1) Disappointment reigns, but makeshift Stoke’s grit impresses
Since football reached saturation point during the 1990s, there’s been no shortage of people eager to read too much into opening day results and performances. This was a match, however, that can be truly divorced from any attempt to shoehorn it into a ‘narrative’. Stoke 0-1 Liverpool wasn’t a sign that Liverpool are ‘back’, and as vengeance for the events of 24th May it equated to a mild Chinese burn. Nor was it a sign that Stoke had regressed since dishing out that battering for the ages 11 weeks ago. All it was, was a drab, cagey affair between two much changed sides, settled by one moment of pure quality from a world class player.
The 6-1 should have been an irrelevance, considering this was an encounter that boasted seven debutants and just 12 of the 22 players who started that day. Yet it cast a long shadow over both sides. Despite investing in over £60m worth of attacking talent over the summer, Liverpool were wary, choosing their attacks carefully and not given to committing many players forward for much of the afternoon. It was a more organised, physical Reds team, one who paid particular attention to Charlie Adam, one of the chief architects of their nightmare in ST4, doubling up and meting out some punishment to the husky Caledonian when they could get away with it. There were none of Brendan Rodgers’ too-clever-by-half tactical gambles, no false nines or 7.5s.
Instead of a hulking German enforcer at right back there was a shiny new, erm, right back, while a £32.5m centre forward filled the enormous vacuum in the final third glimpsed last time round.
From a Stoke perspective, it was both notable and worrying that four key players were missing – Begovic, Shawcross, Nzonzi and Arnautovic, and the absence of the latter two meant there was a dearth of fluidity, pace and purpose. Shorn of so many key men, the Potters too were cautious, perhaps anticipating a backlash from the visitors.
The upshot was that the 6-1 muzzled the contest, and the return bout was a non-event, the two sides doing plenty of ducking and weaving but neither overly willing or able to land a punch for most of the game. Liverpool did not come flying out of the traps looking to right the wrongs of the past but tiptoed around for the opening 45 minutes, looking short of ideas. Adam Lallana was every bit as ineffectual as he’d been in May, Phillipe Coutinho had been pretty well shackled (at that point) and Christian Benteke, starved of service, was left with little to do but hope he doesn’t end up going the way of Andy Carroll
With question marks over the fitness of both full backs and a rare central defensive spot granted to Geoff Cameron, many of us felt decidedly queasy about our back four, but Stoke defended expertly during the first half and comfortably kept Rodgers’ pricey attackers at bay. We played some nice stuff at times but lacked a cutting edge of our own, despite the speedy harrying of Mame Biram Diouf. Glen Johnson’s growing influence did see us force our way onto the front foot however, and the best two chances of the half belonged to Stoke, as a low cross into the box just eluded the swing of Adam’s meaty left peg, before Johnson’s nifty footwork created the space for a shot in the box that went just over, denying the right back an unlikely debut goal against his old club.
By half time, with both teams showing plenty of steel and proving surprisingly direct, there was cause for optimism despite the lack of chances.
The visitors kept us waiting before re-emerging for the second half, and they may well have received an early season rocket from Rodgers as they quickly seized the initiative. With yet another defensive change forced upon us by Erik Pieters’ dicky tummy, our back line looked slightly less assured, with Jordan Ibe managing to get more change out of Marc Muniesa at left back than he had the Dutchman. Stoke still worked hard, forced corners and had a decent chance when Adam’s free kick was spilled into the danger zone, while Diouf’s nuisance factor earned him an elbow in the face from Dejan Lovren that failed Howard Webb cloning experiment Anthony Taylor somehow deemed worthy of just a yellow card.
There was undeniably more zip to Liverpool’s play after the break however, and they forged their best chance of the game when Skrtel powered on goal a (free) header from Milner’s corner, forcing Jack Butland to hurl himself full stretch and make a terrific catch. The defending of set pieces worryingly doesn’t seem to have improved much.
