1) Disjointed and disappointed in East Anglia
For all the progress made and the big name arrivals this summer, Stoke City are hardly in a position to treat a point at Carrow Road – a ground at which they’ve won just once since 1995 – as beneath them. An away point anywhere in the Premier League is a good one at this stage of the season, when all the new components are yet to fully click.
However, it’s hard to look at this performance as anything other than a backward step. We began the season with respectable displays against strong opponents, even if we had just a solitary point to show for our trouble. But where Stoke last week were dreadful for the first hour at White Hart Lane before sparkling for the last 30 minutes, at Norwich, in the grand tradition of Blazin’ Squad, we flip reversed it.
For half an hour we were comfortable and in complete control; after that we were ponderous going forward and shambolic at the back. The bald truth is that Norwich will wonder how on earth they didn’t win this game.
Mark Hughes made just the one change, Xherdan Shaqiri coming in for a much-anticipated debut in place of Jon Walters, mysteriously not even on the bench. It was equally curious that Stephen Ireland’s game-changing cameo last week hadn’t earned him a start, yet the opening third of the contest made the notion we wouldn’t end our Norfolk hoodoo seem inconceivable. Norwich looked inhibited, wary of our new record signing and showing us a lot of respect. We got our noses in front after only 11 minutes, through a set piece of all things. Shaqiri’s first contribution had been a telling one – a perfect free kick that Mame Biram Diouf, again timing his run to perfection, headed unchallenged past John Ruddy to Alex Neill’s thinly concealed fury.
With the temperature nudging 30 degrees, Stoke were content to stroke the ball around rather than pushing for a second, but their superior quality was evident.
We were knocked out of our stride, bizarrely, by a water break.
For some reason, far from proving an elixir, it actually had the effect of drying us out, and Norwich, revitalised, now forced the pace. We would be punished for our lack of ambition on 35 minutes. Jack Butland did well to deny Russell Martin, but we did a rotten job of clearing our lines and when the ball was played back in to Martin, our defence was slow to react and he slotted through Butland’s legs to equalise.
All of the problems that have affected our other games so far this season were on display again. The midfield was non-existent, there was no zest to our forward play, and no support for our attacking players. Diouf was trying, and Shaqiri looked like he might make things happen, but we created little of substance. It was decidedly flat.
The Canaries made a flying start (sorry) to the second half and our defence simply couldn’t deal with them. Time and time again they breached our back line and created a series of excellent chances. Cameron Jerome was put through and put his effort the wrong side of the post. Nathan Redmond burned his way through only for Butland to stop his shot. Graham Dorrans’ low drive was tipped onto the post. The ease with which Norwich were getting through was deeply worrying.
Stoke were anaemic. They were presenting Norwich with the ball in dangerous areas, were consistently caught napping against the home side’s pace, and failed to close them down when they came forward, while on the ball there was no drive, no pattern, no plan. On came Ireland and Joselu, and while that did briefly make a difference and see us forge a couple of decent opportunities, their impact was not comparable to last week. Joselu had a golden chance to snatch an undeserved winner in the last minute but skied his close range shot. Before that, Butland had again been required to come to the rescue, most notably from Jerome’s overhead kick.
It’s still early days but our frailties are there for all to see at this stage. The good news is that they seem eminently fixable – experience and organisation are required at the back; the number 10 role needs to be reinstated in attack.
I expect both to be addressed by 1st September, if not by our next home game against you know who.
2) Is Hughes transitioning to tiki taka?
It was clear that objective number one for Stoke at Carrow Road was to keep possession once we’d taken the lead, hoping presumably to make Norwich chase the ball and wilt in the heat.
I did wonder if this is the manager’s long-term plan to compensate for the loss of Steven Nzonzi – transitioning to a tiki taka possession game, with the midfield sitting deep and keeping the ball before releasing our rapid front three to do some damage in the final third. We certainly have the personnel, given the ex-Barca players swelling our staff, not to mention Marco van Ginkel, a midfielder who models himself on Bastian Schweinsteiger but is considered to play with a ‘Spanish philosophy’.
We had the bulk of the possession at Norwich, with Whelan and van Ginkel the game’s most consistent passers, while the fact that Geoff Cameron was next on that list underlines our dedication to patiently building from the back. The opening half hour was an exercise in control as we calmly knocked the ball from across the pitch and back again.
However, there was again a touch of the Mowbrays about our passing game. It was slow. It lacked ambition. It took place in non-threatening areas. It was sterile possession. We possessed little threat, seemed content to sit on a 1-0 lead from pretty early on, and were punished.
Of course, the stifling heat almost certainly informed our approach to the game and arguably prevented us from charging around hither and thither. That didn’t seem to stop the hosts though, who did just that, with the pace of Jerome and Redmond causing us real problems, particularly in the second half. Far from melting, they created most of the best chances, and a more clinical side would have made a mess of us.
