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.

The New Boys: Phil Bardsley

Stoke took us by surprise on 22nd May when they announced the free transfer capture of Sunderland right back Phil Bardsley as the club’s first summer signing. The move raised eyebrows not just because, by our standards, it happened at a stage of the transfer window that was practically primordial, but because it came out of the blue – all transfer chatter that day had been focused instead on the rumoured presence of Mame Biram Diouf at Clayton Woods. Ironically, it felt like the first window in years that we hadn’t been linked with the former Manchester United full back, given our predilection for raiding Wearside and the fact that TP was a well-known admirer.

I guess how you feel about Bardsley’s arrival largely depends on how highly you rate the job Geoff Cameron has done at right back up to now. The likeable US international has won many fans with his marauding runs and gift for interceptions. Indeed, despite not having played at full back before arriving on these shores, in his two seasons in English football only one player in the entire Premier League (Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin) has made more tackles and interceptions than Geoff.

Nevertheless, some feel that the American’s positioning is decidedly dodgy, that he gets beaten too easily and that his strong forward runs are negated by a lack of consistent end product. If it’s harsh to brand him a weak link in a team that finished 9th, it’s also true to say that many felt right back was an area that could be improved.

Does Bardsley represent that improvement? Perception-wise, he doesn’t appear to fit in with the ‘new direction’ brief (lack of price tag aside). If anything, the general view seems to be that he’s a dream ‘Pulis player’ (despite the whole ‘being a full back’ thing) – limited but committed, a rich man’s Andy Wilkinson. WhoScored.com’s stats from last season even give a narrow edge to Cameron overall, causing some to question if Bardsley offers any kind of upgrade whatsoever.

To confuse matters further, Bardsley himself looks to be a mass of contradictions. He’s Sunderland’s record holder for Premier League appearances but divides their fans as much as Cameron divides Stoke’s. Some mackems have lauded his combative, tireless performances, but others have bemoaned his tendency to go missing at the back, and even unkindly likened his stocky frame to that of the PG Tips Monkey.

At least it wasn’t Johnny Vegas.

His determined attitude is the one thing that even his detractors seem to agree on, yet disgrace is never far away for this self-confessed “rum lad” from Salford, as the infamous images of him making cash angels in a casino while his team battled relegation testify.So why Bardsley then?

Stats only ever tell part of the story, but a closer look at those from 2013/14 might offer a window into MH’s thinking. Cameron might get WhoScored’s nod overall, but in some of the areas particularly key to a full back’s game, Bardsley comes out on top. The numbers suggest he was dribbled round almost three times less than Geoff. This is Cameron’s big weakness, as only two defenders in the league were beaten by their winger more times last term. Bardsley, it seems, is tougher to get past. He’s also marginally a better passer, too.

Stats courtesy of whoscored.com

Stats courtesy of whoscored.com

Moreover, that tough ‘Pulis player’ mentality is not to be overlooked or dismissed. These qualities are something to build on as we move forward, rather than wash away, and that’s something Hughes did with aplomb last season. Our play blossomed in the spring, but when times were tough it was the iron will of the old guard – Shawcross, Whelan, Crouch etc – who held the fort. Bardsley is very much in that mould. He has bounced back from every setback life has thrown at him and come back stronger.

In 2004, his uncle, Frank Buckley, who’d played a huge part in his development as a player, was murdered, beaten to death outside a Yates’ in Swinton. A devastated Bardsley could easily have gone off the rails, but instead devoted his career to his uncle’s memory. He became the first Manchester United player to progress all the way from the under-8s to the first team, playing Champions League football with the Red Devils, and it must have been a wrench for a Man U-obsessed youngster to ultimately not make the grade there. A series of loans designed to give him experience did him few favours, the low point coming at Rangers in 2006 where a promising start was abruptly halted when eccentric boss Paul Le Guen sent him home for a heavy training ground challenge on Thomas Buffel. Buffel himself made no big issue of the tackle, and the Rangers players were aghast at Bardsley’s treatment. But the beleagured Le Guen had instituted a bizarre ‘no tackling in training’ rule and had decided to make an example of Bardsley to try and maintain his fragile grip on a dressing room fast losing faith in his methods. Collateral damage, Bardsley was left adrift, directionless, his confidence dented, but again he battled back, moved to Sunderland and was soon playing the best football of his career.

It didn’t last. Steve Bruce had known the right back since he’d played in the same youth teams as his son Alex, but when he was appointed manager of the Black Cats, he expressed his disappointment in Bardsley’s form. It proved the kick up the backside he needed however, and he worked hard and improved to the point that he was crowned player of the season on Wearside in 2010/11 – Sunderland’s best season, in terms of league position, since their return to the top flight in 2007. He developed his game further, filling in capably at left back and breaking into the Scotland team, for whom he qualified through his father.

After the casino incident in 2013, Paolo Di Canio told him he’d never play for the club again, and he seemed to have well and truly burned his bridges there when he sent an ill-advised tweet openly mocking Sunderland’s opening day defeat to Fulham. Yet like human flubber he rebounded yet again, enjoying a new lease of life under Gus Poyet, starting 26 Premier League games and scoring memorable goals including the winner against Manchester City and a huge League Cup semi-final strike against his boyhood team.

Strength of character is what has got Stoke this far, and Bardsley has it in spades. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that his supposed technical deficiencies have been overstated as well. If that were the case, would such a technically-minded coach as Poyet really have made the politically difficult decision to bring him back into the fold, risking the wrath of the fans in the midst of a dogfight? Would he have praised him so highly and used him so often in a system in which the full backs are relied on as one of the team’s main attacking threats? Would he have offered him a new contract?

It now looks nailed on that he will start the season as Stoke’s first choice right back. Though moving closer to his Mancunian roots may well have played a part in his decision to come here, he hasn’t turned down a new deal at Sunderland – where he was rumoured to be earning around £32,000 a week – to sit on the bench, and it doesn’t seem very ‘new directiony’ to have a player on that kind of wage playing a bit-part role.

