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.

The Top 5 Conclusions from Cardiff City 1-1 Stoke City 19.04.14

1)   An opportunity missed, but it could have been worse

As we try to close in on Newcastle, while suddenly having to worry about Crystal Palace breathing down our necks, any result other than three points in each of our remaining games is going to feel disappointing. In the sober light of day though, this was a decent point against a team fighting for their Premier League lives. A club cemented in mid-table is the ideal prey for a struggling side at this stage of the season, as Cardiff themselves showed by beating 8th placed Southampton just last week. The script called for them to deliver another winning performance on their own patch to really kick-start a great escape push. It’s to our credit that despite a performance that could charitably be referred to as ‘uneven’, we refused to let that happen, and the point earned is a lot more useful to us than them. Indeed, by the end, Cardiff were lucky to even get that.

As we might have expected, the home side came flying out of the traps and had two good chances in the first five minutes, Mats Daehli’s shot being blocked by Shawcross  before Asmir Begovic made a great one on one stop from Mutch. Gradually however Stoke imposed themselves on the game, quietened down the hosts and controlled things for long spells, as our 57% overall possession – our highest portion since December’s corresponding fixture with the same opponents – illustrated. The full backs were making some strong runs forward, and Arnie was causing headaches, with the midfield looking to pick him out where possible. Stephen Ireland led the charge on the break and created our best chance when he slipped in Nzonzi in a moment reminiscent of Odemwingie’s superb second goal against West Ham a few weeks ago…but where he scored, the Frenchman’s low shot was saved by Marshall.

Our approach play was a cut above that of the Bluebirds Dragons but curiously it was they who created the half’s best opportunities, with Begovic forced to dive full stretch to tip Peter Whittingham’s curling free kick onto the post.

Then, with half time approaching, we delivered a sucker punch. Crosses from the left, then the right from Arnautovic and Cameron caused chaos in the Cardiff area, and when Odemwingie, going nowhere with his back to goal, went to ground under Kim’s challenge Howard Webb paused before pointing to the spot. It was a hard one to call – from some angles it looked a penalty, from others not so much – but we weren’t complaining when Arnie stepped up to become the third Stoke player to score a penalty in the league this season.

The second half again started with a Cardiff attacking swarm and this time we did not emerge unscathed – just two minutes had passed when gravitationally-challenged Fraizer Campbell took a tumble in the box (legitimately this time, as Nzonzi clearly tripped him) and Whittingham converted the game’s second spot kick. We threatened to be swept away as the hosts, tails up, continued to pour forward and five minutes later they’d again put the ball in our net, some lax defending allowing Caulker a clear shot that Begovic saved brilliantly only for Cala to head in the rebound…happily from an offside position that the linesman spotted.

The next 20 minutes were Stoke’s poorest of the match. We had run out of ideas, had no cutting edge, and the ball went backwards and sideways as our front players apparently downed tools for the afternoon. Finally, with around 10 minutes remaining, Mark Hughes made a couple of changes, first swapping the fading Marko for the returning Oussama Assaidi and then throwing on Walters for Ireland. This gave us the shot in the arm we needed and suddenly we were creating chances. Odemwingie tested Marshall from distance. Walters put a chance on a plate for Assaidi but the Moroccan could only slam the ball into the Cardiff custodian. Walters crashed one against the bar.

We had the Welshmen on the ropes as the game wound down but just ran out of time. Our play might have lurched from very good to woeful, but there’s no question that Hughes will be the happier of the two managers.

 

2)  Hughes made the right subs, but too late

There’s no question that the attacking substitutions Mark Hughes made brought a new fizz to our forward play and ensured we finished on the front foot. With our front four looking as if their minds were very much on the beach in the second half, the manager introduced two players with a point to prove. Assaidi’s sometimes spectacular contributions during the first half of the season have become rather overshadowed by the rise of Arnautovic, and after weeks out with a knee injury he was eager to remind us what he could do. He’s playing for his future, be it here, with his parent club (the likely champions lest we forget) or other potential suitors. Though his last-minute miss was the stuff of genuine, “and Smith must score” nightmares, in his 12 minutes on the pitch he brought a directness to our attacks, running at defenders, cutting inside and finding space in the final third.

