1) Under-strength and off-colour, Stoke remain a match for most teams
One of Spurs’ most beloved sons was fond of saying that football is “a funny old game”, and his old team and Stoke City underlined that old cliché in indelible ink in what was an entertaining and fair draw at White Hart Lane.
At half time there looked no possible way back for Stoke, who had been totally outplayed, defended poorly and shown little cutting edge, while still managing to waste the two good chances that did come their way.
There hadn’t looked to be too much disastrous with Mark Hughes’ team selection, the only change from last week’s unfortunate defeat to Liverpool being the inclusion of fit-again Marko Arnautovic, with Ibrahim Afellay moving inside in place of Charlie Adam.
However, the first half was essentially a medley of the worst aspects of the Hughes era to date. The first goal, scored after 19 minutes, was yet another set piece concession (following on from the 45% of our goals conceded from dead balls last term), and one that was foreshadowed last Sunday when Martin Skrtel was allowed an entirely unchallenged header that Jack Butland did well to keep out. This time, Marco van Ginkel was the marker who switched off, allowing Eric Dier to steal in and direct, perhaps not entirely knowingly, the ball beyond Butland and in.
Set pieces threatened to be our own lone route to goal, but they were customarily dreadful, Arnie and Erik Pieters stinking out the joint with their delivery. We struggled against the pressing game of Pochettino’s men, and the whole ‘Stokealona’ thing looked a parody of itself in the early stages, as we only had the ball for any period of time in non-threatening areas, the definition of sterile possession. We looked desperately lightweight in the middle, but more alarming was the return of the slow, static play in the final third, numerous attacks slowing to a spluttering standstill (weren’t we told that was all Steven Nzonzi’s fault?) with nobody bar the eager Mame Diouf making the runs needed in dangerous areas.
Arnautovic was trying but his frustration at the lack of options was palpable, and, reminiscent of the early months of Hughes’ reign, we just didn’t get bodies into the box at all when we did have the ball in attacking wide positions, crosses all too easily dealt with as they were swung in towards just two heavily marked red and white shirts, Diouf and Walters swamped by defenders. The midfield was miles away from the action.
Somehow though, we still managed to look vulnerable on the break, as the dangerous, inventive Christian Eriksen proved with a frankly delicious 80-yard pass into the path of Nacer Chadli, who surged towards goal but thankfully took too heavy a touch, allowing Butland to rush out and gather. That served as a brief wake-up call, and Stoke did fashion a couple of reasonable chances, Arnie breaking free to measure a low ball across goal that was just fractionally beyond Walters’ outstretched boot, before a series of nostalgic up and unders contrived to present Diouf with a header six yards out that he headed tamely at Hugo Lloris.
Our wastefulness would be punished. Butland did brilliantly to deny Ryan Mason, but moments later a quick, slick Spurs attack in first half injury time saw the excellent Harry Kane sucker Geoff Cameron into getting too tight before producing a sumptuous ball over the top for the marauding Ben Davies, who exploited the space left by Glen Johnson to loop in a splendid first time ball. Steaming in was Chadli, who caught it sweetly, his volley cannoning off Pieters and giving our goalkeeper no chance.
That made for a grim interval, and the early exchanges in the second half offered little indication that things would improve. We had Butland to thank for keeping us in the game with solid saves from Kane and Dembele, and the hosts increasingly slackened off, feeling the job was done.
Changes were needed, and they arrived on the hour. Off went van Ginkel and Walters; on came Stephen Ireland and debutant Joselu, the former moving into an advanced position behind the striker, the latter being that striker as Diouf moved wide right. The impact was instant.
Ireland’s presence was immediately felt and suddenly the ball was sticking in the final third for the first time. Arnie had someone to aim for. Diouf had someone to pick out his runs. The first meaningful chance arrived when Ireland curled a beauty of a ball into Diouf’s path and the striker’s header was again saved by Lloris. Arnie, now freed by the presence of another creator, got a couple of decent shots away. Joselu was proving a handful in the air. And then the improved attacking play got its reward, the subs combining as Ireland’s clever channel ball for Joselu found the big Spaniard in the box, and his delightful Cruyff turn outfoxed Toby Alderweireld, who clumsily blundered into him. Penalty.
Nobody had fewer doubts that Arnie would convert the spot kick than the man himself, and his low shot into the corner opened our account for the season. Stoke then went for it. Tottenham, who’d had the proverbial cigars out, panicked. They had switched off and found they couldn’t switch back on again. The front four of Arnautovic, Ireland, Joselu and Diouf were all asking questions, and with seven minutes remaining they found an answer. It was Ireland again, cleverly lofting an elusive ball into space towards the near post, with Diouf once more timing his run to absolute perfection, getting the merest of touches to guide the ball inside the far post, finally beating Lloris.
