1) Yes mate!
Six points in two weeks! A first away win! And saints be praised, a clean sheet! After a frustrating and at times worrying start to the season, everything seems to be coming up Stokie. Yet there remain enough frailties and questionable decisions to suggest that we would do well to heed the advice of Winston Wolfe and, erm, not be overly hasty in our rush for mutual congratulation…
Mark Hughes made just one change from last week’s win over Bournemouth, with Mame Biram Diouf returning in place of the injured Xherdan Shaqiri. It was the Potters who made the brighter start, immediately getting on the front foot and creating the first chance of the game when a slick passing move saw Walters neatly play in Diouf on the right, only for Micah Richards to block the Senegalese star’s shot. The first 20 minutes or so belonged to Stoke. We had a pleasantly balanced look to the side and were passing the ball well. The back three Tim Sherwood utilised afforded us a huge amount of space and we continually got into good positions, yet were curiously reticent to shoot, Walters and Bojan being the chief offenders.
That’s an accusation you could never label at Charles Graham Adam, and the meaty Dundonian was next to go close with one of his 50-yard specials, which a startled Brad Guzan just managed to tip onto the post at the last second.
The home side did (sort of) wake up as the half progressed and found a fair bit of space themselves. It was a mite worrying how easily they were able to get into our box at times, yet they created little of note either, and their aerial threat was comfortably dealt with by the centre backs and Jack Butland.
Back came Stoke, with Marko Arnautovic very much at the forefront of our best play. Arnie was enjoying himself at Villa Park, and his treatment of Alan Hutton epitomised his start to the season. A year ago at the Brit, Hutton had the Austrian in his pocket. On Saturday, the right back looked like he might burst into tears at any moment. So comprehensively did Arnautovic have his number, he was reduced to fabricating imaginary fouls and crying to the referee.
We were treated to a wide array of Arnie’s tricks, possibly the highlight being when he hit Hutton with the most electrifying move in sports entertainment, the same dropped shoulder dummy that produced the opener against Leicester last month. It left the Scottish right back looking more lost and frightened than the kids in the Blair Witch Project.
Determined to leave his mark on the game, Arnie had the ball in the net on 34 minutes when his fine late dash into the centre saw him meet Bojan’s cross first time to fire past Guzan. Up went the linesman’s flag, though replays would show that Arnie appeared to be level with Crespo. It could’ve been a costly error.
We did get away with one at the other end shortly afterwards though, when Jordan Veretout’s dribble was abruptly stopped in the box by a coming-together with Geoff Cameron. It was a clumsy one from Geoff that got none of the ball, but referee Mike Jones was having none of it, and if mistakes don’t actually ‘even themselves out over the season’, we were fortunate that they at least did on Saturday afternoon.
Despite that scare, at half time we could reflect that we’d been much the better side. It was a sort of ‘late Elizabeth Taylor’ performance. Elegant but brittle, classy yet prone to some very poor decisions.
It looked as if the fun might be over when Sherwood ditched the back three idea and introduced Jack Grealish for Joleon Lescott. However, it was again the visitors who were quickest out of the traps, and 10 minutes after the restart we made our breakthrough. This time, Glen Johnson was given a shocking amount of freedom around 30 yards from goal, and the right back played a terrific through ball into Arnautovic’s path. Arnie’s first touch took the ball away from the Villa defence, and from there he steadied himself to slide in a shot that struck the inside of the post before fizzing beautifully over the line and into the net.
It was a thoroughly deserved lead and there was no more fitting goalscorer. However, as was the case last week, the goal resulted in our retreat. We proceeded to sit back and invite the Villans to attack us. The old ‘you’re most vulnerable after scoring’ cliché was nearly proven horribly accurate when we totally switched off and an unmarked Richards contrived to miss an absolute sitter, heading wide from about four yards when it looked easier to get it on target. Our defending began to look ragged and panicky, while our changes seemed to be aimed at holding what we had rather than killing the game off. Creators Bojan and Arnie were removed but their invention was not replaced, while 4-2-3-1 was exchanged for what appeared to be less a return to 4-1-4-1 than an old-fashioned, Norway-style 4-5-1.
Sherwood deployed the opposite tactic, blindly throwing on the creative players he’d left out and hoping for the best. Grealish looked unfit, but Carles Gil, whose introduction was met with ironic cheers from a disgruntled home crowd who felt he should’ve started, did make an impression. Rudy Gestede, who’d had a quiet afternoon, got away from Philipp Wollscheid but could only manage a limp effort that was easy for Butland to gather. Gil weaved his way into the area but could only find the side-netting. In between the two chances, there were howls for a penalty from the home support when Richards tumbled over Glenn Whelan’s outstretched boot, but Jones ignored them, the subsequent replay on the big screen (I thought you weren’t allowed to show contentious decisions?) proving the official to be absolutely right. It was a preposterous dive from Richards, who leapt into the air and plunged his weighty, graceless form forward in a manner evoking memories of Free Willy’s bid for freedom.