Colours to the mast then: is he an upgrade on the current incumbent? I think so. He’s a genuine, specialist full-back for starters, and one with a huge amount of Premier League experience. He’s tough, offers more solidity defensively, and can still get up and down the pitch and offer an attacking threat, being the possessor of a ferocious shot. It might be more of an incremental improvement than a dramatic one, but he provides another level of steel to our back line, and for a free transfer it looks very good deal.

Would you bet against him being a success at Stoke City?

This man wouldn’t.

 

Season Conclusions: 2013/14

1)  Evolution has been a topsy-turvy process

The short-term aim was supposed to be survival – a sensible goal for a season of transition, as a team that had fallen out of the habit of winning slowly adapted after a decade of one deeply ingrained way of playing.

Long-term, the plan was evolution, finally reaching that mythical ‘next level’ in terms of results and performance.

That both have been achieved by May is testament to the remarkable job done by everyone at Stoke City Football Club.

Not that things got off to the most auspicious of starts, as within four minutes of the opening game at Anfield, new manager Mark Hughes could be seen bellowing “CALM DOWN” at his charges as they attempted to turn ‘Bambi on Ice’ from a cliché into an all-singing, all-dancing musical comedy.

Though the early signs weren’t entirely devoid of promise, there was plenty to worry about. The team was far more open but was also defending poorly and conceding silly goals. The full backs, on whom our attacking play relied in the season’s opening months, constantly left huge gaps for opposing wide men to exploit, while the midfield was providing scant protection for an increasingly beleaguered back line. Up front meanwhile, there was still no pace or cutting edge, with aimless hoofing replaced by passing for the sake of passing, and wingers crossing into one, solitary, heavily marked striker in the box. Goals continued to prove hard to come by.

Frustrations grew among sections of the support as the team went from the end of August to the start of December without recording a win, and some accused Hughes’ team of losing its identity, with the battling qualities, heart and togetherness that had been largely responsible for establishing Stoke as a Premier League outfit being cast aside in favour of the pretty but pointless, anaemic passing trappings of Tony Mowbray-era West Brom.

Hughes had taken time to try and identify his best XI, tinkering with the forward, defensive midfield and wide positions, but by the time Chelsea were memorably beaten on 7th December it seemed he had found it, and a run of just one defeat in eight matches followed. The returns of Crouch and Whelan as first team regulars had the desired effect at each end of the pitch, while there was a symbolic passing of the torch from the old-fashioned, hard working Matthew Etherington to the younger, more exotic stylings of Marko Arnautovic.

Yet after Christmas there followed another worrying downturn in form. Injuries, suspensions and some horrendous refereeing played their part, but there could be no excuses for our dreadful defending in shipping five at home to Liverpool or for our simpering, whimpering defeat to Tony Pulis’ Crystal Palace in January. An apparently fruitless transfer deadline day came and went, and Stoke headed into February in the relegation zone.

A first league victory over Manchester United in 30 years that very day breathed fresh confidence into the side however, and little by little, those trademark strengths began to return, married to some genuine flair as Arnautovic found his feet and a cutting edge was brought by new signing Peter Odemwingie. Stoke showed their toughness, went direct when they had to, were almost unbeatable at home and showed their character with only three teams winning more points from losing positions.

Hughes demonstrated his flexibility, using different tactics, personnel and formations to deal with different opponents, and by spring Stoke were flying, playing arguably their finest football since promotion and carrying out stylish, rapier-quick demolition jobs on the likes of West Ham, Aston Villa and Fulham. If the opening six months of the campaign had been like Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s knackered old Wild Mouse, delivering excitement in fits and starts but seemingly always on the precipice of rickety disaster, the final three months were the Pepsi Max, smooth, sleek and reaching unprecedented highs.

There are still issues to iron out, such as the movement and decision-making in the final third, while there’s an urgent need to hold onto the two pillars that have propped up our defence, ie the captain and the bloke between the sticks. But optimism burns more brightly than it has for some time. We’re developing into a fast, fluid, creative Stoke City, and who would’ve thought that was possible this time last year? It’s the tangible stuff that matters though, and the final table speaks for itself. Top Midlands club. Record Premier League points total. Ninth place – a highest finish for 39 years. It’s been a great season.

 

 

2)  The new signings paid off (almost) to a man

The consternation at the end of both transfer windows, the nadir of which was the high five that will live in infamy as ‘pizzagate’, suggests that Stoke’s still fairly new transfer structure didn’t deliver its targets this year. To an extent, that’s a valid argument. However, if the remit of ‘Mark and his team’ was to sign quality rather than quantity, there’s no question that he succeeded. For an outlay of around £5m, Hughes was able to bring a number of very good footballers to Stoke City.

His hit rate was pretty damn impressive – of the nine players brought in, all bar one – tubby, delusional Swedish loanee John Guidetti – made some kind of contribution. Even Jermaine Pennant, whose return seemed little more than an act of appeasement to a fanbase underwhelmed at the new gaffer’s appointment, delivered a terrific winner at West Ham before being rightly discarded in January.

The biggest fee Stoke paid was around £3m for Erik Pieters, a left back lined up, possibly by messrs Scholes and Cartwright, during the Pulis era. Hughes nonetheless opted to ratify the deal and though the Dutchman did endure a bit of a shaky settling in period, by the season’s end he was a model of consistency, winning tackles aplenty and providing expert support for his winger, his finest hour coming in a man of the match display at Villa Park in which he was heavily involved in two of Stoke’s four goals.

Typically, after waiting years for one half decent left back, two turned up at once, with Pieters getting a young understudy in the form of ex-Barcelona starlet Marc Muniesa. This was perhaps the most incongruous of all our signings, given he’s the polar opposite of the kind of player we used to go for, but he looks a real find. No tippy tappy fancy Dan, Muniesa models himself on Carles Puyol and turned in some uncompromising displays at both left back and centre back, demonstrating excellent timing and no little flair coming forward. He looks like a star in the making.

