs do this in other games not featuring easy targets Stoke City. Yet we have to learn our lesson from this. Ryan either needs to eliminate the wrestling from his game, or if that’s too naïve, he needs to be smarter about it. Rather than the blatant, pantomime full nelson stuff, he needs to practice the dark arts more subtly – a hidden hand here, a mischievous knee there. The act has been well and truly found out. The only surprise is it’s taken this long.

3) Stoke leave their gate unbolted…and get away with it

Easily the most contentious decision in Mark Hughes’ team selection was Stephen Ireland’s recall in place of the injured Glenn Whelan. Given Gylfi Sigurdsson’s influence this season, with six assists in his last seven games and both goals in Iceland’s stunning midweek defeat of the Netherlands, it was baffling that we opted to go without a genuine defensive midfielder.

The first half showed just how much we missed Whelan. Our play was totally disjointed and we were wide open at the back, with Sigurdsson, operating in the hole, finding a frightening amount of freedom and creating two huge opportunities in the first 10 minutes. The first time he ran clear, the Icelander rejected the chance to shoot in favour of hanging a leg out in front of Begovic and trying to con a penalty out of Oliver (an incident mysteriously not referenced by guardian of all that is pure G. Monk). Six minutes later, some lovely intricate play on the edge of the box totally befuddled our defence, before Sigurdsson played in Ki, only for Begovic to come rushing out to make a fine save.

Yet we failed to learn our lesson and Sigurdsson continued to find space throughout the half, while on numerous occasions our two deep midfielders, Adam and Nzonzi, could be seen standing on their own or slowly jogging back, not tracking their man.

Fortunately, the visitors’ threat receded in the second half, and the lack of a proper DM was not quite the issue it might have been. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that we didn’t find any cohesion until Geoff Cameron entered the fray.

Finally given a chance in midfield, the US international was excellent, completing 100% of his passes, negating the threat of Bony, who had spent the game bullying our centre halves, and displaying composure, intelligence and strength in shielding and distributing the ball. He also made a telling contribution to the winner, making a key interception and driving forward, evading a challenge and setting in motion the move that Walters would so powerfully finish.

He may well have earned himself a start at the base of the midfield next weekend.

I didn’t think Ireland had the nightmare some felt he did, certainly not compared to his two hideous performances in his previous two starts this season. He was tidy enough, if unshowy, but he simply didn’t exert the influence needed of a player in that attacking midfield role. His return was an odd one, given that he had done nothing in quite some time to warrant being anywhere near the starting line up.

Hughes’ starting midfield trio underlined the fact that bunging more attacking players into your team doesn’t automatically make you a more effective attacking unit. You need that balance, and with ‘the glue’ out, we were rarely able to turn it on until we stuck on some American adhesive.

4) Diouf is no Odemwingie – so far

As a champion of Mame Biram Diouf since day one, and someone who was convinced his arrival would result in a veritable eruption of goals, I have to confess I’m starting to get a bit worried about the Senegalese star. He was close to useless on Sunday, and not for the first time this season.

I accept that he’s only just back from injury, and I still think he can come good – the league is full of examples of players who took time to adapt to English football, one of them being Swansea’s goalscorer.

But having failed to replace Peter Crouch as the centre forward, he’s now struggling to prove an able stand-in for Peter Odemwingie as a goalscoring wide forward. It’s bizarre that a player capable of scoring that wonderful goal against Manchester City can so regularly be totally devoid of any kind of touch or presence, as he was against the Swans. As at Hull, the ball just bounced off him (much to his own growing frustration, as well as everyone else’s), and overall he has shown little of the skill or clever, powerful play of the crocked Odemwingie.

It didn’t help his cause that his replacement showed exactly what the striker in that role is supposed to do, as Jon Walters drifted inside to bury a precise header past Fabianski.

What’s more worrying is that he’s not doing any of the things that made him such a hot property in Germany. He’s not finding space, making the right runs or getting into dangerous positions. Several times Adam broke and looked for Diouf to pull away to receive the ball in space, but the former Blackburn striker continually failed to do so, staying close to his marker and providing no kind of angle to aim for. Sorry Mame, that’s what we signed you for.

Maybe he isn’t happy about playing out wide, but he hasn’t convinced as a lone striker, and he looked so good on the right of a front three at QPR, a constant menace who scored one goal and might have had a couple more.

He might have arrived on a free transfer but I think it’s a safe bet, taking wages and signing on fee into account, that a considerable outlay has been invested in Mr Diouf. He’s the manager’s man, and Hughes has a lot riding on him. So far we’ve not come close to seeing the best of him.

He’ll always have the Etihad, but we need to see more.

 

5) The right subs at the right time

Mark Hughes’ use (or sometimes, the lack thereof) of substitutes has been considered by many to be his Achilles’ heel during his time as Stoke manager, with a tendency to wait too long to change things, and switches that often leave fans scratching their heads when the electronic board does eventually go up.

Here though, he got the timing and personnel absolutely spot on. With the game finely poised around the hour mark, Hughes’ changes were positive, designed to turn one point into three, with the right players going off and the right players coming on. A third, enforced change came later when Moses again limped off, and his replacement would also have a profound impact on proceedings.

Credit to the three subs themselves, each of whom enhanced their reputations. Walters’ physicality and bustling play high up the pitch against tiring legs provided a valuable nuisance factor, and that, plus his well-taken winner, offered yet more evidence that ‘impact sub’ is far and away his best role in the squad. How happy Jon will be to retain that mantle remains to be seen.

Cameron, as discussed, was the game’s pivotal introduction, bringing the composure to free our other midfielders to push forward.

Oussama Assaidi meanwhile, enjoyed his best showing since his return, taking over from Moses as our chief outlet and proving more willing to cross the ball from wide positions rather than simply cutting inside all the time. It was one such cross, nicely looped and weighted into the danger zone, that produced the winning goal.

It was interesting that the effect of Swansea’s own exciting, attacking changes – the arrival of speed demon Jefferson Montero and French international striker Bafétimbi Gomis – only succeeded in taking more wind out of their sails. In particular, the arrival of Gomis and Emnes in place of Dyer and Sigurdsson essentially boiled down to bunging on more forwards while simultaneously choking off their supply line. Maybe that decision was fluttering around in Monk’s mind when he had his ‘Falling Down’ moment after the game.

You’d be hard pushed to argue that Hughes picked the right starting XI, but he certainly made amends with his subs – and that’s something we’ve not been able to say for a while.

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

 

1)  Our start to the season encapsulated in one game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baggy Trousers! Baggy Trousers! Baggy Trousers!”

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

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

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

2)  Peter Crouch is irreplaceable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3)  Moses dazzles again

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

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

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

Even Kevin Harper…

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

4)  Adam justifies his selection

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

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

Which is Plan B for Wilson Palacios…

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

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

I hope we see it again.

 

5)  Did Hughes get the subs wrong again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1)  One manager reacts, one manager doesn’t

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

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The Top 5 Conclusions from Man City 0-1 Stoke City 30.08.14

 

1)  History made…and a holiday from the real problems

It was the shock of the Premier League season so far. Stoke had never taken a point or even so much as scored in a league match at the Etihad before Saturday. Yet it was still, somehow, typically Stoke City. Having disappointed in the opening two games of our kindest start for years, we then go to the champions’ lair and produce arguably our best result since promotion. The easy way is to Stoke what lunch was to Gordon Gekko – for wimps.