Jon Walters meanwhile, having been a mainstay for so, so long, now finds himself on the periphery, and was a man possessed when he entered the fray, charging around closing tiring defenders down, carrying the ball forward and producing two of Stoke’s best moments, with his beautifully judged pass to play in Assaidi and an utter screamer of a shot from 30 yards or so that thumped onto the bar with Marshall beaten all ends up.

The only problem was that, like the Death Row pardon in ‘Ironic’ by Alanis Morrisette, the substitutions came 10 minutes too late. It was clear after Cardiff scored that something needed to change, yet it was the 78th minute before Assaidi came on and the 85th before Walters joined him. It’s not the first time Hughes has appeared reticent to make subs when the team is struggling. The back to back January defeats by Palace and Chelsea were clear examples of a team that wasn’t going to score being persisted with for too long for no discernible reason, and even the Hull win looked to be heading that way until the manager made a tactical switch involving Ireland and Odemwingie.

Earlier in the season, Hughes showed he was prepared to make decisive changes, with half-time subs leading to breakthroughs at home to Palace and Villa, to name but two. But he seems to have become more conservative in this regard as the months have passed. It’s one of the few, very minor criticisms of him and has contributed to our continuing poor away form.

 

3)  Muniesa has had better cameos

Erik Pieters’ form, and the excellent partnership he’s developed down the left with Arnie, has made his increasingly frequent early exits due to injury cause for concern. His departure in the 29th minute was the third time he has been forced off before half time.

I like Marc Muniesa, and have been generally very impressed when he’s been called on to deputise for the Dutchman. However, there have been a couple of issues with him and this game offered another window into his frailties. While his willingness to attack from left back is encouraging, and the timing of his tackles is excellent (nobody won more all game), he does have a tendency to waste his final ball almost as much as his counterpart on the right, and seems to get caught out on the counter after those forays forward in a way that the more experienced Pieters doesn’t. This was more noticeable after the arrival of Wilfried Zaha, who made life difficult for the ex-Barca man.

We looked nervy and uncomfortable in the defensive wide positions for much of the game (as we often do away from home), and the Bluebirds Dragons found space to exploit down both channels when they attacked – we were lucky Cala was offside when he put the ball in the net just after their equaliser.

Still, Muniesa is young and will get better, and the good healthily outweighs the bad from what we’ve seen of him so far.

 

4)  A good day for the midfield

Stoke controlled long spells of the game, which was testament to another strong day’s work from our central midfielders, who were the game’s three top passers. Glenn Whelan showed customary leadership and discipline in a tough-tackling quarterback role, dropping back to collect the ball from the centre halves to start off attacks in another man of the match performance.

Stephen Ireland was at the centre of everything we tried in the first half, bringing the ball forward at pace and creating chances for Arnie and Odemwingie. Where Charlie Adam’s appearance off the bench last week against Newcastle demonstrated where his strengths lie, Ireland showed this was his kind of occasion, ensuring we could break quickly. He did fade in the second half and was rightly replaced, but he again showed what he brings to the table.

Our other midfield Steve was hit and miss. Monsieur Nzonzi’s passing was sensationally good at times, the pick being his pearler of a raking 30-yard pass straight to Arnautovic’s toe. Yet he was clumsy in conceding the penalty and threatened to lose his head in the aftermath, picking up a stupid booking for dissent and making some poor challenges. We won’t change him, but his petulance when the chips are down is his big drawback. He’s Stoke’s best midfielder of the 21st Century, but you have to question if he’s the man you want in a scrap. Hopefully we won’t have to find out.

 

5)  Howard Webb and the Emperor’s new clothes

Howard Webb’s reputation as the best referee English football has to offer endures, and objectively speaking, that must be the case. Fans, pundits and players all seem to believe this to be true, and you don’t get to officiate a world cup final if you’re not an extremely competent and well-regarded referee.

So the problem, not for the first time, evidently resides with me, as I just don’t see it. Can someone tell me what I’m missing? I get that he’s a big bloke, a former policeman and carries an air of authority about him, and also that he cares less for reputations than his star-humping, attention whore brethren of the ilk of Poll, Styles, Marriner and Friend.