As play continued in the aftermath, Veretout fired a fierce one towards goal but Cameron hacked it to safety and we breathed again.
Stoke managed a couple of half-chances on the break. Sub Ibrahim Afellay went through but his finish, like Gestede’s, was too weak to do any damage. Joselu got a shot away on the turn from just outside the box, but that too was easy for Guzan.
The loss of Diouf to a nasty looking injury with four minutes remaining was worrying, but that aside, little could detract from the elation as we held on for the victory. The players milked the applause from the away end while the home side left to a cacophony of boos. They’d deserved nothing, despite Sherwood’s protestations. The greater quality in Stoke’s ranks ultimately told. We head into this international break feeling decidedly more chipper than we entered the last one.
2) Did Stoke sit back too early?
If there was a blot on the performance, for me it was how we played after taking the lead. Though it was inevitable that Villa would attack and seek a way back into the game, I felt we were guilty of sitting back and trying to protect a one-goal advantage, which is rarely a good idea and has bitten us on the backside numerous times over the past decade. Moreover, I felt that we still had at least another goal in us. There was still plenty of space despite the hosts reverting to a back four and we had the quality to hurt them. Instead, they dominated possession and spent most of the last half-hour or so huffing and puffing.
There was no question that Bojan was tiring and needed to come off. Arnie, who was giving Villa nightmares, also apparently hit a wall and fresh legs were needed. However, for the second straight week, that dramatically reduced the number of creative players left on the pitch.
Not to sound like a broken record, but why didn’t Stephen Ireland replace Bojan? That would have been a like-for-like change that would’ve introduced a creative , reasonably quick outlet who could help take the pressure off us and perhaps fashion some opportunities to make the game safe. The Cork-born midfielder has slipped way down the pecking order it seems, and it really isn’t clear why.
Afellay was the option Hughes went for instead, the Dutch international coming on in a deeper midfield role and then moving wide when Diouf went off. He made a pretty disastrous entrance, repeatedly losing the ball by holding onto it too long or falling over, and he is still getting outmuscled extremely easily. His afternoon did pick up as he became more effective at carrying the ball out of danger and getting into good positions. However, at this stage, and I accept it is still very early days, it’s tough to imagine a situation that expressly calls for him.
There were few viable wide alternatives for Arnie, which is very much a problem of our own making, but while Marco van Ginkel did reasonably well as an extra body in midfield, again helping to keep us out of danger get the ball up the pitch, the Austrian was a huge miss on the flanks, as we played out time with Walters and then Afellay out there, neither of whom bring the same speed or invention.
Aston Villa were truly terrible, and while they did attack us, we were generally able to perform a reasonably effective containment job, even if you will see calmer defending in your lifetime. The way we invited that pressure though was a grim reminder of the ‘old’ away days of yore, and we really have more about us these days to need to rely on that against such limited opponents.
Perhaps the long search for a win has had a Gollum-like effect on the manager, and has made him desperate to safeguard the precious points. That’s understandable, to a degree. Hopefully his confidence in the quality we possess means that it’s a tactic we won’t be seeing too much of for the remainder of the campaign.
3) Cometh the hour, cometh Geoff Cameron
As you might expect, our first clean sheet of the season showcased some strong defending, even if we were not as expertly tested as we might have been. Stoke looked more organised and prepared from the outset than they had previously appeared. We were well and truly ready for the aerial threat of Gestede, and the Portuguese target man was largely nullified by our central defensive pairing, which attacked high balls with decisiveness and gusto.
There were some impressive individual displays as well. At left back, Erik Pieters has put his shaky start to the season behind him and is back to being a dependable presence. His reading of the game was excellent, and he’s stepped up as one of the chief on-field organisers, pointing and barking orders throughout. The Dutchman is often overlooked when people bleat about a lack of leaders.
Philipp Wollscheid also had a very decent game. He protected the ball well, made important clearances on the deck and in the air and passed intelligently, with many of our attacks starting at his feet. He still looks nervous at times, and his lack of pace was again an issue, with Veretout and Gueye darting past him as if he wasn’t there in the first half and Gestede shaking him off uncomfortably easily in the second. Fortunately, the big striker seems as useless on the ground as he is powerful in the air.
The pick of our defenders, however, and in my estimation of the 22 players on the park, was Geoff Cameron, pride of Attleboro, Massachusetts.
Regular readers will be aware of the blog’s ambivalence towards the US international, but this was easily his best game at centre back thus far. Cameron won the most tackles, made the most successful clearances, the second-highest number of blocks and ball recoveries, and was also second in terms of aerial duels won.
With Glen Johnson essentially playing as a wing back, Cameron plugged the gaps left diligently, always alive to any danger from the Villa left. His timing was impeccable and saved our bacon on a couple of occasions. There was one tackle in the first half that had the whiff of Bobby Moore about it – Gueye’s speedy surge forward stopped in its tracks as Geoff neatly whipped the ball off his toe and embarked on a forward run of his own.