There were tiring legs on both sides; £29m Roberto Firmino entered the fray for the visitors; the departures of the knackered Adam and Afellay hurt Stoke’s waning attacking threat. A goalless draw looked nailed-on, but then with four minutes remaining came Coutinho’s moment, brilliantly rolling Steve Sidwell and creating the space to unleash a 30-yard missile into the net. Butland got a hand to it and there is a school of thought that says any ‘keeper getting a hand to a shot should be capable of keeping it out; personally I think most goalkeepers would have struggled to keep out an effort of that power and speed.
It was clear that one goal would be enough. Stoke knew it. The Liverpool players and travelling supporters knew it, as the ferocity of their celebrations betrayed. It might not have been the emphatic victory they wanted to exorcise the demons, and their performance scarcely warranted all three points, but they’ll take it, as we would.
So all in all a pretty flat start to the campaign, with a patched up side not really threatening too much and ending the game with nothing. There was encouraging fight and resistance shown in defeat nonetheless. 2015/16 starts as the two previous seasons have under Mark Hughes; with a 1-0 defeat. But as was the case in each of those, it will get better.
2) Solidity is the watchword
No area of the squad was affected worse by the mother of all injury crises last term than the defence, and those issues have bled into this season as well. Obviously the headline news concerns Ryan Shawcross and his incredibly worrying ongoing back problem, but we are also missing Marc Wilson and Phil Bardsley, leaving us very much down to the bare bones. Hardly ideal when you’re about to face the likes of Benteke, Ibe, Coutinho and Firmino.
Small wonder then that there was distinct unease about the back four. The end of Glen Johnson’s time on Merseyside was marred by a series of injuries, and in Stoke’s less than stellar Colonia Cup campaign the right back had looked unfit and off the pace. Marc Muniesa and Erik Pieters, similarly, struggle to stay fit for long periods of time, and though Geoff Cameron was fit, he is yet to entirely convince as a central defender, Brazil 2014 underlining his Jekyll and Hyde tendencies.
It was a pleasant surprise then, to see each component of that back line perform very well. Johnson started slowly but soon got into his stride and was haring down the right flank, while also displaying some perhaps unexpected defensive smarts with his positioning and decision-making. Pieters dealt with Ibe’s youthful trickiness like the experienced pro he is, and in the centre Muniesa and especially Cameron showed strength and judgement in their dealings with Benteke, keeping the Belgian bruiser at arm’s length effortlessly.
The nerves nevertheless returned after half time when Pieters’ latest health issue led to a reshuffle, with scapegoat du jour Philipp Wollscheid coming into the heart of the defence and Muniesa reverting to left back. The changes left the back line looking less secure, but there was no blame attached to the big German, who did a thoroughly decent job. He stood up well to Benteke, he was calm and he got rid sooner rather than later – all in all it was just the kind of back to basics performance needed to rebuild his confidence.
Good defences thrive on stability however, and the changes did weaken that fabric. Muniesa had been customarily excellent in the centre and had some joy at left back, making and winning more tackles than anyone and using some precision timing to turn potential corners into goal kicks and throw ins. However, Ibe was able to find more space against him than he had against Pieters, and the Reds’ most dangerous attacks (apart from the goal), tended to come down the Stoke left, especially once the tiring Afellay no longer had the legs to help his fellow ex-Barca man out.
Similarly, Cameron, who’d been nothing short of outstanding in the first half, continued to impress with his mobility and strength, a dash back to put himself between the ball and a marauding Benteke being the high point. Yet without Muniesa alongside him his focus, for whatever reason, appeared to slip a notch, and he was guilty of some really slack passing under no pressure at all, presenting the ball to attackers in dangerous areas on at least four occasions. If he is to have a future at centre half here, that has to be cut out pronto.
The defensive effort went beyond the defenders. Glenn Whelan, as ever, laughed in the face of those who claim replacing him is a priority with another excellent demonstration of the art of the defensive midfielder, completing more passes than any other Stoke player and coming to the rescue at the base of midfield with a stellar tidy-up operation. His off the ball work is second to none, and as usual he could be relied on to plug the gaps when the full backs went forward, most notably dropping deep to cover Johnson’s attacking instincts.