Tails well and truly up, it briefly seemed as if we might actually go on and pinch it, and we got our chance when Arnie centred for Ireland to cap his heroics with a goal, but the cross was just too high and the stretching midfielder could only head onto the roof of the net. Spurs then mustered a late flurry, winning free kicks in good positions and pumping balls into the box, yet Butland was more than equal to the challenge, and a point we’d more than earned with our second half performance was secured.
Home supporters, especially those who’d thoroughly patronised us during the build-up, might well ask why Pochettino took off the threatening Kane for the decidedly non-threatening Lamela with 26 minutes still to play. Where our changes provided a shot of adrenaline, the Argentine’s was to all intents and purposes an injection of horlicks to the Spurs attack.
The signing of – gasp! – yet more of these fancy dan foreign types, coming over here with their stepovers and creative, technical ability, has prompted some of our more conservative fans to trot out the tired old ‘losing our identity’ dross we’ve had to put up with since the change in manager. The season so far has been quite the riposte to that – one unlucky defeat and one brilliant fightback away at perennial top six opposition. There’s nothing wrong with the spirit in the camp, thank you very much, and even with key players out and others bedding in, this Stoke team will give anyone a run for their money. To Norwich!
2) Midfield teething problems may prove painful
It’s easy to say with hindsight, but going with a double-Dutch central pairing of van Ginkel and Afellay was probably the wrong call. Both players are still finding their feet in English football, and utilised together their influence was non-existent.
Van Ginkel, in particular, after impressing in patches against Liverpool, was not at the races. The onus should have been on him to drive forward from deep in our 4-1-4-1, as he is the man who has been tasked with filling the Nzonzi brief. Yet he simply didn’t get forward or really get on the ball enough to have any effect. He attempted just 30 passes, completing 24 of them, which was comfortably the lowest of any central midfielder on either side, with only the strikers and Jon Walters (who managed a woeful five passes all game) touching the ball less.
Afellay made more of an impression, proving tigerish in the tackle and showing ambition and accuracy in his passing, but like last week, he looked off the pace of the Premier League and still appears somewhat surprised by its physicality.
Neither offered any support whatsoever to our attacking play, and both were eclipsed by Moussa Dembele in the Spurs midfield, who gave very much a “here’s what you could’ve won” performance, completing the most passes, making the most attacking third passes, taking on more players, winning the most tackles and making the second-highest number of interceptions.
Given Afellay’s fitness issues it was still a mild surprise when van Ginkel was the player hooked to make way for Ireland, but he could have no complaints, and the substitute’s impact was as much an indictment of the prior personnel as an endorsement of the Irishman.
It’s no surprise that Nzonzi should be so missed – he has been the central component of Hughes’ system. That arguably makes it all the stranger that he appears not to have seen fit to go for a like-for-like replacement, be it a high-end version like Dembele or a budget knock-off like Momo Diame. Early impressions are that van Ginkel is a different kettle of fish, and will take time to redecorate the engine room in his own style (and I’ve got a ‘clockwork orange’ pun absolutely raging to go when he does).
If we’re going all in on MVG, and the way the loan deal is structured suggests we absolutely are, then he needs to play as much as possible and we need to give him every chance to make the role his own.
As for Afellay, the more I see of him, the more inclined I am to think his best role may be as a rival to Glenn Whelan in the holding role. He likes a tackle, he has no compunction about sly, tactical fouls when necessary, and he sees passes Glenn, as much as I love him, wouldn’t see in a trillion years. That role is one he’s played before for PSV, and would suit his intelligence while demanding less of the leg-work that the more advanced, attacking roles do. It’ll be interesting to see how the manager decides to use him long-term.
Both players possess quality, which I’m sure we’ll see in time, and both will want to and expect to play – but one will surely miss out at Norwich, and after that, who knows? That’s why Hughes earns the big bucks.
3) Ireland should have started
Substitutions are perhaps the one area where criticism that can be laid at Mark Hughes’ door as he begins his third season at the Britannia, given the changes he’s made have, with some regularity, left many fans scratching their heads.
In some ways then, his double substitution at the Lane on Saturday was his finest tactical hour, as the introduction of Ireland and Joselu and switch to 4-2-3-1 completely changed the complexion of the game. The big striker showcased both the aerial and technical ability raved about when he signed, winning flick-ons, taking up good positions and, of course, winning the penalty with a sublime piece of skill that made a fool of an £11m centre half.
