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. Continue reading

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!

The New Boys: Dionatan Teixeira

So, Dionatan Teixeira then. Johnny Tex himself. Ol’ Texaroo. The Big Guy. The Don. The Slovak-Samba Express.

I’ll level with you. I know pretty much cock-all about Dionatan Teixeira.

“I believe Dionatan Teixeira is an old, old wooden ship”

In fact, for a player apparently tipped for stardom from an early age, he appears to have fallen off the radar somewhat. At the age of 16, the Brazilian centre back became the youngest player in the history of the Slovak Super Liga when he turned out for MFK Koŝice, and the likes of Roma and Atletico Madrid were sniffing around. Trials at numerous English clubs followed, with Blackburn and Mark Hughes’ Manchester City both reportedly having deals in place, only for work permit issues to skewer them.

However, he would then go on to play just 11 times over the next four years. A season-long loan to big boys Slovan Bratislava seemed to signal a breakthrough, but Teixeira didn’t play a single game for them. Last season was the first in which saw any kind of regular action, featuring 22 times for Dukla Banská Bystrica, who finished 8th in the Super Liga. Teixeira, who played at centre back and as a defensive midfielder over the course of the season, scored three goals and  – despite looking like he subsists on a steady diet of the bones of your loved ones - picked up just one yellow card.

Leon Cort was horrified

I’ve not quite been able to ascertain why he’s featured so little after being so hyped in his teens. Was it a case of unfulfilled potential? Injury? Did everyone just sort of forget about him? Researching Slovakian football is no picnic at the best of times, but it was further complicated by the fact that during the early part of his career he went by a different name, Dionatan Nascimento.

Let’s just call him Zay Angola and have done with it

Having resolved those permit problems courtesy of a fast-track to Slovakian citizenship, he has the privilege of being one of the few players we’ve actually paid a transfer fee for this window. Early impressions have been good. A left-sided centre-back, he has been strong in the air in pre-season, as you’d expect of a man who at 6ft4 dwarfs every outfield player bar Peter Crouch. Yet he’s also displayed an unexpected turn of pace and looked very comfortable on the ball, his arrival underlining the qualities Hughes is seeking from his central defenders as he continues to evolve the team’s style.

It’s also abundantly clear that Teixeira is hard as nails. Hailing from Londrina, an agricultural dustbowl in southern Brazil that also spawned Fernandinho and Bayern Munich’s Rafinha, he endured a difficult childhood. His family was poor, he had two younger brothers to care for, and his father was unable to work after being stricken with cancer. Pledging to make a better life for his family, Teixeira was able to forge contacts in the game thanks to Londrina politician and businessman Célio Guergoletto, who had helped a number of young players from the region find clubs in Europe. Leaving Brazil for Slovakia would be a culture shock for players twice his 16 years, but such was his determination that he made a name for himself there, always with one eye firmly on the Premier League. Rest assured that he’ll do everything in his power to make the most of this opportunity.

It appears that we’ll be gradually blooding him, giving him a taste of action here and there, a few minutes off the bench, in the cups etc, with Tony Scholes already talking up the Muniesa blueprint. Hughes too has spoken glowingly of Teixeira, likening him to Ryan Nelsen, who did so well for him at Blackburn. Obviously, having worked with him as a youngster at Man City, Hughes will be more than clued up about what he brings to the table.

Move along, nothing to see here…

Brazilian centre backs are not exactly in vogue this summer, but given Dionatan Teixeira’s pedigree, build and the encouraging signs so far, we might well have stolen a march on the rest of Europe and uncovered a real gem here – assuming that word hasn’t been tainted forever by its association with Peter Sweeney. There have been more glamorous arrivals in ST4 this summer, if not many more exotic; but watching his progress should be an intriguing subplot in what is shaping up to be a fascinating season.

The New Boys: Mame Biram Diouf

In some ways it feels as if Mame Biram Diouf’s arrival has already been eclipsed by the signing of Bojan. It is the Catalan starlet whose name is on everyone’s lips at the moment, with media and fans alike buying into Bojan-mania wholesale. Diouf has even found himself shunted out wide to accommodate the ex-Barca man in pre-season.

