And lo, this summer’s new boys section did kick off not with a new boy, but with a familiar face. Stoke City’s first signing of the transfer window was somebody we’ve already had six months to get acquainted with, as Philipp Wollscheid’s loan was made permanent for around £2.8m.
When this blog first looked at Wollscheid back in January, it appeared to be a marriage made in heaven. Stoke might have been loaning their Berlin Wall to Leicester, but our new German was 25 and had Champions League experience and international caps to his name – the fabled ‘last of the street footballers’. His early performances were promising, with an excellent showing in the heart of defence at the King Power Stadium proving instrumental in our first-ever win there.
That’s pretty much as good as it’s got for the man from the Saarland however, and though the loan move wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, it has to be said that there have been enough nervy moments to make the decision to sign him permanently look strange.
The low point was undoubtedly February’s duo of 4-1 wallopings in which Wollscheid struggled badly. It’s one thing to be bested by Sergio Aguero and co, but just three days after that home thwacking by Man City came the Blackburn debacle, in which the big German was thoroughly humiliated by Josh King – a striker not deemed good enough to feature regularly for a mid-table Championship side. His lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed as he lurched round the pitch like a confused diplodocus, King continually getting goal-side of him.
It wasn’t completely his fault – you have to wonder whose bright idea it was to play a high defensive line with him in the back four in the first place against that kind of velocity, we were down to 10 men, and nobody in a Stoke shirt emerged from the afternoon with a shred of credit. However, the episode was not an isolated one for Herr Wollscheid.
Stoke’s defeat of Hull two weeks later was as one-sided a 1-0 as you’ll see, Steve Bruce’s Tigers steadfastly refusing to burn bright in favour of manning the barricades and trying to grind out a goalless draw. Yet they did forge one glorious chance when another bang-average striker, Sone Aluko, made a fool of Wollscheid by waltzing effortlessly round him before proving once again with his feeble finish that his sister unquestionably got the talent in the family. The visit of another diabolical side in Sunderland left the centre back with yet more egg on his face as he dithered on the ball in defence, Lee Cattermole picked his pocket and it took some customary heroics from Ryan Shawcross to prevent a goal. Wollscheid duly lost his head, furiously berating the linesman and having to be pretty much slapped in the face by Erik Pieters to calm down. The next 15 minutes saw him lose an aerial duel in his own box that was 60-40 in his favour and then play a didn’t-look pass out of the area straight to a Sunderland attacker – three goals he could conceivably have been responsible for in a quarter of an hour.
At times the weaknesses in his game – the lack of pace and strength, the tendency to play daft passes to opposition players – have all been too evident.
It hasn’t all been bad – Wollscheid has had some decent games – he took man of the match honours at Newcastle and looked good in a strong defensive effort against Chelsea (despite giving a penalty away), in which his ability to sit deep, get the full backs out of trouble and read the game well resurfaced, and despite the clangers he’s generally pretty good on the ball. It’s possible that these teething problems are simply part of a drawn-out acclimatisation to English football – the kind that the likes of Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic and Vincent Kompany all went through before hitting their stride.
However, that catalogue of errors means you can’t help but wonder if the permanent deal was something we were locked into from the start and obliged to go through with irrespective of performances.
It didn’t seem a particularly good move for either party. Stoke find themselves lumbered with a player (on a three year deal no less) who hadn’t exactly aced his audition, and Wollscheid – who wasn’t shy about voicing his frustrations at losing his place at Champions League Leverkusen – is arguably further away from first team action here, behind Shawcross, Muniesa and Wilson at least in the centre back pecking order. Then again, the situation with the captain has made things much less clear.
A lot of Stoke fans seem to want to make Wollscheid the scapegoat for the sale of club legend Robert Huth, but for me that’s a complete red herring – the Berlin Wall had no future at the club with or without Wollscheid.
It’s not clear if there had been a personality clash between Huth and Hughes that hastened the big man’s exit, but both before his 12 months on the sidelines with a knee injury and in his few cup appearances afterwards, he looked very uncomfortable with the change in style. Our centre halves are tasked with playing a fair bit on the deck and this has never been Huth’s forte, regardless of his development at Chelsea and Germany caps. Indeed, it’s his lack of technical ability that is widely regarded as the reason why he hasn’t picked up more caps for ‘Die Mannschaft’. All of our centre backs had superior passing stats last season.
You might argue that defending is all that matters, but it seems clear that Hughes wants someone comfortable on the ball alongside the captain.
He has been a sensation at Leicester, but their defensive requirements in a relegation scrap were a lot more basic (rightly or wrongly) than ours. Had he stayed, we wouldn’t have been able to guarantee him the regular football he craves at this stage of his career, while he returns to Leicester a hero.
Yet Shawcross’ back injury throws things into much sharper focus. We look like being without the one bastion of calm in a storm of defensive instability for some time, and that makes the acquisition of Wollscheid as our lone central defensive reinforcement look all the scarier. Waving a fond farewell to Huth wasn’t the mistake – the identity of his replacement may well turn out to be.
Everyone starts the season with a clean slate of course, but pre-season hasn’t been hugely encouraging. The competition to step into Ryan’s boots should be bringing the best out of our central defenders, yet only Geoff Cameron (who hasn’t ever quite convinced there either in the past) has truly staked a claim, while Wollscheid in his showings has veered between sort of ok (against the mighty Singapore Select XI, where he still managed to get too tight to strikers and nearly gifted them their first goal in the history of the Asia Trophy) and downright dreadful, which he was against Porto, having a hand in their first two goals.
Maybe Shawcross’ absence will see Wollscheid step up to the plate and remind everyone why a world cup winning manager saw fit to cap him. It would take a brave man to take that wager as things stand though. Over to you Phil.