It was Ireland who was the real game-changer however. He single-handedly transformed Stoke’s attacking play, which had been all but non-existent. Suddenly there was a lasting threat in the final third, with Ireland always eager to get on the ball. His fine understanding with Arnautovic was demonstrated once again, and the Austrian, bogged down with the burden of carrying the team’s entire creative responsibility on his shoulders, was released to run at players and cut inside. Diouf, feeding on scraps for the first hour, now carried real menace and Spurs struggled to get a handle on his runs into central positions from the right flank. Ben Davies’ own attacking threat evaporated and he didn’t know what had hit him as he struggled to keep pace with the Senegal striker, Diouf getting in behind him at will to get on the end of Ireland’s perfectly weighted crosses. Both goals came courtesy of the Cork native’s vision, the first stemming from a disguised pass into the box for Joselu, the second from a majestic lob into the danger zone for Diouf.
4-1-4-1 simply doesn’t work away from home, especially without Nzonzi. To be effective on the counter, you need someone mobile operating behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1, someone capable of picking out your striker and wide players. Ireland might not grab the headlines like Charlie Adam, but he is an intelligent player who uses the ball quickly and smartly in ways that hurt the opposition. In half an hour he created more chances than anyone on the pitch, and was, despite being on the pitch for just a third of the game, comfortably Stoke’s man of the match. He will surely start at Carrow Road.
He doesn’t always turn up and has failed to take his chance when presented with it in the past, but he is another who appears to have raised his game as a result of our new attacking additions. There is often a temptation to champion newer, shinier trinkets, but I never understood the clamour among some supporters to see a player of his subtle gifts jettisoned or pushed way down the pecking order. The most underrated weapon in Stoke’s arsenal, Saturday offered a powerful reminder of what he brings to the table.
4) Diouf’s persistence pays off
If at first you don’t succeed…
Mame Diouf, as always, was a willing worker, but it looked as if it simply wasn’t going to be his day. As against Liverpool he ploughed the clichéd ‘lonely furrow’. When he did get good chances, he spurned them. His close-range first half header at 1-0 was a real sitter, the striker heading straight at Lloris rather than directing it either side of him. That looked like a costly one when Spurs doubled their lead, and when he got in on goal only to again head at Lloris, a goal looked beyond him and Stoke.
However, a good striker doesn’t worry about missing chances. A good striker is one who continually gets into those scoring positions in the first place. Keep doing that, and the goals will come, and sure enough, the more Diouf missed, the more determined he became. His brilliantly timed runs made him an agent of chaos in and around the Spurs box, and eventually, having constantly got in behind them, it all fell into that place with that glancing blow in the 84th minute.
Diouf clearly doesn’t enjoy playing wide, but the move actually helped him on this occasion. Spurs’ central defenders were more worried about Joselu and the physical threat he posed, while Arnie had already proved he was someone they needed to take seriously. Diouf could therefore dart almost unnoticed into central positions in the box, and Spurs paid the price for taking their eye off him.
Not enough has been said about how good Diouf is in the air. 36% of his goals for Stoke have come with his head, and again, it’s all in the timing of both the run and the jump. He also gets an impressive amount of power in his headers, even if the accuracy isn’t always there.
It’s no exaggeration to say that without him we wouldn’t have got back into the game. He’s not the total package, but he is a nightmare to defend against, and he has picked up right where he left off last season. He’s not always the smiliest, even in celebration, but when that grin does break out across his face it’s infectious. He is one of the most likeable players of a pretty damn likeable bunch.
5) Arnautovic is going to give the new boys a run for their money
The sole change to the starting XI was the return of Marko Arnautovic to the left wing, and thank God. For the first time in his Stoke career, it appears the Austrian sensation is in the mood from the outset; he turned in a mature, hard-working display at Spurs, an oasis of inventive endeavour in a barren desert of creativity for the first hour until the cavalry came.
His personal battle with Kyle Walker and his dead-eyed, superimposed Goldeneye-baddie face defined much of the early contest. Walker got away from him to force the corner for the opening goal. Arnie flummoxed him into getting himself booked minutes later.
With Walters to all intents and purposes invisible on the right, virtually all of our attacking was focused down our left, with the healthy Pieters/Arnie combo racking up the most passing interactions of the game. He toiled without much joy, but still wriggled free late in the first half to deliver a smart low cross that just evaded Walters in the area.
The frustration of having so few options began to show in the second half as he just flat-out decided to go it alone, with varying degrees of success, but once Ireland set him free by dragging defenders away from him, he again began to seriously rattle Walker.
His delivery from dead balls still leaves a lot to be desired (unfathomably so – how are you getting this so wrong Arnie?), but his positive showings both here and in pre-season suggest a player who has worked out what is required and is finally ready to fulfil his enormous potential. If he can maintain this form, he is going to have a huge bearing on Stoke’s season.
The prospect of an in-form Arnie, a fit-again Bojan and Xherdan Shaqiri (Xherdan Shaqiri plays for Stoke!) all in the same team is a truly mouthwatering one.