Webb got the big calls right on Saturday – both penalties were penalties – but his reffing style and decision-making regularly confound me. He is a law unto himself, and consistency goes out the window. He also seems to favour whichever team happens to be in the ascendancy, with identical fouls treated differently. Peter Odemwingie, for example, was yellow carded for one clumsy infringement when a Cardiff player wasn’t even spoken to for the same offence moments earlier.

Then there’s his obsession with ‘letting the game flow’. We’re told this is A Good Thing. It isn’t. If we all want consistency, which fans and the media are always banging on about, then the referee has to enforce the rules, and a foul is a foul. Ignoring niggly little fouls just creates a powder keg that explodes further down the line – frustrations grow, tackles get meatier and you end up with a flashpoint miles worse than the incidents you failed to clamp down on when you had the chance.

This was illustrated in Webb’s handling of Peter Crouch. Cardiff’s defence roughed up the big man all afternoon and were not penalised for doing so, until such time that the mild-mannered beanpole felt compelled to take matters into his own hands with an off the ball shove on Cala…which earned him a yellow card. That kind of vigilante justice isn’t acceptable of course, but it would almost certainly not have happened had Webb given him more protection beforehand.

Being a good referee means more than simply getting the big decisions right. Somebody is going to have to tell me what I’m not seeing in the apparent king of the refs.

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

1)  1-0 to the Stoke City

A second 1-0 home win in three weeks. Stoke have played some enterprising football in the second half of the season – and did so at times on Saturday – but we’re also showing we can grind out results with the best of them. These were the kind of games we were failing to win before Christmas. Now we’re doing enough to get the job done, and closing in on our best Premier League home points haul in the process.

Given the Magpies’ poor form we went into this one as strong favourites, but made a slow start in what was generally a pretty drab first half. There was a bit of an end of season vibe to proceedings, with both teams out of danger and firmly ensconced in mid-table.

Newcastle defended surprisingly well, getting men behind the ball and doubling up on Crouch and Odemwingie, ensuring both had their quietest games for a while. Stephen Ireland returned in place of Wilson Palacios, but didn’t manage to make a huge impression either. We were patient and probed for an opening but created little of note in that opening period. Crouch really should have headed us in front from close range from Arnautovic’s pinpoint cross after 10 minutes but instead his effort crashed against the post. Steven Nzonzi’s shot from just outside the box was heading goalwards until it deflected off Coloccini and went over.

Newcastle were physical and did cause us a few problems in the first half, notably when Dan Gosling found himself clear in the box but only succeeded in wafting the ball onto the roof of the net. We also got away with one when Geoff Cameron bundled over Cisse in the box, Mike Jones declining to point to the spot and helping ease the pain of the Martin Atkinson show on Boxing Day.

With half time on the horizon a breakthrough for either side looked far from imminent until we got another slice of luck. Erik Pieters got forward on the left and sent in a first-time cross that he got just a bit too much on, sending the ball sailing, to the surprise of pretty much everyone (not least Tim Krul), into the far post and then in. The Dutchman seemed almost embarrassed to celebrate his first club goal for six years, but he deserved it – he’s been a key player in our late-season bloom.

Stoke were far more fluid and dominant in the second period, especially once Charlie Adam replaced Ireland. Now the chances came thick and fast, almost all of them supplied by Arnautovic. First he crossed for Crouch to head over, then he played Adam in to shoot wide after being set free by a frankly delicious through ball from Steven Nzonzi. Crouch would have been celebrating his ninth goal of the season had he opted to launch himself at Geoff Cameron’s cross rather than awkwardly sort of stumbling into it, and we really should have put the game well out of the geordies’ reach.

Yet while Shawcross and Wilson both had very good games in the heart of our defence (the skipper making 14 clearances, the third-highest number made by any Premier League player all weekend behind Martin Skrtel and Gareth McAuley), we still looked vulnerable down the flanks, and could have been punished had Anita managed to get his free header at the back post on target after Ameobi was given way too much time and space to centre.

