1) A sunny start before gloom gathers once more
Good fun this football business isn’t it? Saturday afternoon felt like being given free ice cream and then kicked hard in the nuts.
It’s fair to say that there was trepidation in the air prior to kick off, a feeling stemming from both our poor start to the season and the unexpectedly excellent form of the visitors. Those fears were at least tempered to a degree, however, by the return of Bojan to the starting line up for the first league game since his goal put the same opposition to the sword nine months ago, one of four changes Mark Hughes made as we looked to get that first win under our collective belt.
What followed was an open game – entirely too open at times – in which both teams put together some direct, dazzling attacking moves. Stoke’s first half performance was, it almost goes without saying, their best of the season so far, and we got a real taste of what the creative triumvirate of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri are capable of when played together. Our attacking gathered momentum, with some fizzing balls across the box and a decent chance for Xherdan Shaqiri, who just couldn’t adjust his feet in time to meet a low cross from the left.
It took just 12 minutes to make a breakthrough. A magnificent dummy from Arnie saw him give Ritchie De Laet the slip and he was away down the left, then picking a slide-rule pass through Robert Huth’s legs into the path of an umarked Bojan, who stuck the ball calmly under Kasper Schmeichel. Our hero was back in the team, back among the goals straight away, and for that moment, everything felt right with the world.
Stoke kept it up. Leicester’s back line looks every bit as bad as our own, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Huth’s exit was hard to square with the cumbersome figure in the Foxes’ defence who struggled to cope with the movement of his old pal Jon Walters. Just seven minutes after the opener, Walters made a complete mug of both Huth and his partner Wes Morgan, taking time out from moaning to the referee about his manhandling by the German to chase a long ball, losing Huth effortlessly and worrying Morgan into an error. Through on goal, there was simply no doubt he would score. 2-0, and we were enjoying ourselves in the sunshine.
At that stage it really did look as if we’d win by three or four. Shaqiri was growing into the game, Arnie had the beating of De Laet, Walters and Bojan were linking well, and we were getting behind them regularly.
There were warning signs however. Leicester looked dangerous on the counter an on several occasions, with the incisive passing of Danny Drinkwater carving us open. The only thing that stopped them getting in on goal was the tenacity and perceptiveness of Marc Wilson, another making his first league start of the season. When Okazaki did get through, the combination of Wilson and Butland somehow kept him out, (thankfully he was offside anyway) but they were finding space in the final third, particularly down the Stoke right. Still, we finished the half on top.
Anyone who saw Leicester’s fightback against Aston Villa last weekend would have expected an onslaught after the break, and when Claudio Ranieri took off a defensive midfielder in Gokhan Inler at half time and threw on another pacy option in Marc Albrighton (does nobody spell ‘Mark’ with a ‘k’ anymore?), we should’ve known what to expect.
Knowing what to expect and being able to deal with it are two different things however, and unfortunately our ability to withstand their speed offensive suffered an early setback when an incredibly clumsy challenge by Arnie on Drinkwater gifted the visitors a penalty, which was duly stuck away by man of the moment Riyad Mahrez.
The match was finely poised at this point, but you just knew, given our frailties, we were going to find it hard to hold on. Vardy outstripped Wilson only for Butland to deny him when a goal seemed a certainty, Drinkwater ballooning over the rebound. A beautiful whiplash of a free kick from Shaqiri was glanced just wide by Cameron, but then came our undoing. Just as we were arguing with perma-tanned imbecile Andre ‘Ice Cold 3000’ Marriner (an official who never fails to perform as if he is the one everyone’s paid to see) about an alleged foul by Morgan on Walters (which didn’t look like much in truth), we switched off, and when both centre halves went for the same long punt from Schmeichel, it left Vardy in the clear to dash into the box and clip the ball over the advancing Jack Butland.
Stoke had spent the entire second half looking sloppy and panicky and we all now feared the worst, but if anything, the home side finished the stronger. Unfortunately, though we had the ball more in the opposition half, three highly dubious changes had thoroughly blunted what remained of our attacking edge, with Shaqiri the only one to sporadically make anything happen, at one stage shrugging off all three of his markers before a fourth hacked him down right on the edge of the box. Another run from the Swiss star led to sub Stephen Ireland clipping an insipid ball towards fellow sub Peter Crouch, but it was all for nought.
A draw was a fair result, and credit to Leicester for playing their part in what was, I’m sure, an entertaining game for the neutrals. It’s disappointing that defensive slackness cost us what looked for sure like our first win of the season, but there were positives. It was reminiscent of last season’s 2-2 draw with West Ham. Then, as on Saturday, we stormed into a two goal lead and missed the chances to be out of sight. Then, as on Saturday, Bojan’s return was the catalyst for a dramatic improvement in our attacking play. Then, as on Saturday, poor defending allowed the visitors to claim a point. That game last November would ultimately kick-start our season. Hopefully, Saturday’s performance will do the same.