There were rare groans for the team sheet prior to kick off, as Peter Crouch and Jon Walters were rewarded for their midweek Capital One Cup exploits, with no room in the starting XI for Bojan, Peter Odemwingie or Charlie Adam. Yet there was still plenty to be happy about, with Victor Moses getting his first start and the pace of Mame Biram Diouf utilised again, and Glenn Whelan shaking off his ankle knack to come back into the side. It looked as if we’d line up in a 4-4-2 with Diouf and Crouch up front, but in practice we saw a tweaked version of 4-2-3-1, with Whelan and Nzonzi deeper than the wide players but Diouf, behind Crouch, playing closer to the big man as more of a striker hoovering up the knock-downs than a number 10 floating around and pulling the strings.

It was hard to tell in the early going exactly how we were setting up as Manuel Pellegrini’s men penned us back in our own half almost immediately. Hughes had a plan however. Defend deep, cut off the space in the final third (much like Danny Higginbotham had suggested in the week) and hit them at speed on the break. It couldn’t have gone much better.

26% possession. No Stoke presence in the top 24 pass combinations. We rode our luck at times thanks to the wastefulness of the hosts, who played with an aura of lethargy and complacency that suggested they felt they just had to turn up to get the three points. Equally though, this was no smash and grab. We posed a regular threat on the counter attack, with Moses having joy down the left and Diouf denied a clear penalty when he was felled by Kolarov.

Still, we were relieved to get to half time with parity intact and were braced for the home side to crank things up a notch in the second half. Instead, ten minutes after the restart, we got the moment: When Erik Pieters headed a Man City corner into Diouf’s path about 35 yards from his own goal, it seemed the best we could hope for was that the Senegal international could run it out of the danger zone. Hell, after a performance at Hull that was slightly less coordinated than Rick Parfitt on Top of the Pops (skip to around the 2:50 mark), we’d have settled for him taking the ball a few paces without tripping over his own feet and doing himself a mischief.

But the instead the ex-Man Utd striker managed to shake off Kolarov’s heavy lean and set off into the Man City half. Fernandinho was the only man between him and the keeper and as he approached, Diouf knocked the ball under his legs and turned on the afterburners, blazing past him and into the box. Quite possibly knackered from his 80-yard dash and without much to aim at, he went for the time-honoured ‘hard and low’ option, taking Richard Keys’ advice and smashing it. Joe Hart had left an obliging gap (much like Jamie Redknapp’s friend in Keys’ story, allegedly) and the shot rolled through his legs and in, to spark disbelieving bedlam in the away end.

It was a goal that is sure to take on iconic status for Stokies in years to come, pitched somewhere between George Weah’s famous solo goal for AC Milan and a particularly frenetic episode of supermarket sweep, scored against one of the biggest, most expensive teams in the world on their own patch. It will be passed down from father to son for generations, irrespective of how Diouf’s Stoke career turns out.

The Citizens spent plenty of time in our box after that but we had further chances of our own, with Diouf inches away from a second when he just failed to get on the end of sub Odemwingie’s cross and Crouch beating two defenders to head Bardsley’s cross just wide.

Entering the last 15 minutes, our epic defending showed no signs of wearying, with even Charlie Adam, on for the injured Odemwingie, doing an effective job carrying the ball out of defence and eating up precious seconds winning a succession of free kicks. Then Yaya Toure went down in the box under Pieters’ challenge. Many disagree, but I’ve watched six or seven replays and to me it still looks as if Pieters plays the man and not the ball, but thankfully the assistant referee showed the same cowardice over this call that he did over the Diouf incident in the first half.

The release of pure joy and relief at the final whistle was unreal. What a feeling, what a performance, almost to a man they’d given their all, players and manager alike. It’s a result that instantly lends a respectability to our start to the season, cancelling out that shocking loss to Villa by doing to the champions what Paul Lambert’s side did to us.

It’s also a win that gives us a respite from the awkward questions plaguing our early season form. It’s perverse that this sort of game, against one of the elite, currently suits our style far better than the meat and potatoes games against our fellow lesser lights. There’s still no obvious answer to how we’ll approach games in which we’re expecting to take the initiative. Diouf was signed to replace Crouch – at present, it seems as if he won’t be nearly as effective without him. Can we find a system that consistently gets us playing to our potential while keeping the talents populating our bench happy? Can we succeed without an old guard we seem to be pushing towards the door despite them repeatedly showing their importance?

We can worry about all that in a fortnight. Until then, let’s wallow in what was simply a great day to be a Stoke City fan.

2)  Crouch is the glue that holds Stoke’s attacking play together

It was a sensible move to restore Peter Crouch to the starting line up. The big man had added a new dimension to Stoke’s forward play in every game he’d featured in this season and scored in midweek, so he’d more than earned his recall. It was a decision vindicated by a man of the match performance. Crouch was the player through which most of our best moves in the final third went. While in the past his lack of pace as the line-leader has been a problem, now, with quicker players around him, he is able to draw defenders away and create space for them. Not only did he (unsurprisingly) win the most aerial battles, but his touch was exquisite, plucking the ball out of the air with his chest or instep and holding it up or making room for a shot. With him as our final third fulcrum, there was finally a cohesion to our attacking play, the ball sticking in attack and some decent interplay developing rather than fizzling out before we could get anywhere near the box.

The impact Crouch’s impact had on Diouf was also telling. Having struggled up to now as a lone striker, he was transformed by having the target man to play off – not just in terms of having a bit more freedom and less pressure on him (his confidence was evident in that incredible run for the goal) but in his all round game. He had more touches and made more passes than in either of his two previous appearances, looking neat and tidy in his exchanges with Crouch and Nzonzi and going past players. His pace made him a real handful and no player was fouled more. He even did well when the injury to Odemwingie saw him move wide right, doing a professional job in keeping the ball and winning throws and corners high up the pitch.

It’s a bit weird that Hughes had seemed so certain of the system he wanted to use, but then made several new signings that don’t necessarily fit in with that set-up, and so has had to tweak it. The number 10 role that was set to become so important in Crouch’s absence may now have become obsolete thanks to Crouch himself. It was widely anticipated that he’d be phased out of our attacking plans…instead it appears that we might have to build them around him. Given he’s approaching 34, that’s only going to be a short-term solution though. And then what?

Again, they’re questions that can wait as we marvel at this unique, graceful
model pro who has continually done well and played a selfless role for the club in difficult circumstances. His quality on the ball is vastly underrated and though the ‘good touch for a big man’ thing has gone from cliché to parody, his skill on the ball really is great to watch. Just as some were hasty to write off Diouf, those who’d written off Crouch are being made to eat their words.

 

3) Victor Moses looks like the real deal

It’s early days yet, but the season-long loan of Victor Moses might just prove to be our signing of the season. It’s one thing to impress against the stiffs of a League Two side as he did on Wednesday night against Portsmouth, but he was equally dangerous against the champions. He looked hungry, confident and tricky, always eager to run at defenders and giving the debuting Bacary Sagna a tougher afternoon than he’d have been expecting. He also again showed the kind of strength you don’t see from many wide men, able to comfortably stand his ground and retain possession under the attentions of Sagna and other defenders. That ability to take players on and head for goal brought the kind of directness that was conspicuous by its absence in our first two games.

There’s been some discussion of the merits of the kind of inverted winger/inside forward type wide players Hughes seems to favour versus the chalk on the boots, byline-and-cross variety that served his predecessor so well. Early indications are that Moses offers the best of both worlds, at times turning provider, such as with his loving gift-wrap of a cross for Walters against Pompey, and at others cutting inside and shooting himself.