For me though, the capture of the Senegalese international is the single most important and exciting signing the club has made this summer. Here is a striker who has been one of the hottest properties in one of Europe’s top leagues for the past 18 months – one who was reportedly attracting the interest of top clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg– and someone we were prepared to pay a significant fee for this time last year. And we’ve got him for free. Bojan’s arrival may well have taken some of the burden of expectation off his shoulders, but nevertheless Diouf’s got a point to prove, he’s here to score goals. And scoring goals in English football is no piece of cake…

Ask a man who knows.

On paper, he looks like the ideal candidate to play as the main striker in Stoke’s system, and appears to have all the tools required to be a successful Premier League centre forward. His scoring rate with Hannover was almost one in two (26 in 57), and it’s a lot harder to be prolific in Germany than it is in, say, Holland, Belgium or Portugal. He scores all kinds of goals as well, from poacher’s tap-ins and thumping headers, to casually chipping in with the odd 20-yard bicycle kick here and there as well. He’s incredibly quick, powerful and strong in the air – last season he won an average of 5.1 aerial duels per game, a figure that only Leverkusen striker Stefan Kiessling could top.

As we’ve seen in pre-season, he also has a strong work rate and will help out in defence. This is a player who won’t go missing on the pitch, even if he does sometimes go missing off it – like when he no-showed training in January amid rumours of a move to Cardiff. Or when he vanished days before his wedding

Sidwell: “Why didn’t I think of that?”

He’s also come from a club that has in many ways been the Stoke City of the Bundesliga in recent years. The Mirko Slomka era was a relatively golden one for Hannover 96, with 4th, 7th and 9th placed finishes in consecutive seasons between 2010-11 and 2012-13. Die Roten bloodied noses first through a physical, long-ball style before transitioning, as Stoke are trying to do, into a ruthless, counter-attacking machine. Diouf, with his pace, movement and killer instinct, became a key component in that gameplan.

The elephant in the room where Diouf is concerned is, of, course, his failure in English football with Manchester Utd and Blackburn. Though he scored on his home debut for the Red Devils, that would prove his only goal for the club. It was a similar story during his season-long loan at Blackburn in 2010-11. An explosive start brought four goals in his first two starts, including a classic poacher’s hat trick in the League Cup against Norwich. However, he would only score twice more in the following 26 games, and in an end-of-season poll just 13% of fans on the main Blackburn supporters’ messageboard wanted to see the loan made permanent.

A closer look at his previous stint in England does perhaps hint at mitigating circumstances though. Even if you don’t take into account the fact that he was, at the time Sir Alex Ferguson signed him, just 21-years-old and hadn’t played at a level higher than the Norwegian Tippiligaen, it’s hard to argue that he was used in a manner that played to his strengths. Indeed, in Manchester he seems to have been an early victim of what could be called Phil Jones syndrome.

Truly a hideous condition indeed.

Ferguson hadn’t planned on signing Jones until a year later than he ended up doing, but his hand was forced by a bid from Arsenal. Similarly, he’d had Diouf scouted for a couple of years following a tip-off from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but interest from Schalke and a host of others spurred them to sign him up two years earlier than planned. Once he’d signed, he found himself behind a who’s-who of striking talent including Rooney, Berbatov, Owen, Welback and Hernandez. Opportunities were severely restricted, and despite banging them in for the reserves, his reward only ever seemed to be an appearance in the early rounds of the League Cup, and not in his favoured central striking role but out on the wing. Small wonder his development was impeded and he struggled to make an impact.

His barren run at Blackburn is more worrying, but again he often found himself deployed in a wide role in Sam Allardyce’s front three, a thankless task invariably accompanied by a boat-load of defensive duties.

Nevertheless, there are one or two legitimate concerns. It might not be an issue, but despite Diouf appearing to have all the attributes to be the supreme lone striker, most of his success has come as part of a strike duo. Slomka’s counter-attacking specialists tended to line up in a 4-4-2, while this popular Blackburn blog suggests that he was reinvigorated by Steve Kean going with two up front after struggling on his own up top.

That aspect of his game does look to have improved dramatically in Germany, but the fact remains that English football is not littered with imports who make it second time lucky. It’s good that the player himself is impressively bullish about his prospects at least (“I’m a much better player than the one that left Manchester Utd, of course I am”) and if there’s one league our manager knows inside out it’s the Bundesliga, having brought Samba, Santa Cruz, Kompany, De Jong and Arnautovic to these shores from Deutschland. If he likes what he sees in MBD, and he’s tracked him for a good while now don’t forget, that’s got to be a good sign.