2) Hughes picks the right team, then mangles the substitutions
Having got his starting XI so wrong at the Emirates, the manager got his line-up absolutely spot on a week later. Every one of the changes to the starters he made (with the possible exception of Glen Johnson) was shown to be correct.
Mark Hughes could have continued to ease Bojan back, having him on the bench for this one and blooding him against Fulham on Tuesday in the League Cup, but he heeded his star’s insistence that he was fit and firing and chucked him straight in. Bringing back Arnautovic was a no-brainer, but he had several options to lead the line in the absence of the injured Mame Biram Diouf: plenty were calling for Peter Crouch to be given a go to provide height and link the play; others felt Joselu should get some much-needed game time. Yet the decision to deploy the mobility of Jon Walters, so often a fine foil for Bojan in the past, was unquestionably the right call.
At the back, it would have been understandable had the Welshman kept the faith with the Muniesa/Cameron pairing, if only for stability’s sake, but by the same token neither could have complained had they been dropped to accommodate Marc Wilson. This blog is a huge fan of Marc Muniesa but he has made a very poor start to the season, and Wilson’s inclusion was again the correct course of action. It’ll be lost in the wake of our collapse, but we’d have been in trouble much earlier were it not for the timely interventions and bravery of the man from Aghagallon, and he looked at times much more like the leader we’ve been missing. In a fraught second half he was one of many who was careless in possession, and the lack of communication between the centre backs for the equaliser is a concern, but he has surely done enough to keep his place.
Much of the good work achieved by those savvy selections from Hughes, however, was undone by his approach to changes in the second half. First of all, it was clear some kind of substitution needed to be made from about 10 minutes into the second half, with the scores at 2-1. But even after we squandered our lead altogether the manager dedicated more time to barracking the officials than worrying about his team, as if paralysed by rage.
When he did get round to changing things, he made some very strange calls. The obvious first change to make, and one that should have taken place waaaaaaaaay sooner, was the removal of the flagging Bojan for Stephen Ireland – a like-for-like replacement that would’ve maintained a floaty, creative presence in the final third.
Instead, Arnautovic was bizarrely the player subbed – he’d been less effective after the break, true, but he wasn’t totally out of the game. To put Crouch on in his stead completely unbalanced the team. It introduced a player entirely reliant on service while taking off one of the players who could provide it. The change also shifted Walters, who was dragging Huth all over the park, out of the centre, and gave him an opponent he was able to handle much more easily, dealing with the kind of hopeful punts in the big man’s direction that have always been meat and drink to the Berlin Wall.
Equally as bizarre was the fact that Hughes then saw fit to put Ireland on in a deeper midfield role, where he’s never as effective, in place of Marco van Ginkel, who was showing more battle and bottle than he’d shown in any game outside of the nine-man West Brom scrap.
When Hughes did finally get round to giving Bojan a rest, in the 82nd minute, Peter Odemwingie was, strangely, the man introduced, and his heavy-legged cameo, devoid of the pace and incisiveness he showed when he signed, achieved nothing beyond making everyone feel sad.
All in all, the subs, already too late in their arrival, served only to lessen our attacking threat in a game that was still very much there to be won.
We’re still waiting for an undoubtedly talented collection of players to warm up and get going this season. The same can be said for our manager.
3) Organisation remains a problem
While I genuinely believe better teams than Stoke will struggle against the abundance of pace (the most valuable commodity in modern football) in Leicester’s team, I still can’t quite put my finger on just what caused us to collapse so dramatically.
Individual performances at the back were generally good. Three-quarters of the back four played well – Geoff Cameron is one of our quicker players and was one of the few able to get back and cover when their speed freaks began to dominate, tidying up as the last man in the second half more than once. Erik Pieters made twice as many tackles as anyone else and only N’golo Kanté recovered the ball more times. Glenn Whelan was customarily excellent, snapping into tackles and calmly distributing the ball. Van Ginkel was much improved on last week’s nightmare at Arsenal.
Collectively though we were all at sea, the penalty visibly draining us of our confidence. We became ragged and sloppy, giving the ball away, making panicky clearances, failing to talk to each other. The second goal was another embarrassingly basic one to concede, born of our two central defenders simply failing to communicate and giving one of the league’s form strikers a present.
I don’t subscribe to this oft-espoused theory that we have no ‘fight’ in the team. It’s a line peddled by macho ex-pros well and truly locked into the belief that everything was so much better in their day, when men were men and we didn’t have any of this foreign muck.
However, it’s also true that we don’t have as many players to calm things down, organise the defence, and ensure we play our own game. This is where Ryan Shawcross’ absence is most keenly felt.
It has to go beyond the players on the pitch though. We’re only too aware that you can spend way too much of your training sessions working on shape, but you can spend far too little as well. If something is repeatedly shown to be a weakness, surely you spend time working on it until it isn’t – that goes for any trade, hobby, talent or skill? Stoke’s weaknesses appear to be getting worse, not better, and somebody has to start taking more responsibility for that.