He’s also showed an admirable willingness to chase back and help out his full back. No player made more interceptions, and even when he began to flag during the second half, he still played a part in the rearguard action – indeed, his last contribution before being substituted was to make a vital block to stop Kolarov’s cross. If this is him when he isn’t fully fit, he’s going to be frightening when he is.

Despite being right footed he looks a natural fit for the left flank, which could force Arnautovic to abdicate to the right when he comes back into the side (which he will), though whether the Austrian would be able to form the same understanding with Phil Bardsley as he’s developed with Erik Pieters might be open to question – there’ll be plenty of time to experiment and switch, at least.

Peter Odemwingie will also be part of the debate of course, assuming the knee problem that saw him exit on a stretcher isn’t too serious. Stoke’s attacking play looked a lot more balanced when he replaced Walters at the start of the second half. The Irish international has been praised by many for his performance in that opening 45 minutes, but while his endeavour, as always, couldn’t be faulted, he offered nothing going forward and at key moments his defending wasn’t too hot either. His attempted crosses into the box were just woeful and he was often nowhere to be seen when we needed an attacking option wide right, while he totally lost Kolarov for Citeh’s best chance of the first half, when the unchallenged Serbian fed David Silva, who played in for Toure to fire over. Had that gone in, Walters’ band of detractors would have been out in force.

Against Leicester, I hope we see two proper wingers given a go as we try and crack that ongoing problem of breaking down stubborn defences.

 

4) The defence is back in business

Going into this game, it always seemed likely that we’d get scoring opportunities with our pace on the counter, but the notion that we wouldn’t concede against the title winners who’d scored 102 goals last season was inconceivable – especially given how shaky the back four had looked thus far. An incredible defensive effort was going to be required – and it was duly delivered from start to finish, all over the pitch, as the players carried out the game plan superbly.

The midfielders snapped at the feet of attackers and denied them any space. The wingers (generally) got back to help the full backs. Diouf buzzed around closing down midfielders around the halfway line. Crouch made clearance after clearance in his own box. Bodies swarmed around the home side’s attackers, getting in the way of every shot, cross and through ball they could.

The highlight of our defensive heroics, however, was that the defence looked much more like its old self. That was definitely true collectively, with the centre backs joining Crouch as the joint-highest clearance makers, and Bardsley, then Shawcross, then Wilson making the most blocks. But it was also true individually as well.

Asmir Begovic reclaimed the no. 1 shirt from the nervy impostor of the past fortnight, easily collecting every ball that came his way and making at least two world-class saves, the best being a one-handed claw away of Toure’s fierce strike just before the goal.

Phil Bardsley is improving game on game and turned in a committed showing, full of running and physicality. Many defenders are cowed by an early booking, but Bardsley’s intensity didn’t drop one iota after his 21st-minute yellow card, traversing that tightrope like Dick Grayson (without the tights).

Marc Wilson, maligned for two costly errors in two weeks, was excellent, constantly alive to danger, keeping a cool head and not giving Aguero or Jovetic a moment’s peace.

But the star of the back line was the captain, who was simply superhuman, stopping everything that crossed his path – he was first to cross after cross fired into the area, first to loose balls and 50/50s, his impeccable positioning always putting him one step ahead of the £90m worth of striking talent trying to find a way through. He was pumped up for this one from the get-go, and could be seen clapping and rallying the troops from the 3rd minute, when an early Citeh onslaught was halted by an injury to Aguero. It was a masterclass of pure defending.

If there was a downside to the defending, it came not on the pitch, but from the bench. While the organisation, game plan and execution were up there with the very best defensive displays of recent times, the decision to replace the exhausted, injured Moses with Marc Muniesa was a negative change reminiscent of the worst of the TP playbook. It removed a key outlet when our backs were against the wall, and had we conceded in those remaining 10 minutes (plus four minutes’ added time), that decision would have garnered a lot more attention than it has.

This game showed how strong the defence is when its expecting to have a difficult afternoon that requires its full attention. The problems start, as we’ve seen, when they have long spells with little to do and are given occasion to switch off. Hopefully we’ve heeded our early wake up calls, and Saturday was an indication that our season is finally up and running.

 

5) The midfield impressed on and off the ball

Midfield was another area of the side that had come in for criticism in recent weeks, with calls from some quarters for both Whelan and Nzonzi to be dropped.

At the Etihad, the engine room was in effect shorn of a member, given that Diouf was operating much more as a striker than the kind of number 10 who drops deep to forage for the ball. Yet the Franco-Irish duo, the cage-dwellers of old, rose to the challenge admirably. Whelan cast aside doubts over his fitness with a fired-up display against his old team, chasing and harrying and getting into surprisingly advanced positions. He was calm on the ball and brilliantly disciplined off it, never letting any of the home side’s cultured attackers have any time or space. No Stoke player won more tackles, and the high point of his afternoon came in the first half, when he caught Fernando napping on the ball and effortlessly pinched it from under him to kick-start a Stoke attack from nowhere. The Brazilian looked as if he’d been hit by a train, and was forced to retreat to the sidelines and add some extra letters to his name, returning as his fearsome altar ego ‘Fernandinho’. .

Nzonzi meanwhile, was terrific, back to his Rolls-Royce best. Despite the fact that, as Stoke’s leading pass-maker, he only completed around one-third of the number completed by his Man City counterpart Yaya Toure, nobody went past more players over the 90 minutes than Nzonzi, and the sight of him lolloping forward with the ball, opponents unable to get near him, was a joy to behold. Time and again he collected the ball, turned on a centime and strode forward, shielding the ball brilliantly before laying it off. The heartbeat of Stoke’s on-ball play, he outclassed the loftier, more expensive midfielders on show.

The two man midfield worked very well, but it has to be said that the opponents were playing the same formation, with Jovetic playing more as a striker than an attacking midfielder. It might prove trickier to pull off against a team using a three man midfield.

With just 26% possession, this was a game where the off the ball stuff was what really mattered and we did a brilliant, professional job in that respect.

Steven Nzonzi made a mockery of any calls for him to be dropped, but then again, if he played like that every week, no one would ever complain about him.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Hull City 1-1 Stoke City 24.08.14

1) Stoke’s game plan was easily foiled again

Just what is it that Sky expect from this fixture? Three-quarters of our Premier League games at the KC Stadium have been televised, and they’re never anything less than turgid. This was arguably the worst of the lot.

It was essentially a director’s cut of last week’s soul-sucking defeat to Aston Villa. The early red card saw the home side retreat into their shells and for a second consecutive week Stoke gently huffed and puffed before going behind to a soft goal. The big difference this time was that we were able to scramble one ourselves, thanks in large part to a god-awful error from the assistant referee on the Stoke left.

Pernickety ref Jon Moss made a poor start to the game, blowing up every time anyone went to ground and bizarrely penalising Mame Biram Diouf for a foul only he could see when he shrugged off James Chester to put himself through on goal. Yet he got the game’s big decision spot on. Though it’s difficult to describe anything involving Glenn Whelan in the opposing half as a ‘clear goalscoring opportunity’, the Irishman would have been clean through when he nipped the ball past Chester, only for the ex-Man Utd youngster to bring him down. Red card all day long.

