1) Exhale! Exhale! Exhale!
Thank. The. Lord. Though accomplished in thoroughly unconvincing fashion, Stoke City have their first league win of the season at only the seventh time of asking. We might have made heavier weather of it than a cloudburst of anvils, but the monkey is off our backs. Move on, nothing to see here.
It’s too early for ‘must win’ games but the nerves were still palpable before kick off. Nobody was expecting an easy game given Bournemouth’s spirited start to their first-ever top flight adventure, but if we didn’t win this one, it was really hard to see where our first three points was going to come from. Mix in a faintly weird team selection that saw the return of Philipp Wollscheid and the benching of Marco van Ginkel, and stomachs were churning all the more vigorously.
The game didn’t really settle into any sort of pattern until Callum Wilson’s unfortunate injury. The whippet-fast hitman had looked primed to be this season’s Charlie Austin, but when he landed awkwardly on his knee following a nothing tackle by Wollscheid, it was clear he was in some distress, and though he gamely attempted to play on, his wheel soon buckled once more. He will be a huge loss for the Cherries, and we wish him all the best in his recovery.
It transpired that Bournemouth really didn’t have much else in their arsenal, while Stoke began to threaten. The ‘magic triangle’ of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri combined well again, as they did during the first half of the Leicester game the previous week, and we started to create chances. Bojan found half a yard and slammed a shot into ‘holy goalie’ Artur Boruc. Glenn Whelan shocked everyone in the ground by getting a shot on target, which Boruc could only knock behind for a corner. A goal was coming.
It duly arrived after half an hour, and like last weekend’s opener, it was very well worked indeed. Shaqiri showed fine vision to pick out Arnie with a lofted pass that the Austrian, who’d spent the half twisting the blood of Simon Francis, took effortlessly in his stride before slaloming past a couple of defenders and hitting the byline, where he cut back for Jon Walters to stab home from a couple of yards out. Great work from all involved.
We were cruising and the visitors looked out of their depth, yet for some reason, scoring first seems to be the worst thing that Stoke can do these days. We retreated into our shell, and little by little the big, lumbering Bournemouth machine gained ground. They should have levelled in the 44th minute, when Marc Pugh flicked the ball past Glenn Johnson and pulled it back, where confusion between Whelan and Wollscheid presented Lee Tomlin with a clear sight of goal around 10 yards out. Inexplicably though, the hefty East Midlander opted to square it instead to Matt Ritchie and the chance went begging as Erik Pieters managed to get in the way.
With nine minutes of first half injury time to play as a result of the Wilson injury we contrived to temporarily take ourselves down to 10 men, when Shaqiri pulled up with hamstring trouble and wandered off with no replacement ready to come on. This farce might have proven costly, but it was the home side who instead created a golden chance, magnificent work from Arnautovic seeing him win the ball from a Bournemouth corner and dash away on the counter, exchanging passes with Pieters before stretching and putting his shot wide when he might have done better. The half time whistle sounded with the Viennese virtuoso’s name ringing from the stands.
That should have inspired us to come out after the break and put the Cherries to the sword, but Stoke players invariably emerge from the interval as if they’ve eaten a three-course meal or been prescribed a general anaesthetic.
A rotten half-hour ensued in which we did our damnedest to get comfortably the worst team we’ve played this season back into the game. Stoke were sloppy, disjointed, static and guilty of overplaying, and every change we made only seemed to exacerbate the problem further.
There had been scant sign of the fluid Bournemouth team that tore through the Championship last season, but they worked hard and gamely plugged away at our ever-ropey defence. Murray got into shooting range but his shot at Butland was tame. Dan Gosling was through on goal only for Glenn Whelan to make a remarkable last-gasp saving tackle. Yet the breakthrough felt inevitable, and when Gosling next found a bit of space in the box, after Pugh’s shot was blocked, his deflected effort crawled into the far corner. It was no more than the visitors deserved.
Not in a million years did I see us winning the game from that point, and Butland had to come to the rescue once again with a full-length save to once again deny Gosling.
Luckily though, the emboldened Cherries left gaps of their own as they pushed for a winner. Jon Walters, as usual, was putting in the hard yards while Arnie and Shaqiri’s (eventual) replacement Ibrahim Afellay found pockets of space out wide. In the end however it was a brilliantly teasing dambuster of a cross from Glen Johnson on the right that sat up perfectly for another sub, Mame Biram Diouf, to launch himself full-pelt with a diving header that Boruc got a hand to but couldn’t stop from going in. The Senegal star has become our go-to-guy for goals, and his third of the season (all headers) well and truly pulled us out of the fire.
There was still work to be done. Butland made a magnificent point-blank reaction save from Murray, then saw an Adam-esque 40-yard lob from the dangerous Ritchie. Storm duly weathered, we then created the last chance of the afternoon. Walters should have shot when Arnie played him in, but, like Tomlin in pretty much the same position earlier, he instead passed to his right, where Afellay, from a worse angle, screwed wide. In the end, our warriors from the old guard – Walters, Whelan, Pieters – saw us home and dry.