Loan arrival Oussama Assaidi, similarly, is not yet the finished article, with question marks over his strength and decision-making, but his eye for the spectacular had quite an impact on our campaign, his pace and willingness to shoot on sight delivering four goals from 12 starts. The likeable Moroccan has shown enough for us to look at turning his temporary stay into a permanent one, and whatever happens, he has already written his name into club folklore with that injury time missile against Chelsea…

Other signings showed that the dogs’ home ethos remained intact. Stephen Ireland seemed to be heading to some godforsaken Championship club like Middlesbrough or Doncaster before his old mentor Sparky picked up the phone, and the ex-Man City man repaid him by giving everyone a reminder of his subtle talents in the attacking midfield role, recycling the ball quickly, picking out players in space and leading the charge on the break. A pair of cracking goals notwithstanding, we’re yet to see the best of him, but he has offered tantalising glimpses to suggest he may finally fulfil his outstanding potential with us.

Another huge surprise was the importance of Peter Odemwingie: he’d appeared every inch a January panic buy, 32-years-old, underperforming at Cardiff and better known in recent years as a punchline following his well-documented car park high-jinks in West London. Instead however, he brought vital bite to a previously rather toothless attack, scoring the goals that dragged us from the relegation zone to mid-table with a ruthlessness not seen since James Beattie did the same thing five years ago. The Nigerian international was arguably the best signing any club made in terms of sheer impact, and all he cost was sending Kenwyne Jones in the opposite direction, a player who’d given up on playing for Stoke City – or on football generally – months before.

Then there’s the crown jewel. Marko Arnautovic is an enigma. £2.5m for a player who’d featured for some of Europe’s top clubs invariably raised some awkward questions, as did the tales of an illicit joyride in Samuel Eto’s car and other misdemeanours. Jose Mourinho, who managed him at Inter, had declared he had “the mind of a child”. Yet the team had long been starved of creativity, and thus the arrival of a genuine maverick was cause for excitement.

Like Pieters, he took time to adjust to English football. We saw hints of his talent, such as his debut lob that just missed the target against Manchester City, his assist for Geoff Cameron at Arsenal or his superlative free kick at Old Trafford. But in the autumn months he simply wasn’t contributing enough, and the sight of him standing, hands on hips, while the player who’d nicked the ball off him charged forward, was commonplace. His place in the side began to be called into question, and nobody seemed more frustrated than the Austrian himself.

Gradually though, with more attacking options to play with and his fitness improving all the time, he clicked. Bit by bit he got better until he terrorised Arsenal in our 1-0 win at the Brit. From that moment on he was unstoppable, creating chance after chance every week, having the beating of his full back at every turn. His first home goal against West Ham was followed by an outrageous rabona cross. He gave Aston Villa’s Bacuna nightmares as the Villans were smoked 4-1. He dazzled, he confounded, he twisted their blood, and he signed off with two assists and a goal in his last two games.

He’ll have ups and downs, no question, but after a couple of barren seasons with nobody to lift fans from their seats, here we have the real deal – for a steal. Rock Me, Amadeus.

 

 

 

3)  The core was much stronger than it was given credit for

As good as the new players turned out to be, we owe a lot to the old guard who held the fort while the team was finding its feet, and blossomed with the rest in the spring.

There was a fairly strong argument pre-season that the squad bequeathed to Hughes was in need of a serious overhaul. Stoke had looked very much like relegation contenders for quite some time in a dismal, demoralised, lifeless second half of the last campaign, and the identity Hughes was accused of discarding had in fact started to dissipate long before his arrival.

The new man insisted to much scepticism from fans (including yours truly) that he had inherited a good group of players, and though it seemed like a case of making the right noises, he was proven right. The steely spine of survivors showed that the ‘old Stoke’’s best qualities remained intact.

Asmir Begovic enjoyed yet another outstanding season, setting the tone at Anfield with some incredible saves to keep the scoreline from getting embarrassing and continuing in that vein, commanding, organising, and making a string of octopus-like saves from strikers who were practically already celebrating. He confirmed his status as the club’s best goalkeeper since Gordon Banks and it’s hard to overstate how many points he’s been worth. As well as we’ve done, things could have been very different without him – the fact that could only pick up one point from a possible 15 during his absence in January speaks volumes.

Ryan Shawcross can usually be relied on but even by the captain’s high standards, this may have been his best campaign to date. In past years, Stoke had leaders all over the pitch, but this team was one with less experience (not to mention less emphasis on defending) and he stepped up to show exactly why Pulis’ decision to give him the armband was the right one all along. He could be seen constantly barking orders, pointing, organising, and his performances were excellent, his positioning, marking and bravery unparalleled. Who cares about England? We know what we’ve got and we don’t want to share him, thanks all the same.

Meanwhile, further evidence that the dogs’ home was still open for business came from within the ranks. This blog has not been surprised by Glenn Whelan’s stellar form as it has long rated the Dublin destroyer. But Whelan surpassed himself following his return to the side in November, and barely put a foot wrong in the defensive midfield role, plugging gaps off the ball and wasting little in getting our attacks started and making a number of crunching challenges. At this point, anyone who doesn’t see what the Irishman brings to the side simply doesn’t know their football. This is what a good defensive midfielder looks like.

Peter Crouch was much maligned during the Pulis era through little fault of his own, but had a much happier time of things this time round, benefiting from pace around him and better service to supply a steady stream of important goals. Like Jon Walters (whose goals and brass balls again proved valuable), he is a consummate pro, and it the season ended with both being eased out of the first team picture, hopefully they will stay to act as influential impact subs.

Marc Wilson got to start the season in his favoured midfield role but endured a difficult time there, struggling to provide the protection the defence needed. However, against the odds he found a home in central defence. The loss of Robert Huth to a long-term knee injury could have been catastrophic but instead Wilson, despite the odd lapse per game, proved a largely able deputy with some strong, sensible defending, giving as good as he got in the air and on the deck, reading the game well and looking neat on the ball. Huth is a club legend already, but the balance of Shawcross’ leadership and no-nonsense style alongside a more cultured centre back has called his future into question, even if Wilson proves not to be the Berlin Wall’s usurper himself.