4) Leicester’s summer business raises questions about our own
A word of praise for the visitors, who gave us a real game and played some very exciting stuff in the second half, even if they were completely wretched in the first. They were widely tipped for relegation this season, having dispensed with a manager who, for all his eccentricities, had got them all battling for each other, and appointed in his place a nice old man who’d just managed to get the 2004 European Champions losing to teams like the Faroe Islands.
It’s interesting that they can’t defend for toffee, and that Huth, so imperious under Pearson in a system that required fairly deep, uncomplicated defending once again, as he did when Hughes arrived, looks less assured in a set-up that requires a higher line and more ‘footballing’ responsibilities. In other areas however they have amassed real strength. Mahrez has been an outstanding signing, Drinkwater is finally showing the form that made him the standout player of their promotion campaign, Schmeichel is an excellent goalkeeper and Vardy’s rise from non-league to the England team is a remarkable rags to riches story.
Even their bench looks impressive, featuring the likes of Ulloa and the exciting if inconsistent Albrighton, who has overcome huge personal tragedy over the summer to make a strong start to the season.
It’s their summer business we’ll examine more closely however, as the Foxes have strengthened well, ironically, in the very areas we needed to strengthen.
Huth might not be at his imperious best, but he is a centre back who impressed on loan and was signed to go straight into the starting line-up. We’ve spent an equivalent amount on a centre back who didn’t impress on loan and is our undisputed fifth-choice in the position.
While we are yet to adequately replace Nzonzi, Leicester’s recruitment team have signed not one but two steely central midfielders. It’s been a summer where many middling clubs have, thanks to the extra money washing around the league, managed to pull off transfer coups and sign players who ordinarily wouldn’t give them a second thought. Shaqiri, Cabaye, Payet, Rondon, Wijnaldum, Ayew…
Goklan Inler is Leicester’s – the Swiss enforcer was one of the best players in Italy not long ago, and though his withdrawal on Saturday proved the catalyst for the Foxes’ fightback, he is a midfield player of real quality. Then there is Kanté. Starting on the right of midfield, his switch to the centre at the start of the second half was pivotal in his team gaining a foothold in the game. He was an absolute colossus, making the most interceptions and recoveries and the second highest number of tackles – it was the kind of midfield performance we’ve been missing, as Everything But the Girl might say, like the deserts miss the rain.
Even the signings who weren’t involved are worth noting. Nathan Dyer arrived on loan on deadline day and has made an impact already, scoring the winner last week against Villa. A direct, rapid wing option is another option missing from our arsenal and he’d have been ideal. Fans are sniffy about signing players out of the team at similar sized clubs, but are we really too good now to look at domestic dogs’ home jobs like him or Matt Jarvis, who has similarly impressed at Norwich thus far? Wouldn’t either have been a better option than seeing poor Peter Odemwingie struggling out there?
We’ll be fine, and so will Leicester, but Ranieri’s men have done the sort of business that makes on wonder just how successful our window ultimately was.
Make no mistake about it, this is a strong Premier League this season, and we face a much tougher battle to threaten the top 10.
5) The return of the king
The little man who wears 27 declared himself fully fit and raring to go, but I still sort of expected him to be on the bench. He’d looked so rusty at Luton, and even if his improved showing off the bench at Arsenal raised hopes, it still seemed hard to believe he could be ready.
Still, the news that he was in from the start on Saturday gave everyone a real lift when we most needed it, and it was his name, predictably, that rang out from the Boothen when the first whistle sounded.
It was soon clear that this was no false dawn. The man is very much ‘back’.
It might not quite have been ‘peak’ Bojan, but it was nevertheless a hugely promising return, with no suggestion whatsoever that what was a very serious injury has had any kind of lasting effect. He still probed, twisted and turned, he still changed direction in the blink of an eye, he still befuddled defenders with an apparent ability to teleport away from them into space.
His goal and celebration was a truly glorious moment from start to finish. For starters, so brilliant was the part Arnautovic played in it that he very nearly stole the hero’s thunder altogether, but the run, the ease of finish, and the sheer delight, relief, catharsis etched on the maestro’s face as he dashed away to take the applause just made you forget everything – all the poor results and performances, the awkward questions, the inter-fan sniping. The rain fell upwards.
Leicester, like everyone else, had identified Shaqiri as the dangerman, and he once again had to contend with being double and sometimes triple-marked. That’s going to be very useful if it continues, as it’s going to draw defenders away from the likes of Bojan, Arnie and Diouf, and they’re going to make them pay.
His return has also had the pleasing side-effect of convincing Hughes to restore our best formation, 4-2-3-1, and the difference in our attacking threat was marked. Now he has his ace in the hole back, hopefully that system is here to stay.
Bojan faded and grew frustrated after the break as the game drifted away from us, and he needed to be given a rest far sooner than he got it, Yet the exhilaration of his return is all that will be remembered in the aftermath. There is plenty still to put right, and it’s important not to heap too much expectation on his shoulders just yet.
It’s still a case of baby steps. But his return is one giant leap for Stoke City.