Where we did get lucky was our 83rd minute equaliser. The throw in that led to it should have been awarded to Hull – the ball clearly bounced off Erik Pieters and into touch. Instead it was given to Stoke, and after Bojan worked the ball into the area, Phil Bardsley’s bobbler bounced against the post and Ryan Shawcross managed to just squirt the ball over the line off the unfortunate Alan McGregor. Steve Bruce fumed in the aftermath and I’m sure Mark Hughes took no pleasure at all in the misery of his old friend

The attritional sludge that took place in the 69 minutes between those two incidents was bitterly disappointing. Only fools panic two games into a new season, and it’s famously not easy to play against 10 men – especially 10 as well organised as Steve Bruce’s Tigers. But once again a team set up to counter attack was denied that option by opponents who made things compact and defended deep. And once again Stoke had no idea how to combat that.

Weirdly, having a numerical advantage totally cocked up our strategy. Suddenly the onus was on us to force the pace, and like last week, we seemed to have no confidence in our ability to break through. We couldn’t find space, or play to any kind of tempo. Our decision-making in the final third was consistently poor. Nobody seemed to want to take on their man and there was a reluctance to shoot.

Ironically it was an over-eagerness to shoot that wasted our best chance of the half. When Steven Nzonzi’s far post header from Peter Odemwingie’s fine cross was blocked, the ball fell to Erik Pieters, coming steaming in from the left. The Dutchman had numerous options to cut the ball back to but instead wellied it miles over the bar.

Hull’s rare forays forward made us look vulnerable, with our back line not offering much confidence. An enforced change six minutes before half time served to sap what little momentum we’d built up. Whelan’s replacement by Bojan initially paid dividends for the home side, as a weak challenge by the ex-Barca man set in motion the chain of events that led to the grimly inevitable first goal, poked home by Jelavic after a litany of defensive errors. 1-0 down at the break against 10 men, Stoke had somehow contrived to be even poorer than they’d been at home on the opening day.

There was some improvement after the break, and Stoke were on the front foot for the majority of the half, with Bojan leading the charge. Ryan Shawcross had an early effort saved by McGregor, and Diouf missed a couple of decent chances, looping a header over when he had more time than he thought and having another shot deflected wide. Once again, Crouch and Adam made a difference when they came on, the ball sticking up front for the first time in the match thanks to Crouch (as it had against Villa), with Adam producing Stoke’s best chance of the game seconds after his introduction with a thumping effort that was heading for the top corner until his countryman tipped it over. Frustrating though Adam is, you do wonder if he should have a bigger role to play when Stoke need to break teams down.

For all our pressure, there was still a sloppy leaden-footedness to our approach play. Overall we had 57% possession, attempted 131 more passes, but completed just 74% of those attempted in the final third and openings proved hard to fashion. It looked as if Hull’s Herculean effort would pay off. In all probability it would have had our friend with the flag not kindly intervened, and we could have had no complaints.

The point is a decent enough result in itself at least, especially with the Etihad next up. However there are problems that need to be addressed and the talk of Mark Hughes’ teams being slow starters should be viewed not as an excuse but as a failing to be put right.

 

2) Hideous dèja vu for Hull’s goal

The opening goal was depressingly similar to the one Andreas Weimann scored at the Brit. It started with a weak challenge from the player in the no 10 role that resulted in the ball being knocked into our box. Then Huddlestone was given far too much time and space to get a shot away, Marc Wilson lost his man, and Asmir Begovic could only push a weak shot into a dangerous area. That we should make so many of the same mistakes again says it all about our back line at the moment, which looks distinctly uncomfortable.

Erik Pieters, who was AWOL for the goal last week, was given a very difficult time of things by Elmohamady. Phil Bardsley’s showing was an improvement, one that perhaps owed a debt to having a more disciplined right-sided player ahead of him in the lively Peter Odemwingie, but still looked like a dog chasing its tail at times when the ball came to him. Ryan Shawcross had some panicky moments in the first half, but recovered after the break.

The two shakiest members of the rearguard however were the two key players in the goal, Begovic and Wilson. Again, communication between the two seemed a problem, and for a second consecutive weekend they managed to get into a mix-up that nearly proved costly. Begovic seems to have stopped talking to his back four for some reason – a few times he’s confused them by dashing off his line without giving them a shout first. His kicking (never his strongest suit) was also a problem at times.

We know Bosnia’s number one will come good, there are no worries there. The same cannot be said for Wilson. The frustrating thing about him is that for the most part he does a lot of good at the back. He uses the ball well, he reads the game well, he’s good in the air, he’s generally a decent centre half for 90% of the time. That was even true here – nobody else on the pitch came close to equalling the number of clearances he made, and he won the most aerial duels too. But that 10% where he switches off almost always leads to a goal. It did in TP’s last season when he came in to replace the suspended Robert Huth. It did last season. And it has in both games this campaign.

His marking of Jelavic was just appalling. He had one job, and nobody else to worry about. Yet he was ball-watching, got the wrong side of him somehow and made it incredibly easy for the Croatian poacher to get to the loose ball first. It was amateur-hour stuff.

I don’t believe in chopping and changing the side after every bad performance, but with such fine margins involved so far, questions are going to be asked when soft goals are conceded down to individual mistakes. It can’t keep happening.

A general tightening up of the back line and greater organisation is nonetheless also required.

 

3) Diouf and the system need to work each other out

It was one of those days for Mame Biram Diouf. Had Moss not blown for a foul only he could see in the third minute when he was just about to run clear on goal, we might all be talking about him as the hero who’d won us our first three points of the season. That was as good as things got for the Senegal star though, who proceeded to have an 87-minute nightmare.  Not only did he miss a couple of decent chances, but his all-round game was nothing short of calamitous. Every ball into him was miscontrolled somehow, be it a bounce off the shin, a misplaced attempt to cushion it to a team mate, an overhit pass under little pressure or running it out of play. He also did not seem to know where or when to run, failing to take up good positions when players like Bojan or Adam came forward or needlessly getting himself offside. Best-case scenario, it was an off day or a loss of confidence that can be coaxed back in time. Worst case, that turns out to be the norm…

Some have written him off already. I’m not going to do that – plenty of strikers take time to adapt, and Diouf’s lack of competitive football last season due to injury could be another factor in him not hitting the ground running. Being prolific in the Bundesliga doesn’t mean you’ll score everywhere but equally it isn’t an easy league in which to develop the kind of strike rate he did, and it would be foolish to give up on him now. Mark Hughes certainly won’t do that, having chased his man for so long.

There’s still a feeling out process as Diouf and the team adjust to each other, and if that’s to be successful, both need to be more flexible. As yet, he has not done well with the ball played in to feet, so we need to find the channels more and take advantage of his aerial prowess by using him as a target man, as opposed to the intricate needle threading seen at Hull. However, he also needs to get involved more, hold the ball up and bring the wide players into the game. This is something he did well in Germany (albeit as part of a front two) but hasn’t done in his first two games in a Stoke shirt; no Stoke player had fewer touches of the ball against Villa, while at Hull only two players on the pitch attempted fewer passes – one of those (Chester) was red carded after 14 minutes, the other (Crouch) introduced as a 55th minute substitute.

A goal against Portsmouth on Wednesday would do him a power of good, but we need to realise we can’t play the same way with him leading the line that we did with Crouch. A reluctance to knock the ball long has re-emerged, but sometimes that is the right option. If you have a rapid striker you’d be stupid not to hit the space with some regularity. Instead, at Hull we hit fewer long balls than in all but one of the last 10 games of 2013/14, when we were on fire, and they comprised a lower percentage of our total passes than in all but one of those games in that hot streak as well.