The one thing you could always say about TP’s teams was that you could never write them off, and the players he left behind have continued to make their doubters look foolish. Now that’s a legacy.

 

 

 

4)  Unlocking the cage has paid dividends

It was fitting that Charlie Adam should score the first and last goals of Stoke’s season. Not only did the husky Scot’s strikes lend a neat symmetry to proceedings, but they underlined the importance of having an attacking midfielder in the side to ghost into scoring positions (is ‘ghost’ the right word for a player of his dimensions?) and who possesses the impudence to shoot from anywhere. Adam can be an intensely frustrating player, but his seven goals in just 20 starts have been priceless.

On paper, Adam occupied the same role as he did last season, operating just behind a lone striker. In reality though there was night and day between the roles he was asked to play. Last season he was expected to be Jon Walters, buzzing around marking opposing midfielders while popping up with goals. It worked at times but his creativity was stifled by the rigidity of our play – especially since a winger was dropped to accommodate both him and Walters in the same side – forcing Adam to drop deeper and deeper to forage for the ball and leaving Crouch even more isolated.

This season, with more pace in the side and more freedom to play his own game, Adam has been able to enjoy his best season since his Blackpool days.

Stoke’s play was more open generally in 2013/14, with the team mixing up long balls with playing out from the back, the full backs given licence to get forward and two attack-minded wingers in the team, but the key factor in the team’s increased goal output was surely the unshackling of the midfield, which contributed nearly 25% of Stoke’s tally in the ‘for’ column. Previously, the job of the midfield lay in sitting deep, keeping shape and shielding the back four. This season, Whelan was trusted to do that job while the extra man at the tip of the midfield could drive forward to create, with Adam and Ireland bringing differing skillsets that were equally capable of producing the spectacular. Even Steven Nzonzi grabbed a couple of pearlers, becoming increasingly positive in his passing and movement as the team gathered momentum.

The focus has moved from what our men in the middle did off the ball to what they do on it. In a season of evolution, this shift in the engine room was the change that veered closest to all-out revolution.

5) Hughes has delivered

Many Stokies were unhappy with the appointment of Mark Hughes last May. The old adage that ‘you’re only as good as your last job’ apparently rang true for them, and the Welshman’s QPR nightmare had tarnished his reputation badly. That maxim has always been short-sighted and plainly ridiculous however, and, as this blog pointed out in giving the new man a cautious welcome, his CV as a whole was worthy of a great deal more respect than he was afforded by the likes of that prat with the van.

Hughes’ managerial strengths had not laid in giving a team a brand new identity but in building on strong foundations and adding his own flourishes. At Blackburn he’d added quality delivery and goals to Graeme Souness’ tough as nails scrappers; at Fulham he reverted to Roy Hodgson’s blueprint but added the skills of Moussa Dembele to the mix; QPR, being a house of cards with no such structure in place, proved a project beyond his talents.

At Stoke however, he’s had similar tools to those clubs where he’d been successful. The squad was stronger than many, your correspondent included, gave it credit for, and rather than the team losing their identity, Hughes actually helped them find it again after it had steadily eroded over the two prior seasons – propping up the fair play table in the process. At the same time, he developed a less one-dimensional, more dynamic, positive framework around that flinty heart. The result has been Stoke’s most enjoyable season since the run to the cup final three years ago.

When TP was sacked, many of his acolytes among the support and in the media declared Stoke to have unrealistic expectations and there were grave warnings of Charlton’s example and “be careful what you wish for”. But what most fans wished for was what Hughes has delivered this season; top half ambitions and positive football, no more, no less (though a cup run would be the sweetest icing).

Hughes impressed not just in the ticking off of milestones left, right and centre but in doing so with a significantly reduced budget. It was gratifying to see players picked on form (one of the chief bugbears that saw many fall out of love with Hughes’ predecessor was that he’d stick with his favourites even if they weren’t performing), while the flexibility he demonstrated was also a welcome change of pace. Sometimes we deployed a 4-2-3-1, sometimes a 4-4-1-1. Sometimes we sat deep and hit teams on the break, at others we looked to keep possession and force the pace ourselves.

Above all, the respect the new man and his methods command in the dressing room is evident given that he’s got the team playing his way – and doing so with some finesse – within a year. There’s no more talks of pig’s heads and factions, and the smiles are back on the faces of players and fans alike.

After a slow start, Peter Coates’ decisions to depose Tony Pulis and appoint Mark Hughes have been totally and completely vindicated. The chairman made a shrewd call in finding a manager on the scrapheap with a burning hunger to restore his name – one who fit in perfectly with the aims of the possibly euphemistic ‘new direction’. Hughes is arguably the ultimate dogs’ home discovery, and he, and we, have benefited from that roll of the dice.

So where do we go from here? I do have a few suggestions. Until August though, we can bask in the light of a job done better than many of us dared to dream 12 months ago, Well done lads.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 4-1 Fulham 03.05.14

1)  That’s how you sign off at home

Remember the Stoke City charity? Back when SCFC were a walking three points for any struggling no-hopers desperate for a result? If this performance is anything to go by, those days are over. On Saturday, Stoke were ruthless executioners of Fulham, grim reapers who took their scythes to the Cottagers without mercy, terminating their Premier League status with extreme prejudice.

It’s hard to recall a game that Stoke dominated so effortlessly from start to finish. The expectation was that Fulham would come flying out of the traps and we’d try and hit them on the break with the same pacey front three that finished last week’s unlucky defeat to Spurs. Yet while we did indeed punish them on the counter, we also controlled the match, racking up 64% of the possession – a figure that blows away our previous highest-ever Premier League possession stat of 59% against Cardiff in December.

We were staggeringly superior in every department. The top 13 pass combinations involved Stoke players. Eight of the top 10 passers wore red and white. Nobody took on more players than Oussama Assaidi. Nobody recovered the ball more than Steven Nzonzi. Nobody made more tackles than Stephen Ireland. Nobody won more aerial duels than Erik Pieters.