After the break, amid the chaos caused by Richards’ belly flop in the box, the ball fell to Veretout, whose shot looked to be going into the far corner before Cameron appeared from nowhere to whack it clear.
Cameron has looked far from convincing as a centre half during his Stoke career, and Geoff wouldn’t be Geoff if there wasn’t a hiccup somewhere, as his mercifully unpunished ungainly taking out of Veretout in the first half showed. Beyond that however, there was no more assured defender on the pitch at Villa Park. I’d even go as far as to say that without him, this story may well not have had an especially happy ending.
Take your praise, Geoffrey.
4) A balanced midfield
I’d been a bit concerned about our midfield, and specifically the selection of Charlie Adam. While he had a decent hour against Bournemouth, away from home he just hasn’t looked the same player, and when you’re struggling at the back you can ill afford a player with his undisciplined (in more ways than one) tendencies.
As it turned out, those concerns were unfounded. Adam had a very good game. His eye for the spectacular very nearly paid off again, and the oceans of space he was granted allowed him to play the kind of raking 40-yard passes he loves. During the first half he was able to switch and dictate the play at will. In short, this was his kind of match.
The second half saw his role change and become more defensively oriented, and he coped admirably with the transition, proving a surprisingly effective outlet to push us forward where he could and get the ball up the pitch. Even his constant fouling at least broke up the play.
As for Glenn Whelan, what else is there to say? The Irish terrier did what he does, chugging around, tidying up, winning tackles, making himself available and protecting the ball – he only misplaced two of his passes all game. It was yet another near-flawless demonstration of what a holding midfielder should be.
It was interesting to see how the two worked in tandem, often switching positions depending on who had the ball. Again, the space available allowed Whelan to play slightly further forward at times and be more ambitious with his passing, while Adam would often be the deepest of the two, collecting the ball from the centre backs in the quarterback role.
Is it viable long-term? It’s hard to say. This was a game that very much suited Adam, and, as Mike ‘stopped clock’ Pejic pointed out, Sherwood’s tactics played right into our hands. There are much greater challenges ahead. Still, the balance we had in midfield was encouraging, and it will be interesting to watch how the engine room takes shape from here on in.
5) Diouf’s injury is potentially very bad news indeed
The sight of the prone Mame Biram Diouf in agony on the sidelines as a stretcher was called for had haunting echoes of April 2011, one week after the Bolton semi-final, when, on the very same ground, Ricardo Fuller did his ligaments and essentially brought an end to the meaningful period of his Stoke City career.
There’s no suggestion Diouf will suffer the same fate, and there has been cautious relief at the news that it’s ‘only’ a hip injury that ended the ex-Hannover man’s participation on Saturday, given the effect that knee ligament injuries can have on pace and mobility. Still, the bang he took, and the amount of time it took medical staff to manage it, inspired concern.
I’d thought it was a mistake to start him out wide with Walters up front, but in the event it worked pretty well. Diouf lacks the trickery of a ‘proper’ winger but he got into good positions and even put a couple of decent crosses in, while SJW did a lot of the important back-to-goal hold-up play that has never really been Diouf’s forte.
Arnie’s departure necessitated Diouf moving up front, but his own race was pretty much run by that point. He still didn’t look 100% fit after the injury he sustained on international duty, and the first warning signs came when he stayed down after an innocuous-looking bump over the back of Jordan Amavi. It had looked as if the striker was simply sulking after believing himself (wrongly) to have been fouled. Yet after that collision he was running on fumes, and a second (pretty innocent) whack he took from the Villa left back led to the stretcher job.
At time of writing, the severity of Diouf’s injury has not been disclosed. However, if we are without him for any length of time then that represents a huge blow. It’s an ironic quirk that our best half of the season so far, against Leicester, did not feature the Senegalese hitman. He has made himself hugely important to Mark Hughes’ team. Weirdly, given we added another striker to the books at some cost over the summer, his position as our first-choice centre forward has been strengthened since the end of last season. He has shown himself to be our best hope of a goal, his pace, movement and aerial ability making him so difficult to defend against.
It’s that pace which makes him such a key component of Hughes’ system. It’s a crucial commodity but one that once again looks pretty thin on the ground amongst our squad, following the failure to secure an equivalent to Assaidi in Hughes’ first season or Moses in his second – a rapid third option for the flanks.
Arnie shows his pace in bursts of impressive acceleration, and we’re told that Shaqiri is quick, even if we haven’t seen too much evidence of that up to now. Yet nobody but Diouf seems to have that raw pace, the afterburners to consistently outstrip defenders, and that’s crucial when you set up to play on the break. If he’s out long-term, it’s not just his goals and work rate we’ll miss – his absence might just have ramifications for our whole approach.