1) A performance defective in all areas
Three wins in a row. A home game against a promoted side. Fans confidently predicting wins by a three or four goal margin…after a week in which the Back to the Future films have been well and truly run into the ground, you didn’t exactly need Gray’s Sports Almanac, nor a Delorean and a slightly creepy old scientist to see how this one would turn out. Watford had already shown themselves to be adept at frustrating opponents and keeping it tight, and this, even on paper, was precisely the kind of fixture we tend to struggle in. It will be remembered, surely, as the daddy of that genre.
From pretty much the first whistle to the last, Stoke were outfought and out-thought by a swarm of Hornets that left us more stung than Macauley Culkin at the end of My Girl. They were organised, they got men behind the ball in numbers, they minimised space when they didn’t have possession, and they were capable of springing forward at a moment’s notice to put pressure on the ball high up the pitch. That’s a formula that usually does pretty well against us. Our magic triangle behind the striker, which was supposed to help give us the edge in these type of games, was thoroughly blunted, while the striker himself was curiously deep and played as if he’d stayed in Swansea all week getting smashed on Wind Street.
The first half was, for the most part, a one-sided affair dominated by the hosts. However, as is increasingly standard at home, we created little to speak of, with a couple of Adam potshots, an Arnautovic header that ended up well off target and a Shaqiri corner that nearly surprised Heurelho Gomes being our best efforts. Bojan showed some classy touches, losing one marker with a pirouette that was part Messi, part Michael Jackson at one point…
…and Shaqiri and Johnson threatened to threaten on the right, but nothing tangible materialised.
Watford initially posed little threat, though one foray forward would have far-reaching implications. Just seven minutes had elapsed when Troy Deeney outmuscled Geoff Cameron, his run being stopped by Jack Butland. Cameron’s landing had been an awkward one, and he appeared to tweak his quad, a problem that forced him off two minutes later. His departure would strike a fatal blow to our afternoon.
The next time Watford attacked provided the grim foreshadowing of an MR James ghost story, as Anya won a foot race down the Stoke left with Erik Pieters and crossed for the in-form Odion Ighalo to power a header against the bar. In the ensuing chaos, we failed to clear our lines, and the ball was worked to an unmarked Deeney, who slammed another shot against the still-waggling frame.
What should have been a wake-up call was merely a precursor to the inevitable, as another session of Stoke huffing and puffing gave way to the visitors snatching the lead. Some neat play down the Stoke right ended with a genius flick from Ighalo into Deeney’s path, and the number nine took advantage of a Wollscheid slip to compose himself and steer a low shot past Butland to open his account for the season.
Given the visitors’ efficiency at the back it was hard to see Stoke even restoring parity, but few of us were prepared for just how poor our second half display would be. We ran out of ideas quickly, the urgency drained from our play, and what we were left with at the end was something resembling meek acceptance, as if we’d gone through the five stages of grief over the course of the 45 minutes. The old quote about the definition of insanity (variously attributed to everyone from Einstein to Mark Twain) reared its woolly head once more as we insisted on dithering with the ball at the back despite the well-established threat posed by the opposition’s fast-pressing, which continued to force mistakes and win the ball from us in dangerous areas.
It was this pattern that would make the game safe for Watford when Cameron’s replacement Marc Wilson, already having a late-for-your-exams-and-forgot-your-trousers nightmare in central defence, needlessly dallied and was robbed by Ighalo, who played in Abdi to lash a powerful strike inside Butland’s near post. A well-taken finish for sure, but one that we’d well and truly gifted him.
Watford still, even then, looked the likelier to score, with Butland called into action to stop sub Juan Carlos Paredes three minutes later. Just for a change, our substitutions served to further weaken our attacking play, which by the end was as basic as lumping it in the direction of a permanently offside Peter Crouch or giving the ball to Glen Johnson to aim a cross at about three heavily guarded red and white shirts. The exodus from the home stands that began after the second goal and continued from then on told its own sorry tale, and those of us who stayed until the end never got the sense that the merest whiff of even a consolation goal was imminent.
This was a contender for Stoke’s worst performance under Mark Hughes, and the big concern is that there are no signs that we have any inkling how to prevent these regular home humiliations. A miserable afternoon.
2) Fortress Britannia lies in ruins
We should have witnessed a celebration of Mark Hughes’ 100 games in charge of the club, a period which has seen Stoke City, overall, progress on the pitch in virtually every way.