It wasn’t even Stoke’s best performance of the season. Though comfortably the better side in the first half, we still frustrated at times, and struggled to create many clear-cut chances beyond the great one Assaidi missed after five minutes, skying his shot under pressure from about eight yards after being played in by Nzonzi. We were limited mainly to long-range efforts, with Ireland and Assaidi both testing David Stockdale, but were frequently static in the final third despite the absence of Peter Crouch. Most of the things our creative players were trying simply weren’t coming off, from Arnie’s one-touch passes that went to opposing players to the blind alleys the lively Assaidi would disappear down.

Considering this was a must-win game for the visitors, they sat surprisingly deep and carried no threat of their own whatsoever. Six minutes before half time, our pressure finally paid off. Whelan pinged a ball in the direction of Arnautovic, in the box by the right hand touchline, and the Austrian brought it down, held off the attentions of John Arne Riise, swivelled and laid it off to Ireland, whose shot was deflected and looped onto the post. Following up was Peter Odemwingie, ever the predator, and he was left with the simplest of finishes to give us the lead.

Felix Magath surely had to have given the Fulham players a rocket at half time and we were expecting much more of a challenge from them after the break. But it never came. They were perhaps marginally more positive and came forward a shade more, but their shape was non-existent and the ease with which we picked them off on the break when they did come forward was embarrassing. The second goal was the pick of the bunch, a move that started in our own box with Pieters, took in lightning transitions and clever passing from Assaidi and Odemwingie, and culminated in Arnie, who’d bust a lung to get into the box and was totally unmarked, slamming a first time shot into the roof of the net with precision.

The second break, some 20 minutes later, was almost as good, crafted by Nzonzi who surged forward and held onto the ball while fans screamed at him to release it. The Frenchman knew best however, and kept moving forward before releasing Arnautovic, whose undefendable low ball gave Assaidi the simplest of finishes. In between those two strikes we’d had various other opportunities too as we threatened to run riot. Assaidi forced a last-ditch, scrambling save from Stockdale. Arnie fired over when put in the clear. Odemwingie twisted and turned and tried to play in Assaidi when he should have shot.

We lost a modicum of momentum when the subs replaced 2two-thirds of that front three, and the Cottagers took the opportunity to pull one back when Wilson’s poorly timed jump allowed an unmarked Kieran Richardson to fire home. But all that served to do was wake us up and two minutes later we had a fourth, the subs combining as Adam’s delightful through ball was latched onto by Walters, who drew the keeper before slotting home expertly.

Their minuscule hopes of a comeback dashed, the decent away following, who had tried to look on the bright side, turned on their abject team after Darren Bent’s slovenly, hopeless shot spannered wide from close range. For the Stokies in attendance though, it was party time, even if the fifth they craved never arrived. It didn’t matter. All that was left to do was bask in a fine, fine day at the office, our final home game cementing our status as top Midlands side and equalling our best ever Premier League points tally.

 

2)  Hughes’ front three was vindicated emphatically

Though the trio of Arnautovic, Odemwingie and Assaidi had impressed against Spurs, it was still a surprise to see Peter Crouch drop to the bench, especially after Hughes’ praise of the striker in the media. Still, there was nothing to lose by trying something different, and the move paid off handsomely, with all three getting among the goals.

Arnautovic’s strike was every bit as good a counter attacking goal as that scored by Cristiano Ronaldo in Munich in the week. Every stage of it was superb. Pieters timed his tackle brilliantly. Assaidi’s ball with the outside of his boot into Odemwingie’s path was sensational. Odemwingie’s curved ball across the box for the unmarked Arnie was inch-perfect, and the finish couldn’t have been better.

It hadn’t been clear that the triumvirate would mesh so well, given a first half display in which they’d struggled to find their rhythm against a deep Fulham defence. Assaidi had the beating of the right back every time, to the extent that the visitors were forced to double up on him, but any semblance of an end product was scarce; Odemwingie’s audition for the big job up front wasn’t going brilliantly well, as he was repeatedly pulled wide, leaving us with no presence in the box.

Arnie appeared to be having an off day, his tricks and passing weren’t really coming off, and he and Ireland were just too clever for their own good at times. Even when he’s not at his best though, the Austrian still has some magic in his boots, and the opening goal owed everything to his great touch and strength. So good is his control that players can simply pump the ball towards him knowing he has the ability to make a silk purse of a sow’s ear. Hence he brought down Whelan’s hail Mary ball despite having little room for manoeuvre by the touchline, resisted Riise’s borderline molestation and still managed to tee up Ireland, with Odemwingie’s instincts in the box taking care of the rest.

The goal settled us down and in the second half, all three were irresistible, tormenting Fulham’s defence in waves. Arnie was back into top gear, full of intelligent running, creating numerous chances. There was some real fluidity in our attacking play, with Odemwingie and Assaidi swapping places throughout the half, the former getting an assist to go with his goal, the latter notching the strike his busy performance deserved.

What we saw was another tantalising glimpse of the future. There’s still room for improvement – Odemwingie is yet to entirely convince as the lone striker in spite of his goal and we need more physicality to go with his mobility, as well as perhaps another wide player who can match the consistency Arnie has found in the second half of the season. But it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen a Stoke side deliver the thrilling attacking play we saw on Saturday. It’s hard to believe this is the same team that was struggling for goals as recently as January.

 

3)  Assaidi makes the most of his opportunity

A knee injury appeared to have ended Oussama Assaidi’s season a few weeks ago, but he capped a remarkable return by claiming the sponsors’ man of the match honours here. I’d probably have plumped for Nzonzi or Whelan as Stoke’s top performer, but the little Moroccan certainly had a strong game. It was apt that the poor young man tasked with keeping him in check at right back was named Burn, as that’s precisely what Assaidi spent the afternoon doing to him, so much so that he pleaded with the Stoke winger to move to the other flank.