It’s a win that leaves many awkward questions unanswered, ranging from the poverty of our decision-making and movement, to our summer business. Yet it was also the kind of tricky game we have made a mess of in recent years, and it was negotiated successfully. With two victories in a week, we might just have rediscovered the habit of winning, however scruffy it might have been.
2) Sparky’s subs (somehow) win the day
I’ll be honest; I was worried by the changes to the starting line-up. With Marc Wilson injured I could see why Mark Hughes wanted to reward Philipp Wollscheid for a decent Capital One Cup showing at Fulham, but given his past, and the fact that Geoff Cameron isn’t exactly Mr Rock Solid, the pacey options at Bournemouth’s disposal raised concerns.
Charlie Adam was a lucky boy to win a recall after his idiocy against West Brom, and the timing of van Ginkel’s demotion was curious, coming a week after arguably his best performance in a Stoke shirt and suspiciously close to the manager insisting he wasn’t obliged to play the Dutchman. Did he drop him just to prove he could?
Either way, it appeared that another layer of protection had been removed from an already beleaguered back line against a team known for its attacking approach.
In the event, both decisions were proven correct. Wollscheid enjoyed an incident-free afternoon, while Adam offered some of the drive we’ve been missing in midfield, worked hard and used the ball well.
For a fair old while in the second half however, it looked as if Hughes had, to use a technical term, made a right old cock of his substitutions yet again. There was no issue with the players removed – Shaqiri was injured, Bojan and Adam were knackered – but the replacements again left much to be desired.
And then one of them scored the winner.
In fairness, the options for the right wing berth in Shaqiri’s absence were limited, yet another haunting reminder of our failure to sign a third out and out winger for the senior squad in the summer. It had to be either Afellay or throwing on a centre forward and moving Walters wide. Hughes went for Afellay, and the Dutchman again did very little of note until the last 15 minutes or so, when he finally seemed to get the measure of his man and get into useful positions. That was probably his most encouraging spell since signing for the club, but in the intervening half-hour it was once again difficult to work out quite what the point of him is again.
Given that Bojan isn’t yet 100% match-fit and Adam is incapable of lasting 90 minutes, the lack of creative options on the bench was puzzling. The latest slap to the face of Stephen Ireland saw him not even included in the matchday squad, while three different strikers took a place among the subs. When Bojan’s number came up, we threw on Diouf and went 4-4-2, repeating last week’s mistake of replacing a creative option with a player who needs chances creating for him. This was then compounded when Adam came off for van Ginkel, meaning we’d effectively stripped the majority of creativity from the side and heaped the pressure on Arnie as the lone bastion of invention.
Diouf’s performance underlined that throwing him on was a gamble whoever he replaced. He was palpably unfit and didn’t look tremendously interested at times, shuffling around offside and failing to close down defenders. He did rouse himself to win more aerial duels than any other player during his limited pitch time, and his very well-taken, brave header totally vindicated the decision to chuck him in, turning what looked like folly into a masterstroke. These are the fine margins of the Premier League.
Nevertheless, there was a feeling that both Hughes and Stoke had got away with one in claiming all three points. The manager himself has been one of our biggest obstacles in our stuttering start to the season, and that quest for a first win appears to have knocked him a bit loopy, his incessant tinkering suggesting a man on the verge of panicking.
Now that milestone has been reached, hopefully he’ll settle down and we can get back the gaffer who so shrewdly masterminded the two best league finishes in the club’s recent history.
3) Does anyone know Stoke’s best back four?
As another week goes by without a clean sheet, the question of how to compensate for the loss of Ryan Shawcross remains unanswered.
The stability we opted for in our first few games seemed sensible. Even though we weren’t defending well, there was the hope that the back line would, in time, develop the kind of understanding on which defences thrive. The daft goals kept flying in however, and it made you question if stability’s really all it’s cracked up to be.
That’s ancient history now in any case, as Saturday marked our third central defensive partnership of the season. This one was enforced – Marc Wilson would surely have kept his place after a solid display against Leicester – and it says much about both the Irishman’s improvement and the dearth of viable alternatives that his own fitness problems, albeit on a smaller scale to Shawcross, have been very bad news for Stoke.
Starting with the good, Erik Pieters put in a strong showing as perhaps the one leader in the back four, making some crucial tackles and bravely toughing it out until the end despite being hurt. Similar big ups to Wollscheid too, for exorcising February’s demons by getting the better of Josh King in their limited exchanges. The curiously gaited German, as he did on the opening day, went very much for a ‘safety first’ approach, which was very wise.
Then we have Dr Geoffyll and Mr Hyde. There is a decent centre half bursting to get out of Geoff Cameron somewhere, but he just can’t quite put it all together. His use of the ball in the first half was unremittingly terrible, as time and again under no pressure he simply whacked the ball out of play, a foible which should dampen down the ‘get him in midfield!’ campaign a fair bit. He also made a series of panicky clearances that only served to put us under pressure.