What the game actually did, however, was serve as a reminder of the few things the manager has consistently got wrong in his two-and-a-bit seasons here so far.
Hughes described the display as “uncharacteristic”. Yet the problem was that it was all too familiar. It’s apparent that we still have no idea how to approach this type of game on our own patch.
Watford in some ways were our worst nightmare, in terms of the way they organised themselves to get solidly behind the ball when necessary, the way they cut off our passing options when we came forward, and the speed with which they sprang forward to hustle and harry our defenders and midfielders when the opportunity arose.
While elements of these qualities were visible in the games that saw the likes of Leicester and West Brom this season, Villa, Leicester, Burnley, Palace and Sunderland last season, and Norwich, West Brom and Cardiff in Hughes’ first season take points off us at home, Watford brought them all together in one brawny package and thus made off with the easiest of victories.
In spite of personnel changes and the general improvements in our play over the past few years, many of the old problems remain against opposition who make themselves hard to break down. We’re still frequently static, and still commit too few bodies forward. Joselu (operating curiously deep for a lone striker playing at home) was the worst offender on Saturday, but Arnie wasn’t too far behind. While other sides have focused on Shaqiri, Watford had an answer for all our creative players, and the Austrian’s stellar start to the season has made him a marked man as well. He did not appreciate that. As the game wore on he went AWOL from the left flank, drifting into Bojan’s space and depriving us of an option out wide. When he finally did return to his post, getting him to actually make a run down the line was no easy feat.
Panic and sloppiness really took root in our second half performance, with the Hornets happy for us to have the ball in ‘safe’ areas and shutting down the wide positions quickly having sussed that they were the most regular source of our attempts to get up the pitch. Even when we did get the ball wide in the final third, Watford outnumbered our men in the box easily – just four of the 26 crosses we attempted found a Stoke player. That really is all it takes to stop us.
While they quickly worked us out however, we had no response to their gameplan, which is alarming, as anyone who’d seen even one Watford game this season should have known what to expect from them. Hughes talked in his post-match interview about Watford “being able to mess us around at the back”, but that happened because we allowed it to. They were pressuring our defenders within minutes of the kick off and forcing us into mistakes that caused us to lose possession; but with 10-15 minutes to play and the score at 0-2, we STILL insisted on looking to ponderously tit about with the ball in our own area, with the same results, and the management team inert and not visibly telling them to do anything about it.
Only very late on did we look to be more direct, and even then we continued with the practice long after it had proven ineffective. As Watford pushed up to catch Crouch and Walters offside, still the hoofs came, and up went the linesman’s flag again and again. What we needed to do was move the ball more quickly and try and work the channels a bit. It never happened.
We will go into November having amassed just four points from our home games. That is our lowest total since 1949 (even accounting for three points for a win not being introduced until 1981). Hughes has built a team for counter-attacking football which can play some devastating stuff when given the space to do so. When they’re denied that room though, we have no answer to it, and can look as inflexible and one-dimensional as we did under the old regime.
Is this a wrong we can put right? The signs are not currently promising.
3) The points depart with Cameron
The pivotal moment of the match came within the opening 10 minutes, when Troy Deeney monstered his first centre half of the day and Geoff Cameron exited. With Marc Muniesa injured, Marc Wilson was thrust into the action, with just 117 minutes of the league season under his belt up to that point.
It didn’t go well.
Wilson, frankly, was a disaster. He had a role in both Watford goals, Ighalo had the better of him all afternoon, and he gave the ball away in dangerous areas several times. When Glen Johnson is the one covering to get you out of trouble, you know things are bad.
For the opening goal, he was guilty of getting too tight to Ighalo, allowing the Nigerian to take him totally out of the game with one flick of his heel (Wollscheid’s slip was a huge contributing factor as well of course), while for the second, his trademark dragback went horribly wrong, as Ighalo picked his pocket. There was no need for Wilson to even check back as he did; he had more than enough time to play the ball out.
This blog has long been ‘Wilson-sceptic’, however, the man from Aghagallon deserves some sympathy. He did not look fit, appearing off the pace from the get-go, and given his injury issues in 2015 a lack of sharpness was always a distinct possibility. These were not ideal circumstances in which to make one’s return to Premier League action. Wilson has always had a mistake or two in him, but his overall performances have generally been solid and he improved considerably over the course of last season, stepping manfully into the breach after the captain’s injury. A lot of the vitriol thrown his way in the aftermath of Saturday appears to have forgotten that, while those idiots on Twitter who chose to greet his honest apology with abuse are an embarrassment to themselves and Stoke City. This club does not need fans like them.