Loving to run at defenders, the chaos he causes was a vital x-factor, and even doubling up on him didn’t stop him getting behind the defence. As his early miss, and his howler of a miss at Cardiff showed, he’s decidedly more deadly from 25 yards than five, but after forcing two good saves from Stockdale he was eventually given a gift-wrapped close range chance from Arnie that he gratefully pounced on to make it 3-0, a moment he’d more than earned with his all-round display.

There are still a couple of issues that make you wonder if you can quite hang your hat on him as a fixture in the side. His decision-making, even in this game, leaves a lot to be desired, and he can infuriate by holding onto the ball for too long and not playing attackers in when he gets the chance. He doesn’t always cross when he should, and even when he does, it’s not exactly his strong point. He’s also one of those wingers who sometimes beats himself when he runs at defenders. You don’t always know what he’s going to do, but you get the impression he doesn’t either, occasionally forgetting to take the ball with him when he sets off for goal, or doubling back on himself when his stopovers haven’t outfoxed a defender.

Still, he’s quick, dangerous and a nightmare to defend against, and we’ve had a healthy goal return of four from a fairly modest 12 league starts. He seems to like it here, gets on well with the group, and it would be good to see him back next season, be it on loan again or permanently, if the price is right.

 

4)  Rotten Fulham deserve their demotion

Survival looked a tall order for Fulham after they squandered a two-goal lead at home to Hull last weekend, but it wasn’t completely over for them and, with a healthy away following and opposition with less to play for, it was anticipated that they would at least try and go out in a blaze of glory. What those noisy (by their standards) travelling fans got instead was a scarcely believable atrocity of a performance from their team, who were not just the worst to visit the Brit this season, but quite possibly the most rancid we’ve encountered in six seasons of Premier League football.

Down they went with a whimper, disinterested, gutless, hapless. They were toothless up front, where Darren Bent meandered around at the leisurely pace of a tourist visiting an art gallery. Scott Parker chased shadows in midfield, and did his best to kick them. At the back they constantly passed us the ball in dangerous areas. Only four players in their starting XI were under the age of 30 (one of whom was 29-year old Kieran Richardson, while another, Lewis Holtby, was dragged off after half an hour), and as the game progressed they lost their shape entirely, and simply didn’t have the legs or heart to cope with our counter attacking.

Felix Magath has to shoulder a lot of the blame, as the team and tactics he selected  seemed like a Brewster’s Millions-style attempt to lose as humiliatingly as possible – they were destined to fail. Why on earth did he selected 21-year-old, 6ft7, left footed centre-back Dan Burn at right back? Did he think we still rely on big diagonals as our primary tactic? Leaving out players like Dejagah and Kasami in favour of the apathetic, plodding Bent and decrepit, injury-ravaged Diarra also seemed strange decisions, as did removing Holtby so early, given he was one of the few players with the energy and quality to hurt us. Small wonder they possessed the killer instinct of a damp sheep.

There’s no excuse for the lack of effort displayed almost to a man by their side though. Their fans, in between spiky digs at their old boss in the opposite dugout, did their best to exhort their men to greater efforts at half time, and even tried to indulge in the old ‘relegation celebration’ party atmosphere when that proved futile (we know how well they turn out). In the end though it rang hollow, the mirthless laugh of the damned, and by the end the mask had slipped and a chorus of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” was volleyed in Bent’s direction with more passion and accuracy than the striker himself had managed all afternoon.

Fulham’s players got back what they put in. But their fans deserved better.

 

5)   A classy send-off for Etherington

Football is too often a fickle game, with so many heroes forgotten or discarded almost overnight. So it warmed the heart to see the Britannia Stadium show its appreciation for Matty Etherington’s contribution over the years. From the roar that greeted his name being announced among the substitutes, to the songs and applause he received when he went to warm up, to the ovation that erupted when he was finally given his last hurrah with 15 minutes to go, the home fans made their respect and admiration for the number 26 clear.

Etherington deserves the adulation. He is one of the most influential players in the club’s recent history. The poster boy for the ‘dogs’ home’, he arrived in January 2009 with well-documented gambling problems, on the fringes of the team at West Ham. It took a bit of time, but thanks to the belief Tony Pulis showed in him, he became increasingly important, and by the end of his first full season at the club he’d walked away with player of the year honours. Between them he and Ricardo Fuller had shouldered our entire creative threat themselves that season, and he finished our top league scorer and 7th in the Premier League’s overall assists table, ahead of the likes of Steven Gerrard, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia - accounting, one way or another, for 38% percent of the goals we scored that season.

He was even better in the following campaign, and the sight of him in full flow on one wing and Jermaine Pennant on the other was one of the most exhilarating in the division, especially when we hit a purple patch of incredible form en route to the cup final, which saw us play the best football this Stoke fan has seen the Potters play. Pennant was the higher profile name but for me Etherington was always the better player. He was quicker, he worked harder, and he was more versatile – where JP was your classic chalk-on-the-boots, get to the byline and cross winger, Etherington could do all that and more, cutting inside, beating his man, scoring goals. His delivery from open play and dead balls was consistently excellent and we were poor without him, while talk of an England call surfaced as his confidence soared. During that great spring 2011 form he was unstoppable. His mazy solo goal at White Hart Lane, which saw him pick the ball up near the halfway line and run past defenders for fun before poking home was one of the best Stoke goals ever.

The very apex of his time here was that amazing 25-yard snapshot at Wembley in the semi-final against Bolton that set us on our way to that rout. His man of the match performance that day is what he’ll be remembered for, as well as his charging around in celebration, the goal meaning as much to him as the delirious Potters fans in the stands. It’s a crying shame that just days later he did his hamstring against Wolves and was never the same again. Who knows how things might have turned out had him been fit and flying for the final? He still contributed the following season, his impeccable delivery remaining intact even if his pace and (it seemed) his self-belief were fading. In 2011/12 he was again among the league’s top 20 assist providers, thanks to his amazing prowess from corners in large part.