What we can’t do though, having finally got our man, is repeat the mistakes of Fergie and Big Sam. He has to play through the middle as Stoke’s number nine. Against Schalke, Hughes used Bojan in that position as a false nine, with Diouf on the right in the Odemwingie role as what Brendan Rodgers might call a ‘false seven’ – a wide man who is still essentially operating as a striker. That player’s job is to come inside and exploit the space created by the false nine dropping off. It was an interesting tactic, but for me it’s one that Stoke are not yet ready for. Contrary to what seems to be the popular perception, last season was tactically more evolution than revolution for Stoke. That evolution was topsy-turvy, true, requiring us to remember what we were good at about halfway through and bolt those qualities onto the passing game we tried to start the campaign with, but when push came to shove, the old ingredients were key – spirit, physicality, counter attacking, and the option to go long when necessary.

We’ve not yet progressed to the point where we can discard a target man altogether and pass teams to death with a 5ft7 playmaker leading the line. We still need that focal point, a player to win the ball in the air, to work the channels and drag defenders out of position, to offer an out ball for the Irelands, Adams and Arnies.

We’re now in a position whereby we have plenty of players to make the bullets for him and I firmly believe that if we give him that backing as a number nine he’ll deliver the goals we need. He’s here to be the main man. Let’s give him every opportunity to shine in that spotlight.

And if he doesn’t, at least it could’ve been worse…

The New Boys: Steve Sidwell

It’s not difficult to see why Mark Hughes likes Steve Sidwell: the amount of experience the 31-year-old has amassed at so many different levels of the game is frightening. He’s seen life in the penthouse with Arsenal and Chelsea, working with stars like Vieira, Ballack, Essien and Lampard. He’s spent time abroad, as understudy to Yaya Toure at Beveren in Belgium. And he knows what it’s like to scrap further down the pyramid, making his bones with Brentford, Brighton and Reading. He’s met with triumph and disaster over the years, but ultimately emerged as a battle-hardened all rounder, bringing goals, tenacity and bite to the engine room. Though last season was a disaster for his relegated club, it was something of a personal triumph for Sidwell; not only did he notch seven goals from midfield, but his 93 tackles won was the second-highest number in the Premier League, behind only Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak. That’s quite a tough streak for a big softy who has his wedding vows tattooed on his back

He’s since been made to have ‘put that shelf up’ and ‘take the bins out’ tattoed on each buttock.

He might have reinvented himself at Fulham as the ‘ginger Iniesta’, but it’s always seemed vaguely preordained that he’d end up here – he first crossed our path in the third tier some 12 years ago, scoring a winner for Brentford at Griffin Park that dealt a swift kick to the nuts to our promotion chances, even if we did recover to exact revenge on him and his fellow Bees at the Millennium Stadium two months later. Eight months after that he was actually given a tour of the Brit as longtime admirer Tony Pulis sought to bring him to the club, only to get gazumped by Sidwell’s old Brentford boss Steve Coppell, who’d moved on to Reading. He’d be linked several times in the intervening years, TP being nothing if not persistent with his transfer targets, yet he finally arrives as one of Hughes’ trusted lieutenants.

Sidwell’s respect for Hughes is equally apparent and he was quick to stress the manager as a key factor in his decision to turn down a host of other clubs to sign for the Potters. The player’s arrival at Fulham in January 2011 helped turn the club’s season around and also revived a career that had, by Sidwell’s own admission, “gone missing for a few years” after a pair of nightmare moves to Chelsea and then Aston Villa.

Indeed, who knows what heights he might have scaled had he not headed to Stamford Bridge after being the driving force in Reading’s impressive Premier League debut season? He’d looked set to force himself into the England reckoning at a time when the national team was calling up everyone from Jermaine Jenas to Jimmy Bullard to Joey Barton. Yet it always seemed that he’d have a fight on his hands to see much action at Chelsea, and 10 starts in his solitary season there tell their own story. The perception at the time was that he’d sold his soul and sacrificed his career for the money, like some kind of grotesque, high-end Michael Tonge. Sidwell himself knows differently though, and has pointed out that he comes from a family of Blues fans and that few players would be able to say no if they were personally head-hunted by Jose Mourinho.