For his part, Diouf must learn to time his runs better and realise that a lone striker is required to do more than just hang off the shoulder of the last defender.

4)  Arnautovic is still on the beach

Marko Arnautovic ended 2013/14 as the team’s talisman, a thrilling maverick worthy of the number 10 shirt. This season always promised to be tougher for the Viennese virtuoso, given the cat was out of the bag regarding his talents and the increased pressure to play it again, Sam, but that should be meat and drink to a player who has graced some of Europe’s top clubs.

He has not yet picked up where he left off, however. He started well enough against Villa but faded badly, and was never in the game at the KC. Well-shackled by Bruce’s team, he lost interest early on, ignoring the runs of team mates to play lazy, useless passes to marked men, not making himself available in good positions and not running at his full back. His set-piece delivery seems to have worsened somehow, the nadir coming when he failed to clear a one-man wall. He took a nasty whack in the second half from Tom Ince and was removed, but he could just as easily have been hooked at half time, so ineffectual was he.

Like Begovic, he has enough credit in the bank to write off this early poor form as mere early-season rust, but Arnie has to appreciate that the price of being the main man is increased attention from defenders. He’s not a well-kept secret in English football anymore and he has to accept that and find a way round it – that’s what the top players do.

Victor Moses, once he gets up to speed, brings pace and a directness we’ve been sorely lacking, and if he doesn’t swap his flip flops for football boots soon, Arnautovic may be the one who makes way. There are no sacred cows at Stoke City these days.

 

5)  Bojan’s second half provides a crumb of comfort

There weren’t many bright spots from a Stoke perspective, but for me, one of them was the way Bojan’s influence grew in that central attacking midfield role during the second half. Stephen Ireland’s injury gave Hughes a dilemma – to either go with a Bojan/Adam creative type as a like-for-like no 10 option, or stiffen the midfield by picking Steve Sidwell and pushing Nzonzi further forward (a role he performed to superb effect in our 4-1 win at Villa Park in March). Hughes plumped for the latter, and that was understandable given we were away and Hull use a five man midfield.

The red card threw that for a six though – suddenly Hull were arranged into two banks of four and we had no creative force in the middle to negotiate the wall of tigers (which, incidentally, is a great name for an 80s hair metal band). So when Whelan injured himself, Bojan was thrown on and Nzonzi pushed back – a change that had disastrous, immediate consequences given the little Catalan’s involvement in the opening goal.

After the break though Bojan was able to stretch his legs, making some telling passes and good runs and providing the best delivery of any Stoke player. Despite only entering the game in the 39th minute, he made the third highest number of attacking third passes and 100% of those found their target. He played one beautifully disguised ball on the break where he shaped to shift it out wide before slipping it through to Crouch, and threatened at one point to dance through a heavily packed out penalty area with a nimble run before the weight of numbers crowded him out.

In a game of slow, floaty, easy to combat crosses, he recognised the value of the whipped in, medium-height fizzer, nearly deceiving McGregor with one vicious bouncing bomb before producing the ball that led to the equaliser.

He still frustrated at times, looking lightweight and wanting too much time on the ball, but he was a creative threat, and I remain convinced that the number 10 role is the one to which he is best suited. With Ireland out for a couple of weeks, he has an opportunity to audition for the role.

The New Boys: Victor Moses

As patience began to wear thin over the dragging dual sagas of Oussama Assaidi and Nathan Redmond, Stoke decided to get biblical on the situation. Literally. Victor Moses’ arrival is another coup for the club this window, the Chelsea and Nigeria winger reportedly turning down Aston Villa, West Brom and Sunderland to join us on a season-long loan. While it’s admittedly a short-term fix, it’s also a deal that makes sense for all parties. Moses gets the chance to reignite his career, and we get the pacy wide man that looked like the missing piece of the jigsaw going into the new season.

Moses is a higher-profile ‘name’ than either of the other two players we were pursuing, and more experienced than either. Assaidi did well last season but delivered only fitfully in truth, with concerns about a knee problem persisting. The price we were quoted, and even the one eventually agreed, just didn’t quite chime for a player who wouldn’t be a guaranteed starter every week. Redmond, meanwhile, undoubtedly has talent and may well end up here in the future, but as things stand we’d be largely paying for potential – the player only has one underwhelming top flight season under his belt, and we need someone to make an impact straight away.

Moses’ story is an incredible one. Growing up in Nigeria, his parents were murdered by rioters in 2002, and friends spirited him away to England before he too could become a target. Arriving in London as an asylum seeker aged just 11, he found solace in football, and at 14 Crystal Palace scouts spotted him playing for a school near Selhurst Park. Knowing they’d found something pretty special, Palace sponsored him to go to Whitgift, a fee-paying school renowned for developing young sportsmen and women. From there his career really took off.

In some ways, Moses’ early days in football mirror those of Bojan. Like the young Catalan, he scored a ridiculous number of goals at youth level, once notching 50 in a single season for the Palace academy. He and Krkić even went head to head in the final of the Euro U-17 Championships in 2007, as England, whom he was then representing, finished runners-up to Spain. Bojan took home the golden ball for player of the tournament. Moses won the golden boot for top scorer.

He made his first team debut for the Eagles at 16 in November 2007, and though used sparingly, was soon thrilling fans in SE25 with his livewire performances and dazzling, defence-shredding skills. We were given a painful exhibition ourselves later that season when he helped inspire Palace to a 2-1 win at the Brit that dented our promotion hopes and left behind a very, very dizzy Danny Pugh.

A dizzy Danny Pugh is still an inspirational Danny Pugh.

Indeed, when Wigan took advantage of Palace’s dire financial situation in January 2010 to snap him up for just £2.5m, there were plenty of Stokies left scratching their heads as to why we hadn’t been interested.

Roberto Martinez blooded him slowly at Wigan and he was used frequently as an impact sub at first, before playing a huge part in the Latics’ great escape of 2011-12, his pace and power proving unstoppable on the right of Martinez’s bold 3-4-3 system. It was around this time he made a big decision regarding his international future. He’d represented England at every level from under-16 up, but won only one u-21 cap, with Stuart Pearce apparently unconvinced. Frustrated with England and flattered by the overtures of the country of his birth, he switched to Nigeria, despite a late, frantic phone call from Pearce pleading with him to reconsider.

“At least think about changing your name to Michael Mancienne?!”

After his best season as a professional with Wigan, Chelsea made their move, and even though Martinez (not entirely altruistically) warned it was too soon for the 21-year-old, he sealed his big move in August 2012. Predictably though, he found his first team chances limited at Stamford Bridge, and despite a respectable 10 goals in his debut season (including a Champions League goal and two in the Europa League semi-final), he was eager for more regular football. A loan move to Liverpool seemed a perfect fit, and should have been the making of him as a top Premier League performer. Yet after a fine goal on his debut, his time on Merseyside descended into catastrophe. He’d been expected to make one of the wing slots in Brendan Rodgers’ side his own, but he only managed six league starts all season, with fans and pundits alike accusing him of being unfit and apathetic. Totally eclipsed by Raheem Sterling, he had chances to redeem himself as the Reds’ title challenge put a strain on Sterling and his fellow attacking ‘Ss’, Suarez and Sturridge, but Moses was either unable – or unwilling – to rise to the occasion.