His cameo on Saturday highlighted the fact that his days at the top table are, sadly, over, and have been for some time, but he goes with our gratitude and love. This football club has been represented by some great wingers throughout its history. Etherington’s name is not out of place in their illustrious company.

Cheers Matty.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Stoke City 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur 26.04.14

1)  Beaten, but proud

Sometimes you play well and lose. That’s all there is to it. There was no question here of taking our foot off the gas or being on the beach – the sight of the dejected, exhausted Stoke players lying on the turf at the end told its own story of a team that had given everything, and to emerge without so much as a point feels like an injustice.

Spurs started the stronger, and we were almost embarrassed within the opening 20 seconds when Nacer Chadli ran through unchallenged to fire over. Our back line appeared shaky as Tottenham exchanged passes quickly in and around the box, and things seemed set to get worse for our defence when Ryan Shawcross crumpled to the turf after taking a whack in the chops from Emmanuel Adebayor. It takes a lot to fell our skipper, but no action was taken by the perma-tanned Andre Marriner, a man who you suspect dresses like Leisure Suit Larry or John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever when not in uniform.

As we did at Cardiff, we kept calm, weathered the storm and gradually played our way into the game, limiting the visitors’ opportunities in the process. Though we put together some nice passing moves in the final third however, with Arnautovic stretching things where possible and Ireland keeping things moving nicely, we won a few corners but struggled to create anything concrete, with Ireland’s good run and long-range shot just wide proving our best chance of the half.

Things got progressively niggly, with deserved bookings for Naugton and Shawcross, while Charlie Adam, well aware of his popularity rating among Spurs fans, played panto villain from the touchline when he blocked off a charging Adebayor in an amusing sideshow.

When the goal came, it was against the run of play. Adebayor stole ahead of Whelan in the box and put over a peach of a centre for the onrushing, unmarked Danny Rose to crash a header into the net. We’d matched Tottenham for most of the half, but switching off for that one moment cost us. Still, we could feel confident of restoring parity after that break.

That confidence seemed well placed when Arnie created the space just two minutes after the restart to curl an effort wide from just outside the box. But a huge spanner was thrown into the works minutes later when Shawcross caught Rose in an aerial challenge and, after much prompting from Spurs players, Marriner produced a second yellow card. Now we were up against it.

Down to 10 we might have been, but the crowd soon stepped in to make up for the shortfall. Nobody does ‘wronged’ like the Britannia faithful and the decibles rose accordingly, with Rose feeling the full wrath of the bearpit to the extent that he lost his head, picked up a booking for reacting to Cameron’s crude foul, and had to be subbed before he too took the walk of shame.

To our credit we didn’t suffer from the numerical disadvantage, and once Assaidi replaced the struggling Crouch, with Odemwingie moving into the middle, it was pretty much all Stoke. The full backs got forward, Nzonzi provided support from midfield, and we found space against Spurs’ high line.

Arnautovic was at the centre of our best attacking play, having the legs to beat Naughton and create our best chances. His curved ball to Nzonzi in the box was headed disappointingly wide. Odemwingie also headed over from close range. Yet you just felt if we could get that one gilt-edged opportunity, we’d surely grab the point we deserved.

That chance came in the 87th minute, when Begovic’s ball forward for Arnie was controlled brilliantly by the Austrian, who with one touch took the ball inside Kaboul and put himself in on goal. Unfortunately, his finish was as tame as his touch was electric, a powder puff effort straight into the grateful, greedy grasp of Lloris, and our moment was lost.

With four minutes’ injury time, Spurs, sensing a job almost well done, perked up and had the chance to add the cruellest of exclamation points when Paulinho ran clear, but Begovic made a fine reaction save to deny him. And that was it for meaningful action.

Only our third home defeat of the season, but a great effort and an entertaining game.

 

2)  Marriner’s big mistake was not dismissing Adebayor

The Britannia was absolutely scandalised when Andre Marriner reached into his pocket and produced a second yellow card for Ryan Shawcross. Watching the game at the ground, in real-time, it really didn’t look like his tangle with Rose warranted a card of any description.

Seeing various replays in the days that followed however, it’s harder to argue against the dismissal. The first offence was a cast-iron booking for a cynical bodycheck. The second, while less clear-cut, is nevertheless a late challenge and painful one for the recipient at that. If you’re going to go for that ball, you have to make sure you get it, and Ryan didn’t.

If we’re pointing fingers for this one, I’m afraid we have to do so at our normally unflappable skipper. Neither challenge needed to be made: in the case of Eriksen, he was still far enough away from the danger zone and had enough to do that such cynicism wasn’t required – if anything, it seemed that Shawcross took him out simply out of pique at being nutmegged by the talented Dane. Equally, the Rose incident took place in a nothing area of the pitch, and there was no need to dive in.

Equally, many fans were furious that Rose didn’t follow Shawcross down the tunnel when he reacted to a piece of naughtiness from Cameron and chased after the American to dish out a stiff shove to the solar plexus. But a shove in the chest is virtually never a red card offence in English football – refs don’t consider it a serious enough form of violent conduct. In the face, yes, but not in the chest. It doesn’t matter if you’ve walked 20 yards or 500 miles (and 500 more) to shove your opponent – it’s a yellow card. So there was no reason to expect an exception to be made here, as daft as Rose was. Expressing this viewpoint on social media has seen me branded everything from a Spurs fan to the future Mrs Rose by incensed Stokies, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Marriner’s worst oversight was allowing Emmanuel Adebayor to get away with elbowing Shawcross in the fifth minute. There has long been needle between the two stars going back to the Togoan’s Arsenal days, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that was in his mind when he laid Ryan out with that sly piece of violence.  Indeed, he didn’t even check he was ok in the aftermath.

Fair enough, you can’t call what you haven’t seen, but Marriner awarded the free kick, and didn’t even discuss the incident with his assistants. As far as incriminating evidence goes, the sight of the hard as nails Shawcross all but concussed on the deck while Adebayor glowered at him from a distance was in the realms of Colonel Mustard in the study with the lead piping. Surely it was worthy of further investigation? It rankled at the time, and stung even more when the striker provided the assist for the game’s only goal.