What the performance did underline was how important Cameron has become. Somehow, we find ourselves in the position whereby the US international is the sticking plaster holding our entire defence together. He has been instrumental in the clean sheets achieved thus far.
Cameron’s strength is his mobility. He is the one who is quick and agile enough to come across and cover for Johnson when he goes gallivanting, while also making up for his defensive partner’s lack of pace, be that Muniesa or Wollscheid. Without him, we found our right side exposed, while Wollscheid looked far, far less assured and comfortable than he has recently.
I’m not convinced the result would necessarily have been massively different had he not injured himself (the alarming ease with which Deeney shrugged him off possibly suggests it wouldn’t), but the defence looked undeniably frailer without him.
It remains to be seen what sort of shape Ryan Shawcross will return in, but in the meantime, Cameron cannot come back soon enough. And I never thought I’d say that.
4) Deeney shows Joselu how it’s done
Watford captain Troy Deeney has proven his side’s rumpy talisman for some time now, but the sizeable striker, who’s scored 20 goals or more in each of the last three seasons, has endured a difficult start to life in the Premier League. There was a faint sense of inevitability that we would be the club against whome he’d break his scoring duck, yet even without that very composed, tidy goal, Deeney was magnificent.
Watford benefit from playing a good-old fashioned strike partnership, and Ighalo did his fair share of terrorising our back line as well, but Deeney performed a textbook demonstration of everything a top flight centre forward should be. He was quick, strong, aggressive, and won more in the air than anyone. Every one of our centre halves simply bounced off him when they tried to take him on, and that ability to use his size (and behemoth backside) to hold off markers created space and chances for others as well as himself. I’ve not seen enough of Watford this season to know if that was a typical Deeney performance, but it might just be the best by a striker seen at the Brit this season.
Deeney’s muscular presence was exactly what we needed leading the line. Instead, we had Joselu.
Now, there’s no argument, as far as I’m concerned, that Joselu deserved to keep his place. He had a strong game on Monday night at the Liberty Stadium, in which he held the ball up well, won a lot in the air and showed quick feet to shield the ball and feed Arnie, Shaqiri and Bojan. It was a very encouraging target man’s display away from home.
Lightning did not strike twice for him though, and at the Brit on Saturday, he wasn’t so much anonymous as borderline catatonic, as if Bojan was having to prop him up and move him round the pitch, Weekend At Bernie’s style.
The work rate he showed earlier in the week wasn’t there, the movement required wasn’t there, there was no cutting edge and he was fortunate not to be hooked at the interval.
I’m not about to write the Spaniard off after just three league starts in English football, especially after those promising glimpses in South Wales and in his Spurs cameo. Nevertheless, we needed more from him than we got at the weekend, and in the absence of Mame Biram Diouf, our striking options are worryingly limited.
5) The obligatory feckless substitutions
Was it a Saturday afternoon? Were Stoke at home? Did the manager make at least one bizarre substitution that took the game even further way from us? Yes, yep and yessiree Bob.
The obvious change to make was removing Joselu in favour of Jon Walters, getting a statuesque target man off and getting some hurly-burly nuisance factor in his place to ruffle some feathers. That arguably should have taken place at half time. When Walters was in fact thrown on 15 minutes into the second half however, it was in place of Xherdan Shaqiri, with Joseul replaced by Peter Crouch.
While the Swiss star wasn’t exactly tearing them to shreds, he did have the beating of Watford’s left back, and his presence did mean we still had plenty of creativity at our disposal. It was hard to see the point of introducing Crouch for Joselu; one of the major problems was our static forward play – how was introducing an even slower target man going to change that?
Crouch did a better job than Joselu while he was on the pitch, winning more in the air in half an hour than his younger rival did in twice that time and laying it off nicely with an infinitely better touch; but he too was hamstrung by a lack of supply (exacerbated by Shaqiri’s exit) and offered no more of a route to goal.
Worse, even with Crouch on the pitch, it took us an age to figure out that it might be an idea to try and exploit his height, as we persisted with our half-soaked, ropey keep ball around our own box, and by the time we did deign to aim for him, Watford had negated him by pushing up and catching him offside ad nauseum.
Another long-standing weakness of the manager’s, the changes reeked of panic rather than any kind of plan.
If the manager stays for another 100 games or more, and I hope he does as things stand, it’s hard to believe we’ll play this badly again.