Still, the win was thoroughly deserved and boos rained down on Alan Pardew from the 3000 travelling away fans at the final whistle, giving some indication of what an unhappy ship Mike Ashley is presiding over. With the local media turning on him as well, Pardew is surely a dead man walking.

We, on the other hand, can be very content with our lot at the moment. It was a routine win, and those are not to be sniffed at – it’s only a few short months since it seemed as if the days of routine wins might be over.

 

2)  Arnautovic gets better by the week

As well as Ryan played in his 200th Premier League game, you can’t help but feel that the sponsors’ man of the match award was at least partly inspired by sentiment. There was one man who towered above everyone else on Saturday, and that man was Marko Arnautovic.

On a day when the rest of Stoke’s starting front four failed to fire, Arnie reigned supreme, creating virtually every chance worthy of the name. Every time he got the ball you got the feeling he might do something special. The quality of his delivery was first-rate, with a varied range of crosses – low, high, looping, whipped – and had our finishing been sharper he’d have had two or three assists to his name. He had the beating of Taylor and Anita on every occasion and might even have got on the scoresheet himself had he not been cynically wiped out by fuzzy Toploader tribute act Fabricio Coloccini.

Our best play usually came down the left, with Pieters to Arnautovic our top pass combo, and the Austrian was the game’s biggest creative force by miles – indeed, only three players in the entire Premier League created more chances than him on Saturday.

Enigmatic, mercurial, frustrating – Arnautovic is all these things and that is unlikely to change. But we have struck gold with his form at the moment. His displays on the left and his excellent crossing should silence the debate about where to play him – his best form throughout his career has always come from wide positions and he wreaks more havoc there than anywhere else with his pace and trickery. After taking some time to bed in he is proving himself worthy of the number 10 shirt. But his best is surely yet to come.

 

3)  Adam has earned another run in the side

It wasn’t hard to see why Mark Hughes went with Stephen Ireland for this one. He’s a clever player who was key in our fine win over West Ham, played well in the defeat of Hull, and saw his return to the team interrupted away from home, first by bureaucratic nincompoopery at Villa Park and then by illness at Chelsea.

You’d have thought he might have had a point to prove after an unhappy loan spell at Newcastle several years ago, but on the day Ireland was subdued. In the first half he appeared to be on a different wavelength to the rest of the team, playing balls into space for runners who never came and failing to make the runs when the favour was returned. He did make some decent interceptions to win the ball back, and he links well with Arnie, even if the two do seem to spend large swathes of every game bickering like Maverick and Iceman.

Still, he had little influence on the game and it was only after Charlie Adam entered the fray in the 65th minute that we really took control of the game. The portly Caledonian, sporting a handsome mask after his latest bout of slapstick, made an appropriately sizeable difference, taking some of the creative burden off Arnautovic’s shoulders and helping us to gain a foothold by getting his foot on the ball, playing some clever passes into the channels and relentlessly driving us forward. It was the polar opposite of his frankly vile cameo last weekend.

Adam provided us with exactly the qualities we needed at the time. In this kind of home game against opposition we’re expected to beat, and where the onus is on us to force the pace and unpick a stubborn defence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he is our most influential – and best – option in that attacking midfield role. With four eminently winnable games remaining, he deserves to see out the season in the starting line-up.

The pendulum continues to swing between Adam and Ireland in their personal duel, but it’s a battle that has been beneficial to all concerned – revitalising two flagging careers and providing a vital source of goals from midfield. Long may it continue.

 

4)  Cameron adds a splash of Jekyll after weeks of Mr Hyde

Few players of the current crop divide Stoke fans more than our number 20, and it’s fair to say that this blog has not exactly been in the pro-Geoff Cameron camp since the US international’s arrival on these shores. Despite an excellent start to this season, where he became one of the most influential factors in our attacking play, it wasn’t long before the old concerns about his positioning and use of the ball resurfaced.

This was a game that encapsulated his season. In the first half his defending was nothing short of shambolic. The nadir was his clumsy blundering into Cisse in the box, a nailed-on penalty that he somehow escaped censure for. Just behind that in the calamity stakes was a moment where the ball was lofted towards him in slow motion and he still somehow managed to misjudge its flight and let Paul Dummett steam past him.