That poor form carried over into the World Cup. After playing a vital role in the counter-attacking system that claimed a first African Cup of Nations for 19 years for Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles, he’d become one of Nigeria’s main men. He even starred in pre-tournament commercials with the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi. However, he was desperately poor in their opening two group games, before missing the rest of the competition with a muscle strain.

He joins Stoke, then, with much to prove. So what are we getting? A fit, motivated Moses appears on paper to be exactly what we need to bring balance to the side and a directness that was sorely lacking in the lifeless opening day home defeat to Aston Villa. He’s incredibly quick, likes to run at defenders and loves to cut inside and score goals. Another major asset (and a further advantage over the other wingers we were looking at) is his strength, which helps him to shrug off defenders who might give smaller, jinkier wingers a tougher time of things. £27m Luke Shaw declared him the toughest opponent he’s faced in his short career so far.

Just edging ‘puberty’ into second place.

Like most of Mark Hughes’ signings this window, he’s versatile, capable of playing on either wing or as a second striker. For the most part, he’s played on the left, which would see him either competing with Arnautovic or mean Arnie switching to the right, the position from where he helped destroy Fulham in May. Martinez however, used him on the right to great effect. The likeable Everton boss raved about Moses in his DW Stadium days, describing him as “irreplaceable” and chiding England for letting him slip through their fingers. It’s that right wing berth that looks the obvious role for him in our starting XI.

Concerns? Well, it’s interesting that Hughes has hinted at throwing him straight in from the start at Hull on Sunday, given that he’s had no real pre-season to speak of as a result of that injury sustained in Brazil. Indeed, his total playing time in friendlies amounts to 34 minutes for Chelsea vs Ferencvaros, so expecting him to hit the ground running might be a big ask. Indeed, fitness generally could prove to be an issue, and I was surprised at just how few league games he’s actually started, managing more than 20 in just one of his eight seasons as a professional.

Data courtesy of Whoscored.com

Then there’s his form. Inconsistency is something of a habit in wide players, and even in his Wigan glory days Moses was considered a bit hit and miss; but after a year of looking less than enthused at Anfield, he’s now been dropped from the Nigeria squad by Keshi, whose patience seems to have run out, the taciturn coach declaring: “I think it’s time he made up his mind what he wants, if he wants to play football or not.” Quite the fall from grace. Has the lack of playing time at two top clubs so early in his career stunted his development?

He must know himself that this is a make or break season if he is going to turn out to be the player everyone thought he was going to be. He’s still only 23 (probably) and a strong year at Stoke will go a long way to repairing his reputation. The manager has already publicly vowed that Moses will get opportunities here. Now it’s time for Victor Moses to stop walking in the wilderness and take his place in the promised land.

Who needs milk and honey when you’ve got Wright’s Pies?

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 0-1 Aston Villa 16.08.14

1)  Rightly or wrongly, Stoke are back to being a work in progress

Maybe in time we’ll come to look at this game as a necessary dampener, a reminder that in spite of all the excitement and hype, this team has undergone some significant changes and may need some time to settle. Hopefully it’s nothing more than that, as this was a slow, lingering death of a performance with virtually no redeeming features. From the moment Andreas Weimann took advantage of the calamity unfolding around him to smartly screw his shot beyond the grip of Asmir Begovic and into the far corner, it was clear that the game was over.

As bad as any of the very worst performances from last season, it was simply woeful, tepid stuff from Stoke, an exercise in sterile possession, and not one player who started the game for the Potters emerges with much credit. Perhaps expectations were too high on and off the pitch, and we should’ve been more prepared for a battle than a carnival.

We have seen an influx of attacking talent come to the club over the summer and finding the right combination of players for the right game is proving tricky. On Saturday we changed two-thirds of the attacking trio that ended last season, and the new personnel have different strengths and styles to those they replaced. We will have to learn to play to these, and the new boys will equally have to adjust to the demands of their manager and team mates.

This could be a slow process. We might have scored some nice goals in pre-season but actually created little in the way of genuine scoring opportunities in many of those games, and that was reflected against Villa, who defended stoutly and reduced us largely to feeding off scraps. Our best chances were potshots from the likes of Nzonzi, Bojan and Arnie. Bardsley forced a good save from Guzan that Bojan just couldn’t follow up. Ryan flicked an effort from a set piece just over in the second half. Not exactly gilt-edged stuff.

Many of the issues that affected us during the first half of last season were back. We looked static, one-paced and predictable. We were guilty of overplaying and passing ourselves into trouble, the defence playing the ball in to midfielders who were already being closed down quickly. We were shorn of our thrust and fluidity, and had few ideas beyond slinging the ball out wide for the full backs to cross into a solitary, heavily marked front man (on the occasions when he wasn’t covering the right winger’s position). It looked at times as if the players didn’t know what our game plan was supposed to be, with some players blundering into the space of team mates and confusing each other and forward players switching positions to no positive effect whatsoever.

It was telling that two of our better performers were members of the old guard – Crouch and Adam. Thanks to the former, the ball stuck up front for the first time, and he did well to win it, bring it down and lay it off, something we’d been missing. Adam meanwhile, playing in a deeper midfield role, brought a sense of urgency, recognising the need to get the ball forward quickly and lofting some clever balls into the channels.

It’s frustrating that after appearing to find the answers last spring, we have ourselves gone and changed the questions. Whether this is a good thing as we look to the long term or represents an unnecessary return to the drawing board remains to be seen. There was one pocket of the first half, around 10 minutes in, when we did start to find some cohesion and threaten, with the full backs flying, Arnie finding space and Bojan popping up all over the place, and perhaps that hinted at what we’re capable of once the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Until then, there’s nothing to do but the same thing we were doing this time last year – preach patience.

2)  Stoke must be prepared for teams to stifle them at home

Full marks to Aston Villa, who entirely deserved what was their first away victory since New Year’s Day. As Hughes remarked, they arrived with a game plan, and it worked effortlessly. They were reactive, happy to spend long periods without the ball, but even without Weimann’s decisive goal, the visitors still had the afternoon’s best chances and did a much better job of exploiting the gaps at the back.

Paul Lambert made things compact, flooding the midfield and giving us no space, and ensured his team always had two men on our attacking players when we came forward. They had the middle of the park under lock and key and we never looked like breaking their grip on it. Stoke had no answer to this, and midway through the second half our one tactic was to look for the runs of Phil Bardsley, one of the few mobile players in red and white.

The ease with which they were able to execute that strategy was worrying. One failing of the Hughes era to date has been that Stoke struggle against teams that press us. A related problem dating back to the end of the cup final season is that we have difficulty breaking down sides that come to the Brit and shut up shop. A particular concern of mine about this Stoke team however, is that we seem to have worked hard to turn ourselves into deadly counter-attackers – but what happens if your opponents sit deep and aren’t especially bothered about attacking?

In that situation, you need a degree of flexibility. Last season, Hughes showed he had that in his locker, switching things up in Nzonzi’s absence and going 4-4-1-1 to begin our turnaround in fortunes. We did not see any such Plan B on Saturday though. After we went behind the game was screaming for us to go with two up front, with Crouch alongside either Diouf or Bojan. Instead we got a like-for-like that removed the last vestiges of pace from the side. Adam was the one bona fide creative player we had on the bench, and he should’ve been introduced at least 10 minutes earlier.

