1) A hugely disappointing no-show
This match was the closest thing we had to a cup final in our remaining four fixtures. A battle for position with a direct rival, with added spice from the Victor Moses incident earlier in the season. It was therefore so deflating that Stoke simply were not at the races, producing pretty much a carbon copy of their non-performance at The Hawthorns in March, our previous worst away showing of the campaign, right down to the circumstances of the opening goal. One-paced, stodgy and generally second-best, the visitors would not have scored had injury time extended into bank holiday Monday.
Mark Hughes showed a degree of ruthlessness in his team selection, dropping Philipp Wollscheid after his nuclear winter performance against Sunderland. Eyebrows were raised at the exclusion of Asmir Begovic, not even on the bench after his blunder in that game, with Jack Butland getting his long-awaited chance between the sticks. Phil Bardsley replaced the injured Geoff Cameron and Glenn Whelan also returned in place of Stephen Ireland.
The first half was a real no man’s land, with both teams appearing half-soaked and not especially fussed about going for it. The best chance of the half fell to Jonjo Shelvey, who could only fire straight at Butland, while the best Stoke could manage was forcing a couple of corners before Steven Nzonzi got forward and forced Fabianski to tip his effort over the bar right on half time.
Whatever Garry Monk said to his charges at half time clearly did the business, as the Swans really cranked it up a notch after the break, Gylfi Sigurdsson hitting the bar within minutes of the restart. We produced no reaction to the newly energised home side’s advances, and found ourselves under the cosh for most of the half. We were served fair warning when Sigurdsson missed a point blank header and Shelvey went close. There was now a real fizz to the hosts’ play, with some intricate passing creating space cleverly in and around (copyright Andy Townsend) our box.
Hughes finally made a change having waited about 10 minutes too long (a hallmark of our worst away performances) and Ireland replaced Adam. I’d felt before the game that despite Charlie’s good form of late, Ireland is better suited away from home in that role behind the striker. That viewpoint was rather undermined by a 20-minute cameo from the Cork man that was every bit as wretchedly ineffectual as Adam’s 70 minutes on the pitch had been.
We failed to heed those earlier warnings and were duly punished – surprisingly late in the day – in the 76th minute. It looked as if Shelvey had run the ball out of play down the Swansea right, but once he’d managed to keep it in, he was able to effortlessly navigate his way round Erik Pieters before crossing for Jefferson Montero on the opposite wing to slam home a header unchallenged at the back stick, our right back conspicuous by his absence (again).
We threw on Crouch and Odemwingie as we sought an equaliser, but our two Peters could not prevent us from petering out – neither could inject any life into our moribund forward play. It was clear we were not going to get back into it, but insult was added to injury when our proud record of being the only team in the league not to have had a man sent off went up in smoke as well. Marc Wilson’s first yellow card was for a follow-through that was more clumsy than malicious. His second was a cynical ‘take one for the team’ trip that there was no need for. Daft stuff, but the game was already lost by then.
Insult to erm, insult to injury then followed when Swansea made the most of their man advantage at the death, the superb Shelvey claiming another assist as he smartly cut back for the impressive Ki Sung-Yeung to tuck away number two. Cue Urban Cookie Collective’s ‘The Key, The Secret’, surely a new low in the already murky waters of post-goal music…
All that was left was to sample some of the delights of Wind St and drown our sorrows in the excellent No Sign Bar (Dylan Thomas was a regular). As far as the performance goes, it was hard to be angry; just disappointed. It looked a game too far for a side that is running on fumes – a bogey ground (one fortunate point out of a possible 12 in the last four seasons) and a strong team who were more up for it than us.
Credit to Monk. His cocksure, thinking-man’s Sherwood schtick is irksome but he’s doing an excellent job to keep the Swansea fairytale going.
2) Butland suggests there’s life after Begovic
Though it was something of a surprise to see Jack Butland given his opportunity so quickly, it wasn’t a massive one, given Begovic’s latest high-profile blunder. The real talking point was Begovic not even making the bench, a curious development that the manager’s post-match comments didn’t really do a lot to resolve. Some of our more credible ‘ITK’ posters have suggested that the plan was always for Butland to get some game time to help sharpen him up ahead of the England Under-21s European Championship campaign. I can buy that to a point, though I’m not convinced Mark Hughes is the sort of gaffer to put the needs of any other team before his own; however, the timing of the decision, so soon after Begovic’s gaffe against Sunderland, seems pointed, and him not being on the bench is odd. Was he given the day off, or is it something more seismic? Has Bosnia’s number one played his last game for the Potters?
Regardless, Butland on the day was one of the few Stoke players to emerge with any credit. He showed impressive agility for a big lad to get down and make a couple of fine reaction stops, and he’s a confident communicator, constantly bellowing instruction to his back four (something I like to see a goalkeeper do). When he was given a decision to make he pretty much always chose the right one, taking charge when the ball was there for him to win, and neither goal can be attributed to him. There was the odd dodgy clearance that served as a reminder that he has a long way to go; meanwhile the fact that we played a higher number of long balls out from the keeper than we have since early March might suggest a discomfort on the ball, but could equally represent an edict from the top brought about by recent mishaps playing the ball out from the back.
Many are uneasy about the prospect of Butland taking custody of the gloves next season, but his pedigree is second to none. He’s worked with most of the best goalkeeping coaches in the country and they all rave about him – Eric Steele at Derby, who is widely credited with toughening David De Gea up for the Premier League at Manchester Utd; Dave Watson, who helped develop Joe Hart and Ben Foster during their time at Birmingham; and Ray Clemence, one of the finest goalkeepers this country has produced. When the great and good of the goalkeeping fraternity are so excited about a young goalkeeper, it has to be encouraging.
It seems increasingly likely that Jack’s time in the spotlight is rapidly approaching. Over to you kid. Show us what you can do.