Geoff is proving easy for wingers to beat and it was worrying that a player as deeply mediocre as Dummett danced around him effortlessly on a number of occasions. It was highlighted before the West Ham game that up to that point, he’d been dribbled around by attackers 39 times – making him statistically the third easiest full back to beat in the Premier League (and 24th of 382 overall). Going forward, he added another couple of shanked crosses to his personal blooper reel.

Happily, Cameron improved significantly after half time. It helped that Stoke spent much of the second half on the front foot, but his marauding runs forward were second only to Arnie in terms of the threat they posed. His crossing was also dramatically better, and he delivered at least two perfectly judged, tantalising balls into the danger zone that really should have been capitalised on – notably the inviting curler that Crouch could only head weakly at Krul. Nzonzi was the only Stoke player to make more tackles and Shawcross was the only player on the park to make more clearances.

After a fairly rotten run of form it was encouraging to see him end the match on a high. He needs momentum going into the world cup, while he may well find he has some serious competition next season and will need to be at his very best to hold onto a first team spot.

 

5)  Ninth place is there for the taking – if we want it

Much has been made of how poor Newcastle were but they were nowhere near the rabble I was expecting. Far from being a depleted, demoralised shell of a team, one that had conceded 11 goals in their previous three games without reply, they were organised, muscular and could consider themselves unlucky to go into the interval behind having matched us for most of the first half. Their front two were busy, with Shola Ameobi putting himself about in a way he singularly failed to do in a Stoke shirt, and had they got that early penalty, or even if Anita had equalised with his close range header, things might have turned out very differently. They are ninth in the table for a reason.

Then again, had we taken all our chances, we could have had five or six despite being some way below our best. The momentum is firmly with us, and with the Toon having a much tougher run-in than us (with Arsenal and Liverpool still to play), we have every chance of catching them.

The difficulty will be staying motivated. There could be a temptation, as we have seen in previous seasons, to knock off now safety has been secured. It might seem harsh, but I think we might have seen a couple of glimpses of that already, in effectively writing off last week’s match at Chelsea and in some of the performances on Saturday, where the likes of Crouch, Ireland and especially Odemwingie, though well-shackled by the Newcastle defence, scarcely got out of third gear. There was a sloppiness in midfield at times, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that we had less possession despite trying to play a passing game (passes from the goalkeeper or defenders to Crouch were way down our top combinations list, we played our lowest number of long balls in any game since our defeat at Manchester City in February). We were worryingly casual at times in our passing at the back, even when under pressure, and in the first half our lack of movement in the final third was again a problem.

Regardless, we still created a host of scoring opportunities and of course took all three points, so I won’t make a mountain out of a molehill, but with our best top flight finish for 39 years well within reach, it would be a shame to take our foot off the pedal now.

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

1)   A dead parrot of a performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2)  A rotten night for the back four

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

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

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

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

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

 

3)  Subs made sense but were undermined by performances

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

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

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

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

 

4)  Lightning doesn’t strike twice for Palacios

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

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

 

5)  Defeat must not derail our momentum

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

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

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

1)  A solid if unspectacular victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2)  Stoke are not the finished article

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3)  Odemwingie the punisher strikes again

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

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

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

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

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

 

4)  So here’s to you, Asmir Begovic

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven holds a place for those who pray…

 

5) S ubs make for a nervous finish

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry for mentioning Steve Bruce’s seed.

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

1)   A milestone win in so many ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

2)  Palacios’ selection was another Hughes masterstroke

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

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

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

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

 

3)  Evolution evident in the goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4)  A mixed afternoon for the full backs

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

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

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

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

At least he scored a good goal.

 

5)  Crouch and Odemwingie show their ruthlessness

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

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

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

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

 

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

1)  Arsenal’s Brit-phobia continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2)  The bearpit did its job

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3)  Take a bow, Jon Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5)  Hughes outfoxes Wenger (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1)  The final giant falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

However…

 

And you’re not going to like this…

 

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

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

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

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

 

3)  Moyes played right into our hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4)  Odemwingie’s work rate impresses

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

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

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

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

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

 

5)  Plenty of the old ‘identity’ remains

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

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

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

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

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

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