Jack Butland has received some criticism for the goal which I feel is very harsh. The young stopper made one outstanding save and proved pleasingly decisive in coming out of his goal to ward off Liverpool attacks on a number of occasions.
In general, there was a good deal of ‘old Stoke’ about this defensive display, a backs to the wall mentality, necessary given the missing personnel. The build from the back approach was put to one side for the time being and we went long a lot more often, while everyone from the old guard to the new boys battled for everything, crashing into tackles and preventing Liverpool getting into any kind of rhythm. That spirit of accountability and commitment remains hard-wired into the side and it’s good to know it can be called on when needed.
It’s way too early to say how successfully we’ll cope in the captain’s absence, but this was an encouraging first step.
3) Absences are keenly felt
While we might have coped better than expected without Ryan however, further up the pitch absences proved more damaging.
It was entirely predictable that we should miss Steven Nzonzi’s drive in the engine room, but that didn’t make it any less painful. The moody bleu has been the linchpin of the side since his arrival – for years his detractors, who seemed to judge midfielders on goals and assists, questioned exactly what it was that he did. The hole he left gave them their answer. He was the one to win the ball, keep it, and carry it, transitioning defence to attack, setting the tempo, getting us moving as he cranked through the gears. Without him, that cohesion was missing and we struggled to move the ball or establish any kind of momentum. It was all a bit patchy and piecemeal – unsurprisingly, as no player was more important to both our improved possession game under Hughes or our counter attacking play. We do have some pretenders to his crown, but if they are to replace him, it will take time.
Missed just as much was the injured Marko Arnautovic. Red hot when the season finished, and for once picking up where he left off if his pre-season showings were anything to go by, it looked as if we were finally set to see the very best of Arnie from the outset. Without him, our only bona fide wide player as things stood on Sunday, we had no threat on the flanks, no creativity, no pace and no service to poor old Mame Diouf. Just five of the 21 crosses we attempted found a Stoke player.
The loss of the trio of players who were substituted did us no favours either. Pieters’ departure destabilised the defence, which never looked as assured again. Afellay and Adam were tiring, but their departures removed the last remaining vestiges of the side. Steven Sidwell has received some harsh stick for being deceived by a fine piece of skill by Coutinho for the goal, but I could see the logic in his introduction, given Adam was fading and we were beginning to lose the midfield battle. Sidwell did tighten things up as well, winning more tackles in his 12 minutes on the pitch than any other player bar Muniesa did during the whole game. But a creator he is not, and his entrance was tantamount to locking the front door and settling for a point that wasn’t ultimately garnered. By the end we didn’t even have anyone capable of putting a ball into the box – Peter Odemwingie being on free kick duty told its own story.
It feels odd to be starting a season so banged up and knocked about, but the players gave it their best. Once our remaining business is done and key men are back, our starting XI will look markedly different from the one that started this game.
4) Low-key debuts but new boys impress in flashes
Of the three players making their debut in red and white, Glen Johnson was comfortably the best. The number eight (!) was a real pleasant surprise after his lackadaisical showings in pre-season, flying down the right (he accounted for four-fifths of our total take-ons) and posing our most consistent attacking threat. He was good on the ball, he went past players (the injuries clearly haven’t taken any toll on his pace, as feared), and he linked well with Adam and Walters. If we see this form from him consistently he’s going to be a real asset and add an extra dimension to our forward play. His defending, so often cited as his weakness, was also good and he got some important blocks and interceptions in through his positioning, though he will face tougher tests than the miserable Adam Lallana, who might want to spend more time on the training ground and less time moisturising.
When we have the ball, Johnson’s starting position is ridiculously high up the pitch, and we’ll have to have a plan for when that goes wrong (Whelan sitting in for him is a good start), but it was a hugely encouraging display from the (ex?) England man.
Marco van Ginkel enjoyed a strong first half that showcased his energy and ability to cover a lot of ground, his ability in the air and his forward instincts, as he and Adam took it in turns to go forward from our 4-1-4-1. He also impressed with his willingness and quickness in tracking back – one area where he already has the edge over Nzonzi.