I have total faith in Hughes to be able to adapt tactically, especially given the embarrassment of riches available to him in what is the strongest Stoke City squad in my lifetime. But Villa will not be the only team to stifle and make life tough for us at home. We are not the surprise packages we were last season – look at how many pundits have tipped us to the ‘best of the rest’ this term – and a lot of teams are going to be more than content with a point at the Brit. If we can’t find a way round that, it’s going to be a much less fun campaign than we’d imagined.

3)  The right side needs work

Two debutants took their place down the Stoke right, but we had problems in that area of the pitch throughout the game.

Phil Bardsley endured a difficult start, with the assured, physical, vastly experienced player we’d been introduced to in pre-season replaced by a nervous bloke who continually got into excellent attacking positions only for his touch to desert him. There were issues defensively as well, with the ex-Sunderland man caught upfield a number of times and not exactly busting a gut to get back.

Bardsley’s control did improve in the second half and the runs he made were useful and will prove beneficial as the season wears on. Yet it was understandable that many should be underwhelmed by his debut – on this evidence he did not look like the upgrade we were hoping for.

The use of Bojan on the right side of an attacking three was not unexpected, but his presence there unbalanced the side. It’s to the young Catalan’s credit that he was eager to make an impression and always wanted the ball. At times he did look lightweight and hesitant, but this was his first competitive game in English football, and patience will be required as he acclimatises. However, it’s clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that the wing is not his position. As against Betis, he showed no positional discipline at all, roaming all over the place – on the right, on the left, in the middle, up front – but instead of confusing Villa’s players, it seemed to confuse our own. More than once Arnautovic wore a mask of utter bewilderment at why this young pretender had suddenly pitched up on his wing, while Diouf moving right to cover for him only took the Senegal star further out of the game. Poor old Bardsley was often abandoned to do pretty much all the offensive and defensive work on his own.

That kind of wandering brief could be sensational in the number 10 position, probing, pulling the strings and creating space a la David Silva, but on the right we need a consistent presence to pose a threat and make it harder for opponents to double up on our other attacking stars.

Peter Odemwingie and the cutting edge he provides were badly missed, with Bojan’s jinking, patient style serving to slow us down where the ex-WBA man looks for the fastest route to goal. From now on the fight for the right wing should be an exclusively Nigerian affair between Odemwingie and Victor Moses, and Bojan should enter the race for one of the central attacking roles.

4) Much more is needed from Stephen Ireland (or somebody else)

Finally able to play against his former employers, Stephen Ireland had some choice words ahead of this curtain-raiser that raised hopes he might punish them for making him one of the dreaded Villa Park ‘bomb squad’. The Cork-born midfielder had been arguably Stoke’s top performer in pre-season, and though his manager’s value of him is not universally shared by the Britannia faithful, here he had a chance to answer his external and internal critics in one fell swoop. He didn’t.

Unfortunately, what we got was a dismal lesson in anonymity from Ireland, who just could not get into the game. In a game in which Stoke had the greater share of the possession (66%), only Mame Biram Diouf made less passes than Ireland, who with 28 had less than half the number of Whelan (59) or Nzonzi (69) despite operating in one of the busiest areas of the pitch. He did drop deeper to try to get involved, but all that achieved was to further choke Diouf’s supply line.

MBD is a different kind of striker to Crouch; last season, the big man’s skills with his back to goal and ability to bring others into the game were a key aspect of our attacking play. Early indications are that Diouf is less about link play and more a pure striker, playing off the shoulder of the last defender. Given the circumstances, Diouf didn’t disgrace himself. He was isolated and was given no service or support, but his movement was good, he won a lot in the air and he worked hard, filling in for Bojan out wide and closing down quickly, almost forcing Brad Guzan into an error in the first half. That said, he does have rather less experience as a lone striker than I’d previously thought, and a line-leading centre forward should be able to offer something in terms of bringing the wide players and midfielders into the game. Hopefully this improves as he refamiliarises himself with the English game.

Those differences between Crouch and Diouf make the player in the hole all the more important – he must step up and shoulder the added creative burden and take on the greatest responsibility for creativity in the centre. Villa made it tough for him, but Ireland didn’t come close to doing this. He was totally ineffectual all game and it was a surprise to see him play the full 90 minutes. His part in the goal should not be overlooked either, a weak attempted challenge sending the ball spinning into Weimann’s path.

It’s not as if there’s no competition for that role. Bojan’s skill set looks tailor-made for it, while Adam, though slightly deeper, made a greater contribution in eight minutes than his Irish rival did in the preceding 82.

Alan Partridge famously declared “Der’s more ta Oireland den dis”. We know this to be true. But if he can’t show it, pronto, then someone else needs to have a go.

 

5)  Defensive errors need ironing out quickly.

There’s been much focus on our lifeless attacking play, but the difference between an insipid 0-0 and a humiliating home defeat was the two defences. On paper, Villa’s looked like a joke. Alan Hutton (bizarrely a career-long thorn in Bardsley’s side, having usurped him at Rangers, Sunderland and for Scotland) hadn’t started a game for Villa in two years, while the signing of Phillippe Senderos had been widely derided. The script called for Arnie to make mincemeat of Hutton and Senderos to be left eating Diouf’s dust. Instead both were excellent, along with Vlaar and Cissokho at the back and Ashley Westwood in the Villa midfield, as a supremely well-organised Villa side, perhaps scared into action by the sight of Roy ‘hobo with a shotgun’ Keane on the touchline, stuck rigidly to their task.

Stoke’s back four, meanwhile, made error after error. Distribution from the back was little more than lackadaisical slapstick, and several lapses almost let Villa score. A mix-up between Marc Wilson and an unusually jittery Asmir Begovic saw the two contrive to let Kieran Richardson squeeze past both of them, only for Agbonlahor to scuff wide when he should have hit the target. Cissokho also got forward from left back and found far too much space to fire in a bobbler that we just scrambled away.

The goal was a three-act comedy. We’d had numerous chances to get the ball clear before Ireland and then Wilson get into a terrible old mess. Weimann did well to wriggle free but he was very much in what should have been the left back’s territory, yet Pieters, inexplicably, was on the other side of the box. Weimann, to his credit, took his chance well.

Even the captain wasn’t his composed self, though he did make more clearances than anyone else on the park. Likewise it might seem harsh to point the finger at Pieters, who made more tackles and won more aerial duels than anyone, but he did seem uncharacteristically sloppy and went walkabout.

It was a day to forget for our back line, but then again, we seem prone to this sort of thing too often. We kept just one clean sheet in pre-season and, as Pete Smith notes in his Sentinel Conclusions Talking Points, we’ve managed just three shutouts in our last 23 games. If that was down to a Liverpool-style gung-ho philosophy it would be easier to stomach, but it almost always comes down to individual errors. Whoever works with the defenders in training needs to work harder.

All in all, Saturday was an early wake-up call, for manager, players and fans alike. Let’s make sure we show Hull that we’re now members of the wide awake club.

The New Boys: Bojan Krkić

“Bojan is a treasure.”

Frank Rijkaard

“There are only a few players who have a magical touch, and Bojan is one of them.”