Far be it from me to rage against a second referee in as many weeks, but Marriner is guilty of the same thing as Webb, only to the Nth degree – reffing to a script. There’s one rule for one team, and one for another, with identical fouls judged differently.

Of all the sorry-arsed bunch of ‘elite’ officials in this league, Marriner is the most loathsome. He exudes arrogance, with his 365-day tan, strutting round like John Wayne, giving the impression that he loves being the centre of attention. Every time he officiates against us he strains to help out the ‘big’ side. You get the feeling that he’d never have sent a Tottenham player off in Ryan’s position. Certainly he bottled handing out a second yellow to Gary Neville four years ago for an offence far more blatant than the one on Rose. He’s a man who loves the lifestyle, hobnobbing with the stars, and he’s not going to jeopardise that if he can get away with it.

Everything you need to know about Marriner can be seen by his ‘apology’ after sending off the wrong Arsenal player (up there with handing out the wrong number of cards as far as egregious officiating errors go) against Chelsea. Issued through  referees’ body the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (rather than manning up and doing it himself) it said:

 ”Incidents of mistaken identity are very rare and are often the result of a number of different technical factors.

“Whilst this was a difficult decision, Andre is disappointed that he failed to identify the correct player.

“He expressed his disappointment to Arsenal when he was made aware of the issue.”

Note the absence of the word ‘sorry’ or any acceptance of responsibility whatsoever.

He might’ve got most of the big calls right on Saturday, but he’s everything that’s unlikeable about referees.

That said, he was not the reason why we didn’t get a result. We had enough chances to take something from the game even with 10 men.

 

 

3)  Muniesa excels in two positions

I was in a minority of people who wasn’t entirely convinced by Marc Muniesa’s substitute appearance at Cardiff last weekend, feeling he got caught out slightly too often for comfort after burning forward on the attack. Still for the most part he has looked very promising in his fledgling Stoke career and there was no trepidation at him stepping into Erik Pieters’ shoes. Rightly so – the young Catalan was outstanding. When he arrived there was the perception, given his Barca grounding, that he would be a defender of the ‘tippy-tappy’ variety you might associate with Tony Mowbray’s teams. But Muniesa patterns himself after iron-man Carles Puyol, and it shows. Against Spurs he was tigerish, brave, shirked nothing and enthusiastically threw himself into challenges on the deck and in the air – and his timing, as usual, was immaculate.

While he’d already shown he could do well at left back, few could have expected him to be quite the revelation he proved to be on moving into the heart of the defence after the sending off.  Alongside Marc Wilson, Muniesa was excellent – not just defensively in proving more than a match for Adebayor’s muscle, but also in showing the confidence to bring the ball out of defence, go past players and even leg it into scoring positions on the break. He looked every inch a star in the making and should start in place of the suspended Shawcross against Fulham.

As I’ve written before this season, while Robert Huth has already done enough to be considered a Stoke City legend, the way forward does appear to involve having the balance of Shawcross’ toughness and leadership alongside a slightly more cultured, ball-playing centre back. Wilson has done well, but it seemed as if some serious money was going to have to be spent on that area. On the basis of Muniesa’s performance here, we may not have to spend so much as a pound, euro or dollar.

 

4)   Failure to track full backs finally costs us

It’s hard to measure the impact that Peter Odemwingie has had: his goals have played a massive part in pulling us away from the relegation zone, and he’s proven an intelligent, versatile footballer.

However, one weakness in his game is his lackadaisical approach to marking opposing left backs. It’s something that both of our wide players have been guilty of at times, but it’s a particular flaw of Odemwingie’s. We’ve had a couple of warning shots across our bows – Hull’s Liam Rosenior missed a sitter when he was left alone in our box in last month’s 1-0 win at the Brit, while PO being on the wrong side of his man contributed to Chelsea’s opener in our recent surrender at Stamford Bridge. Here we saw the chickens come home to roost, as Danny Rose went unchecked to plant a firm header past Begovic. There were a few players who didn’t cover themselves in glory in a moment where we switched off entirely, but Odemwingie was nowhere to be seen.

In tight games of fine margins we can’t allow this to keep happening. You’re bound to give away more goals when you’re playing a more open style, and god knows we don’t want a return to the days when the wingers were effectively playing as second full backs, but it’s still something the manager should have a word about. It was a cheap goal to concede.

 

5)  An intriguing vision of a Crouchless future

As good as a lot of our first half build up play was, we simply weren’t finding a way to get in behind Spurs. Their high line has been exposed often this season against pace, but they could hold it comfortably for the first hour or so. Crouch was not having his best day anyway, struggling to exert much influence. Straight swaps on the bench were in short supply, with John Guidetti not even selected as a sub, leaving only Jon Walters (and again shining a light on our failures in the January window). Hughes however, thought outside the box, throwing on Assaidi and moving Odemwingie into a central striking role, and suddenly we had a genuine, pacy front three that could stretch the game and exploit the space in the final third in spite of our numerical disadvantage.

Arnautovic was again the main threat, creating virtually all of our chances in a gross mismatch against Kyle Naughton and making more attacking third passes than anyone on the pitch. Had Nzonzi, Odemwingie, or Arnie himself been more clinical, we’d have taken a point at least.

The attacking triumvirate might have been even more effective had Assaidi offered an equivalent threat on the left, but the Moroccan was awful, proving greedy on the ball, not releasing it quickly enough and making some dreadful decisions.

Nonetheless, the chances created showed a great deal of promise for such a set-up in the future and suggested that a target man isn’t necessarily essential. With the support of an attacking midfielder – sacrificed on Saturday to plug the gap at the back – we could create bagfuls with a bit of velocity spread around the attacking places. Not that Crouch is obsolete; that he has again finished top scorer underlines his value, but maybe, as the years catch up with him, he himself will transition to the role of ‘impact sub’ and Plan B will become Plan A.