4-1-4-1 has got to go. I just don’t understand how Hughes can look at last week’s performance – or even the one against Liverpool – and persist with the system. We’re simply not creating anything. It worked last season with an in-form Charlie Adam driving forward, but neither of the Dutch lads are doing that, and with nobody in the hole there’s no link to the striker and no one to hold the ball up high up the pitch. It seems odd that we’re all salivating for Bojan to come back, yet have done away with the position in which he excels? Why not keep it so that he can slot back in seamlessly when he’s good and ready?
Ireland’s display at Spurs should have earned him a start at Norwich, and the fact that it didn’t was very un-Hughes-like. The manager has generally rewarded in-form players and picked the team on merit. That he didn’t on Saturday is odd, and makes one question if certain players have been promised things regarding starts and first team football…
For the first time since those early days, I’m struggling to see what the manager is trying to achieve with his tactics. What’s the plan?
3) The defence needs a leader
The debate about whether or not defensive reinforcements are required was surely definitively answered on Saturday, given the alarming ease with which a newly promoted side was able to slice through us almost at will.
Though the back four did do some good work individually – Marc Muniesa made the highest number of blocks and interceptions and the second-highest number of clearances, Geoff Cameron recovered the ball more times than anyone – collectively there were problems. I’ve found the praise for the centre backs thus far way OTT. Aside from a strong first half on the opening day, neither Cameron nor Muniesa has entirely convinced, particularly in terms of their positioning. They were caught ball-watching at Spurs more than once and there was an epidemic of that trait at Carrow Road, both proving painfully slow to react on the goal and for Norwich’s hatful of missed chances.
Muniesa in particular looked turgid in thought and action, forever losing his man and gifting possession to the opposition on the edge of his own box.
The full backs weren’t much help either. Glen Johnson’s excellent debut against his former employers already feels like a long time ago. The ex-England man was rotten against the Canaries, seemingly finding it impossible to stay goal-side of his man and misjudging everything from tackles to bounces. A bunt from the back into the channels was all it took to shake him off.
The captain’s absence has left a void, with nobody taking responsibility in the back line. Marking has gone to pot. Indecision is rife. There is a lack of organisation. After being carved open in Norfolk like one of local hero Bernard Matthews’ turkeys so often, it’s clear somebody needs to take charge in the back four. We have a collection of ball playing centre backs who don’t get their shirts muddy, and a big personality is needed at the back to bring some leadership – be it through inspiration, like Ryan Shawcross, or fear, like Gerry Taggart. We need a defender who loves defending, an old-school, brutish, nasty piece of work with their nose smeared across their face from years of dust-ups with centre forwards.
It’s all very well saying we have enough centre halves and that fringe players have to be given their chance – but they’re not taking it, and if our aspirations are serious, a change in the back four is needed urgently.
4) Thank God for Jack Butland
Stoke’s undisputed man of the match was between the sticks. ‘Hero’ is not too strong a word to describe Jack Butland after Saturday; that we escaped with a point was down to him. He made a string of terrific stops from one-on-ones, sparing the blushes of the back four – and with a broken finger to boot.
What was so impressive was the variety in Butland’s saves. He threw himself across goal to push Dorrans’ 20-yarder onto the post, he showed bravery to deny his friend Redmond when he burst through, and he made a couple of brilliant close range saves, most notably shutting down Jerome’s attempted acrobatics.
His all round game is also showing signs of improvement. He’s looking more decisive, and he’s talking more (one of the few in that part of the pitch who is), though he’d have been disappointed that Martin was able to squeeze a shot through his legs.
Butland is a bright young man and a keen student of the game, always looking for ways to get better. He made himself the story on Saturday and richly deserved the praise he received from all quarters on Match of the Day.
At a time when the starting XI is getting to grips with the loss of key players, the changing of the guard in goal has been as smooth a transition as we could have hoped for. Asmir who?
5) Shaqiri makes an instant impression
It was the big pre-match talking point; would Hughes unleash his record signing from the off, or bring him off the bench? Xherdan Shaqiri is a star – he doesn’t need a feeling out process, and the manager’s instinct to chuck him in from the start was unquestionably the right one.
That his first contribution would be to deliver great rarity – a set piece goal – feels significant. It screamed ‘yes, this was a problem, but I’m here now’. His delivery was just breathtaking; fast, flat and evasive, it swung in an incredible arc into the perfect zone for Diouf to convert. Put those on the striker’s head and he’s going to bury them more often than not. It was just our third goal from a set piece this calendar year.
After that, we got mostly hints and glimpses of the Swiss star’s talent on what was a difficult day, but we can see already what he’ll bring. He’s quick, stocky and not one to be knocked off the ball, while his quick feet allow him to find space in tight areas. His second half run down the right, brushing off Robbie Brady before cutting inside and firing just over, would have been an outstanding way to mark his debut had it gone in, but rest assured we’ll be seeing plenty of spectacular strikes from the number 22. He’s a confident boy with absolutely no compunction about trying the outrageous.
He did fade as the game wore on, and his defensive work is non-existent, which may yet furrow a few brows in tandem with Johnson’s lack of regard for that aspect of his game. Yet he was still the pick of Stoke’s outfield players, and easily the brightest spot on a fairly dismal day.
There’s a new Xheriff in town.