Pep Guardiola

“I’ve never seen such quality and imagination in a player”

Juan Santisteban, Spain U-17 coach and former team mate of Alfredo Di Stefano

“We see a player in Bojan who is very useful for his quality and vision”

Silvio Berlusconi

When Frank Rijkaard’s incredibly successful reign at Barcelona started to look shaky for the first time, the under-pressure coach needed to send a message – both to the club’s big names, who were growing tubby and complacent, and to the fans, to assure them he was the man to usher in the next generation of Nou Camp greats. Leo Messi was already in the process of usurping an increasingly disinterested Ronaldinho as the club’s talisman. The likes of Van Bommel, Larsson and Belletti were moved on. Deco was eased out of the first team picture. And straight out of La Masia came a young Catalan boy, just 17 years of age. Before the old Messi had even cemented his legacy, the new one had arrived. His name was Bojan Krkić.

It was whispered in hushed tones that he’d scored somewhere between 500-900 goals for Barca’s youth team. He’d scored five times as a 15-year-old at the 2006 Euro U-17 Championships, then won the golden ball for player of the tournament as Spain triumphed the following year, ahead of Eden Hazard and Toni Kroos. When Rijkaard threw him into the senior XI in September 2007, the records started to tumble. He became the youngest player to score for Barca in both La Liga and the Champions League. The first player born in the 1990s to register a goal in Europe’s premier club competition. And he broke Raul’s record for the most goals scored in a professional debut season. Barcelona finished the season empty-handed, but at least they had Messi and Bojan. The future was here. The future was now.

Those records, and the quotes cited above, should remove any doubt as to just what a coup this signing is for Stoke City. This is a player lauded by some of the greats and playing – and scoring – for some of the game’s biggest, most evocative names – Barcelona, Milan, Ajax. Unlike the signing of the broken-down irrelevance that was 2012 Michael Owen, Bojan’s arrival has genuinely raised the club’s profile. It’s been reported everywhere from Marca to L’Équipe, and English papers and websites that had previously sniffed at our football now clamour to see this young titan in action for the Potters. It’s surreal.

Excitement at his signing has been ratcheted up even further by Bojan’s performances in pre-season, where he’s scored three fantastic goals. Fans who went to Germany, Blackburn or to the Brit for the Betis game were treated to the sight of a fleet-footed, skilful display from a player capable of finding space where none exists, going past defenders at speed and striking fiercely and with machine-like precision from distance.

 

You know there’s a big but coming…

 

I like big buts and I cannot lie…

Though the giddiness and excitement is totally understandable, it’s important not to whitewash the reasons we were able to sign him – and for peanuts at that. Those who bring up Bojan’s well-documented decline since that wondrous debut season shouldn’t be burned at the stake or carted off to a loony bin – it’s every bit as relevant to the discussion as his incredible rise.

As Ian McCourt documents expertly here, after fading out of the first team picture at Barca, he was sold in a complicated deal to Roma. The move seemed like a good fit for both parties – Luis Enrique, a Barca legend who knew the player well, was in charge and Bojan was a high-profile signing. Faith in the player was still sufficiently high that Roma would have to pay an additional £28m on top of their initial £12m outlay if they wanted to keep him for more than two seasons. Yet despite seven goals in 33 appearances, his impact in Rome was minimal, and his second and final season in Italy saw him farmed out on loan to Milan, where he made even less of an impression. Barca’s obligatory buy-back clause then kicked in, and he went home.

Things looked brighter at the start of last season, when the longstanding connection between the Catalans and Ajax enabled the now 21-year-old to head on loan to the Amsterdam giants. There, as here, his arrival was viewed as a significant coup. Yet his time in the Netherlands was a bit of a disaster – he took until December to score his first Ajax goal and only managed another three all season. He supplied the same number of assists as Christian Eriksen – a player who left the country in August. He was criticised by manager Frank De Boer for not working hard enough on the pitch and in training.

Though he’s still only 23, his glory days are fast disappearing into the distance.

Source: Whoscored.com

That downward trajectory is not necessarily entirely his fault. He’s had some rotten luck and, like Mame Biram Diouf and his previous struggles in England, there are some mitigating circumstances to consider. Things started to go wrong at Barcelona once Rijkaard, who’d been something of a father figure, was replaced by Guardiola. There had been tension between the two since Bojan (understandably) refused Pep’s request to return to his Barcelona B’ side in the midst of his great first team scoring run. Once Guardiola ascended to the top job, Krkić saw less and less action, and it does seem that this was not entirely due to footballing reasons.

“It’s so unfair, I hate you!”

He also suffered due to the club’s perpetual arms race with Real Madrid; however well he performed, a new galactico striker invariably arrived the following summer, be it Zlatan Ibrahimovic or David Villa. It was a curse that even followed him to Milan, where his one good spell of form was interrupted by Mario Balotelli’s signing in January 2012.

At Ajax meanwhile, his settling-in period suffered a setback when he tore his hamstring in September, missing two months of the season while rivals for his place made hay in his absence.

Still, he arrives in English football perceived as damaged goods, and his inability to shine in the Eredivisie, a league that made Afonso Alves and Jozy Altidore look like megastars, is pretty troubling. Repeated criticisms of Bojan in recent times have focused on a lack of physical and mental strength, and while the former isn’t necessarily a problem (nobody would confuse David Silva with Brutus ‘the Barber’ Beefcake), the latter might well prove to be. Without wanting to play armchair psychologist, every time adversity rears its head, his career seems to plunge that bit further down the ladder. He never hit the same heights in Spain after Rijkaard left. He was set to become Spain’s youngest-ever international when he was forced to withdraw following a panic attack. He told Luis Aragones he was too tired to play at Euro 2008. His dwindling involvement in games, even in Holland (as documented here) points to a player who struggles to assert himself when times are tough.

Then again, maybe he just needs the right environment. Stoke are the first ‘small’ club he’s represented, and the pressure here will be far less than anywhere else he’s played. Being a big fish in a smaller pond may well be the (re)making of him. Mark Hughes knows all about the pressures of playing for big clubs abroad and has that Barca connection – could he be ideally placed to get the best out of him? Sparky has already stressed the value of having Spanish speakers like Bojan’s friend Marc Muniesa in the dressing room to help him settle.

He can represent Serbia on Eurovision night.

Much depends on how we decide to use him. He’s cited a preference for playing through the middle as a main striker, and that’s largely how he made his name, but as I argued in the Diouf profile, I don’t feel we’ve yet progressed to the point that we can dispense with a target man altogether. His nimble dribbling and vision might make him more suited to the hole, but Stephen Ireland has performed well there in pre-season. That just leaves the right wing. Bojan did have some joy on the left of an attacking trio at Barcelona, but struggled in similar wide roles in Italy and Holland, and has expressed frustration at being deployed there. When played out wide in our friendlies he’s tended to drift infield, depriving us of an attacking option on that flank and affording the right back no protection. Conversely, used centrally he’s been deadly.

24 hours before our season kicks off, this is surely the manager’s biggest dilemma. Do we really drop Diouf or shunt him out of position to accommodate Bojan? Do we take our chances with him on the right to fit them all in (at Odemwingie’s expense)? Can we afford not to capitalise on the free-scoring pre-season momentum he brings into this game? I couldn’t call it.

For me, Bojan is the bonus ball of our transfer window, rather than the centrepiece. If he does the business, fantastic. If not, it’s hardly the end of the world given his age and fee. Hand on heart, I’m not convinced he’s built for our system (or English football in general), but it’s exciting to have him here, it’ll be fascinating to watch him play, and I’ll be 100% delighted to be proven wrong. If this one comes off, it’ll knock spots off all the other career resurrections we’ve seen at Stoke in the last decade or so. Should we get back that 17-year-old with magic in his boots, Bojan will turn the dogs’ home into a wolfpack. Arooooooooooooo!