‘There were other clubs that offered me more  money to go to them, rather than Chelsea,’ he told The Mail‘s Laura Williamson. ‘They were the champions and when they come knocking on your door and Mourinho says he wants  you personally then you don’t fancy anything else. A lot of people say I went  there for the money, but it wasn’t the case.

‘I’d rather have finished  my career and say I tried to give it a go and it didn’t work out, and I can tell my boys and my grandsons that I played for Chelsea, rather than saying: “Well, I could have  played for them.”

‘My dad, Gordon, was a Chelsea fan. Not just  him – there are quite a lot of Blues fans in my family. If they had found out  that I had turned it down there would have been uproar. But I went for  footballing reasons only – and that’s all that matters.’

Villa, conversely, seemed a smart move. His energetic style should have been a good fit for Martin O’Neill’s high-tempo system. But once he put pen to paper on a £4.5m move, it wasn’t long before he was careening from one disaster to another. A dreadful error on his full home debut allowed Tuncay to pinch a winner for Middlesbrough. Then the injuries began to rack up, a calf problem picked up weeks after signing being followed by a knee injury, then a hamstring injury, before developing a recurring Achilles’ tendon issue. In two and a half seasons in Birmingham he managed just 24 league starts. A London boy, rumours also abounded that he was affected by homesickness and wanted to return to the capital – whispers lent credence by his last-minute rejection of a move to Wolves when Fulham rang mid-medical. Mick McCarthy was not amused.

How would you tell?

The signing, like that of Phil Bardsley, is part of the manager’s smart policy of adding to the ‘aaard working ‘old Stoke’ core that comprises the first two-thirds of the pitch, acting as a sturdy springboard for the more flamboyant talents to unleash hell in the final third. Even Sidwell-sceptics at Villa had to concede that he gave everything for the cause, and he’s not a dressing room problem either, just wanting to be one of the lads and get on with it. While certain similarly strawberry blonde team-mates took umbrage at Reading’s famed ‘ginger day’ in 2004, Sidwell took it in the spirit it was intended and responded with the game’s winning goal.

One player made no ‘secret’ of his disdain for ginger day

Sensible signing though it appears to be however, the burning question is: how does Hughes plan to use him? The fact he turned down other clubs, including several London ones, suggests a player who expects to feature fairly prominently  – he doesn’t seem to be someone content with a squad role (“I am the world’s worst at watching games” he told The Independent in 2010) . While you’d expect any new player to ‘back himself’, everything I’ve read about him suggests that in order to see the best of Sidwell, he needs a run of games. Steve Coppell said as much when he left Reading. Fulham fans have commented that he didn’t begin to truly make his mark there until he was a fixture in the team. At Villa, conversely, he was behind Petrov and Milner in the pecking order, and never really played to his full potential when he did get the opportunity. There’s also the chance that long spells on the sidelines might not do his injury-prone body much good, á la Michael Owen.

There’s no problem with him playing regularly if he’s an upgrade on the current midfield of course, but is that really the case? He’s not really the type of creative player to operate behind the striker, nor a holding midfielder to sit at the base of midfield (which seems like a waste of his scoring prowess anyway). He’s very much a box to box midfielder – Hughes himself said as much when he signed him for Fulham three years ago, and the player has said the same.

That position is currently ably occupied by the moody bleu himself, Steven Nzonzi, which begs the question: is Sidwell here as a cheap replacement in case the Frenchman departs? Or is he simply here to give him a kick up the dérriere? If Hughes does see him as an improvement, last season’s stats don’t really back him up. Sidwell won more tackles than any of our midfielders in 2013/14 and his shot accuracy, at 42%, is superior to all bar Charlie Adam. Yet his tidy-enough pass completion rate of 83% is not as good as that of Nzonzi (87%) or Whelan (88%) and he created fewer chances than either. It’s not just a matter of the tiresome (and inaccurate) ‘Glenn only passes it five yards sideways anyway’ argument either, as according to Squawka, the Irishman’s average pass length last term stood at 18m – better than Nzonzi (16m) and Sidwell (17m).

Stats courtesy of Squawka.com

When you find yourself comparing men’s pass lengths though, it’s probably time to look yourself in the mirror and then go to the pub…

The issue of where he’ll play and how often makes the signing somewhat more curious than it perhaps looks at face value. Nevertheless, he’s an established, quality Premier League player and when it comes to the hard yards he won’t let us down. What price another ginger day, 120 miles north and 10 years on?

Invitation only I’m afraid, Dave.