However, Cameron did improve during the second half. His clearances were more effective (nobody made more), he timed his interceptions customarily well, and he brought the ball out of defence impressively. If we could see that from him more often with fewer of the lapses and brain-fades, nobody would ever complain about him.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Is Glen Johnson worth it?
His tremendous assist for the winner suggests ‘yes’. It was an absolute peach of a cross, the like of which we don’t see from any of our players nearly often enough. It’s the kind of ball centre forwards dream of.
However, that kind of end product has not been typical of his start to life in ST4, while defensively, his starting position so high up the pitch stretches an already uncertain defence to breaking point. Cameron’s presence at centre back may well owe a lot to the fact that, as one of the quicker defenders we have, and one accustomed to playing right back, he’s often the one tasked with covering for Johnson when he’s gone walkies. The former England international simply will not defend, and as our other defenders try and plug that gap, it opens up more space elsewhere.
His forward forays can be exciting but his delivery thus far has been as hit and miss as the other right backs on the books, while his unwillingness to mix it is very un-Stoke-like. We need all hands on deck defensively at the moment, so can we really afford a right back who appears averse to spending much time in his own half?
Our best defence, in Ryan’s absence, may well still be Cameron-Wilson-Muniesa-Pieters.
4) Bournemouth injury jinx gives Stoke a lucky, erm, break
It’s fair to say we didn’t see the best of Bournemouth – the team that put four past West Ham at the Boleyn Ground, pushed Liverpool to their limits and effortlessly despatched Sunderland last weekend. At the Brit, they looked short on Premier League quality in most areas.
They were slow. They were masters of sterile, non-threatening possession, having the lion’s share (56%) and 13 of the game’s top 15 passing combinations but rarely doing anything of note with the ball. Just one of 18 attempted crosses found its intended recipient. They resembled not so much a newly promoted side as an enthusiastic but limited second-tier outfit.
There are, of course, mitigating circumstances. It would be damaging to lose one record signing to a season-ending injury. Bournemouth have already lost two, with £8m Tyrone Mings and £7m Max Gradel injuring knee ligaments. Both are quality players who would likely have made a major contribution to the Cherries’ season, and that they now face an extended spell without star striker Callum Wilson, who prior to Saturday had scored as many Premier League goals this season as our entire team combined, must make them wonder if they’re cursed.
Wilson is not just a goal threat – he’s rapid and his pressing high up the pitch was central to Bournemouth’s game plan. His injury knocked the stuffing out of them, and they spent the next 10-15 minutes sleepwalking until we took the lead.
It has to be said though that their cause was hardly helped by much-ballyhooed boy-king and ‘future England manager’ Eddie Howe, who got his tactics laughably wrong. He picked a tall, slow team, which seemed very much designed with the ‘old Stoke’ in mind, and beyond Wilson his starting line-up included precious few of the pacey options he has at his disposal. Howe had clearly not done his homework or seen a video of King vs Wollscheid. Had he done so, he might have seen fit to select him ahead of Jon Parkin tribute act Lee Tomlin, or at the very least use him to replace Wilson’s pace. Instead he put trundling carthorse Glenn Murray on, and they struggled for a long time to create openings for all they hogged the ball.
Injuries have made what was already a tall order for Howe’s men a possibly insurmountable task, but they have made a spirited start. They did not deserve to lose on Saturday, and their misfortune was our good fortune. If Stoke had played like that against someone with more nous, quality and confidence than a demoralised, depleted newly promoted side, that search for a first win would probably still be ongoing.
5) Stoke’s best transfer decision might have been made on deadline day
Arnie took the sponsors’ man of the match honours, which I felt was a shade generous – imperious though he was in the first half, I felt he could not quite match those efforts after the break when tasked with shouldering almost the entire creative burden on his own.
Perennial motm contender Glenn Whelan probably deserved the accolade once again. Only two players (and no Stoke players) completed more passes, only two (and no Stoke players) made more attacking third passes, and nobody recovered the ball more times, or made more blocks or interceptions. He was the one to really roll up his sleeves when things began to look bleak, and the last ditch tackle he made to stop Gosling was a thing of flinty beauty.
Right up there with the other candidates though was Jon Walters. Where others in the attacking third faded, he caused the Cherries problems throughout with his barrelling runs and physicality. His movement for his goal was superb, losing two markers in the blink of an eye to poke into the net from close range. He is a constant pain in the backside for defenders. Hughes has got a lot wrong this season, but his decision to select Walters as his front man ahead of his target man options when Mame Diouf got injured was 100% the right one.
Just when we thought he was out, we pulled him back in, and thank God we did. With a goal in every game he’s started this season he is already our joint-top scorer in all competitions. Despite the transfer request there have never been any question marks over his on-field commitment, Walters shrugging it off with customary good humour and just getting on with the job.
Yet another season in which he was expected to be steadily marginalised has seen him come out firing to restate his importance.
He’ll never be everybody’s favourite player, he’s not required in every situation. But history will remember Jon Walters as one of the undisputed heroes of this current golden age. Even if the helicopter does whisk him away next year.