3) Bardsley blows his chance
Geoff Cameron might have missed the game courtesy of a hamstring injury, but he could have had no complaints had he been flat-out dropped – he’d been out of sorts for weeks, the weaker facets of his game both in terms of positioning and delivery evident once again.
Phil Bardsley’s recall may well have been by default, given that he’d not seen action since his own calamitous contribution to West Brom’s winner six weeks ago led to his own axing. So what should he do on his return but make the exact same mistake? For Brown Ideye, read Jefferson Montero – the complete lack of fight and anticipation from Bardsley meant his man had a free close range header to put the Swans in front. This weakness at defending the far post is Hoefkens-esque.
What makes Bardsley’s lapse all the more frustrating is that he had shown some of the more positive traits of his game up to that point. His committment and strength in the tackle are admirable and his timing is better than his reputation (and the Eden Hazard furore) suggest. Nobody won more tackles all afternoon.
At other times however he displayed a distinct lack of a football brain with some of his decision-making and his wavering concentration span threatened to get us into trouble long before it did. He had a better pass completion rate than any other Stoke defender, but when he did lose the ball it was invariably in dangerous areas. He looked a weak link in a back four that was marginally stronger than it looked against Sunderland; Pieters did ok apart from his own role in the opener; Shawcross was steady; Wilson’s dismissal was silly but he had looked solid up to that point.
Earlier in the season, the competition for the right back slot seemed to be bringing out the best in Bardsley and Cameron. Bardsley put in strong showings against the likes of Man City and Newcastle; Cameron responded with dynamic displays such as at home to West Ham. Since the turn of the year though, they appear to be attempting to actively hand each other the shirt.
Right back remains every inch the problem it was this time last year, and that’s quite an indictment of Bardsley. He was signed to replace Cameron as first choice and has not made the position his own. A right back remains a priority, and something will likely have to give in the summer between Bardsley and Cameron. It’s not a nice thing to say, but neither one of them would be any great loss if they were sold.
4) Stoke look shattered
Swansea had numerous contenders for the man of the match award. Ki, Dyer, Williams and especially Shelvey were all excellent. By contrast, many of Stoke’s best performers, both over the course of the season and those in-form in recent weeks, were subdued.
Steven Nzonzi had his worst game of the season. He was, to invoke Jeff Beck, ‘everywhere and nowhere, baby’, frequently out of position when the hosts came forward and failing to impose himself when we had the ball. He completed more passes than any other player but it was merely an exercise in sterile possession. He wasn’t helped by the lack of movement in the final third, but nor did he seize the initiative himself. His displays and ability to glide past players and transition defence into attack have been a sizeable factor in our improved away form this season, and when he’s not on his game it’s really noticeable. Simply put, when he plays well, Stoke play well. When he doesn’t, neither do we.
One player clearly desperately in need of a rest is Jon Walters. SJW has had a great season but he has looked jaded for weeks now and it’s been a long time since he really affected a game. He’s not offering anything on the right flank at the moment and that is leaving us lop-sided and piling the pressure on the mercurial Marko Arnautovic to work some magic on the other wing.
Mame Biram Diouf and Charlie Adam account for five of our last six goals scored but they too were very much out of the game on Saturday. Diouf didn’t look interested, making few of the runs he’s lauded for and giving the Swansea back line nothing to think about. Adam was anonymous, the Swans more than ready for him and not allowing him to gain a foothold in the game.
After showing such fight to gain unlikely results against West Ham and Southampton, we now look desperate for the season to end, with just one (unconvincing) win to our name in our last seven fixtures.
It’s a minor miracle that we’re still very much in the hunt for a top-half finish so late into the season given the injury problems that have affected us throughout. Shawcross, Bojan, Moses are all influential players we’ve been without for long spells. Diouf went to the AFCON. Pretty much the entire defence has struggled with fitness concerns at one time or another.
Do we have anything left in the tank for one last push? Is this knackered squad capable of raging against the dying of the light?
We’re about to find out.
5) Whelan reminds us of his importance
I’ve noticed that Glenn Whelan-bashing seems to have been slowly on the rise again in some quarters, with several posters on the messageboard evincing the opinion that he is one of the bigger problems in the side, and that were he just to be ousted, we’d be transformed into a goal machine, shorn of his negative, sideways passing ways.
It’s true that Whelan has not scaled the same heights as last season – far and away his best in a Stoke shirt – a broken leg sapping his momentum fairly early on. Yet he has remained a steady presence and an important player over the course of the campaign. I genuinely believe that a lot of the criticism he receives stems from the fact that, astonishingly in 2015, a lot of fans just don’t ‘get’ the role of a holding midfielder. Whelan is there to sit, protect the back four, keep it simple and, in the words of Brian Clough, “give it to someone who can play”.
There is an argument that that kind of player perhaps isn’t required in every game, but the experiment of dispensing with the role to open up defensive teams in home games hasn’t exactly been a rip-snorter so far, yielding as it has a grand total of zero victories. To an extent it depends, I guess, on how comfortable you are with the trade-off of more creative options versus leaving your defence expose. Personally I’m bricking it for 90 minutes when we do it, and I think it’s perfectly possible to strike the right balance between playing positive football and having a strong, disciplined enforcer in the engine room.
Whelan’s return at the Liberty didn’t prevent defeat, but he was Stoke’s best outfield player. He was one of maybe three or four who actually knew what their job was and played the safety net very ably, particularly in the first half, just sitting, getting on the ball, calming things down and acting as the building blocks of our attacks.
Could we improve upon him, find a more mobile destroyer with a bit more vision? Absolutely. But even if we do that this summer, there will still be a role for Whelan, the unsung hero, a leader on the pitch and in the dressing room. He deserves more respect.