His influence waned considerably after the break, but that should perhaps have been expected. This is a 22-year-old who had started a grand total of one game in English football before Sunday – a League Cup tie against Swindon in which he did his ligaments after 10 minutes. He has played 20 times in two years. His pedigree is outstanding, but, as with Jack Butland, we have to be patient with him and let him grow into the role – he has hefty boots to fill.
The afternoon’s wild card selection was Ibrahim Afellay, selected on the left wing. The Dutch star is supremely comfortable with the ball at his feet and his guile and capacity to bamboozle with his dribbling while finding that all important half a yard of space was something to marvel at. He completed 100% of his passes attempted in the final third. He did also, however, look very much like a player who hasn’t played a lot of football for a long time, the pace of the game taking him by surprise at times. He grew leggier as the game wore on and be it rust or the toll of injuries, it’s hard to see him as the answer out wide, where our style demands thrust and dynamism. His intelligence and vision would be better suited to a deeper, central ‘quarterback’ role, where he can sit and ping passes to his heart’s content. In home games against tough-to-break-down opponents, maybe Afellay represents the acceptable halfway house between Whelan’s bolted door and Adam’s freeform roaming. It will be interesting to see if he’s given a chance there – that he was utilised centrally in pre-season suggests he will.
All three new boys will take time to play their way in, but the quality each possesses was nevertheless on show.
5) Plenty of twists and turns remain before the window shuts
As I put the finishing touches to this blog, it has just been confirmed that Stoke have got their man; The Kosovar-Swiss Express has finally pulled up in the station. The thighs have it. Xherdan Shaqiri is a Stoke City player. It’s a transfer I didn’t think was possible (the notes for this conclusion, written in the wake of the game, contained the names ‘Aaron Lennon’ and ‘Nathan Dyer’) but humble pie has never tasted so sweet. This is a game-changing transfer. Signing a decrepit Michael Owen and sticking him on the wing was never going to ‘raise the club’s profile’. This fella is. And then some.
Yet the marquee aspect is not the important part. What Sunday made all too clear was that we are desperate for an injection of pace and creativity in the final third, someone to provide quality service, and we have that definitively here. Shaqiri brings with him not just some maverick showman tendencies, all flicks and tricks and audacious lobs, but speed and power – imagine the best qualities of Arnie and Adam rolled into one diminutive, stocky Alpine package. At a stroke, those problems out wide have, if all goes to plan, been addressed.
The need for at least one wide player was a no-brainer. Yet Mark Hughes also has some dilemmas facing him as we head into the final fortnight of the transfer window. The first concerns the defence. Though the makeshift back line coped manfully in the captain’s absence, is the manager really happy to go with what he’s got, given there are no guarantees regarding Shawcross’ return? We may well be fine as we are (we managed without Ryan in Jan/Feb too), but it would be a brave man who had complete confidence. Should the safety blanket of an experienced Premier League centre back present itself (Johnny Evans, Curtis Davies, Chico Flores, Chris Samba etc.) or even a decent deal for a promising younger British-based star (Virgil van Dijk, Danny Batth, Tom Lees) present itself, would he really turn that down?
Similarly, with MVG expected to replace Nzonzi, and with Afellay, Sidwell and Cameron all at our disposal, there’s an argument we might be fine in midfield, and the on-loan Chelsea starlet must be given every opportunity to take on that mantle. However, if there was the chance to bring in someone who could do a passable Nzonzi impression, storming forward and helping us transition quickly, would it not be worthwhile getting them in? Lucas Leiva is surplus to requirements at Liverpool. Alex Song would make another fitting Barca refugee. Even the hit and miss Momo Diame would be a short-term hit of vitality in the middle. Perhaps I’m just being greedy.
There will surely have to be a few moved on as well, and the likes of Phil Bardsley and possibly even the unfortunate Sidwell may well have to head for the exit if we can find willing buyers. Ditto Peter Crouch, who all of a sudden looks a long way down the pecking order.
One thing’s for sure; one way or another, even with nine players signed so far, our business isn’t done yet.