1) Can we play Blue every week?
The biggest surprise is that it wasn’t a surprise. Even divorced from the context of the Mourinho meltdown, Stoke had beaten the reigning Premier League champions in each of the previous two seasons before this one, and we had won two of our prior three home encounters with Chelsea in all competitions, with the memories of a fantastic Capital One Cup penalties victory 11 days before still fresh in the memory. Players and team alike were confident going into this one. You could sense it. The buzz of a floodlit evening game only added to an already bubbling atmosphere.
The wild card was the absence of the Chelsea manager. Would Jose Mourinho’s stadium ban actually fire up a team keen to out him as the reason for their failings?
The answer was ‘not really’. The visitors played some good football at times but they were remarkably toothless, and had caused us far more problems in the cup match. The first half was relatively even; the feistiness of the cup tie returned as Shawcross and Costa got reacquainted, and we displayed some bold attacking without really creating an awful lot (as per usual). Xherdan Shaqiri was the game’s standout attacker, consistently having the beating of Baba Rahman down the Stoke right. The best chances we mustered in the opening period fell to Glen Johnson, who saw his six-yard snapshot clawed away by the returning Asmir Begovic, and Jon Walters, who looped a header from Shaqiri’s delicious cross onto the roof of the net.
The Blues, for their part, looked menacing until any kind of end product was required. On a few occasions they got into useful wide positions that would’ve had us in real trouble had the right delivery been forthcoming. Happily it was not. Likewise, Eden Hazard threatened to glide through our whole defence at times, but he always tried to take on that one player too many. Still, they got one decent opportunity, Costa bludgeoning through to be denied by the legs of Jack Butland.
Chelsea had probably shaded the first half, but Stoke stepped things up after the break, and within eight minutes of the restart we snatched the lead following a beautiful move. Shaqiri’s pass into the channels for Johnson was just gorgeous, and the ex-England right back’s smart cut-back bamboozled the Chelsea defence. Walters made a bit of a hash of his shot, but the ball deflected towards Arnautovic, who twisted to pull of an acrobatic scissor kick from about six yards that Begovic couldn’t keep out. Off raced the Austrian, bellowing to everyone and no one, as he does, as delirium enveloped the Britannia.
Chelsea could have equalised 10 minutes later when Pedro curled a shot against the foot of the post, but otherwise their threat was limited. Their sophisticated tactical response, in the absence of the boss, was to just keep bunging attacking players on, with Fabregas, Oscar and Remy all introduced, and this also opened up space for Stoke to seek a second. Erik Pieters got himself away down the left and just needed to put a low ball across the box for Walters to tap in, but he managed to balloon it into the stands. Walters then shot over when he might have expected to hit the target.
Chelsea finally stirred to action and went close a couple of times. A close range effort from Hazard was deflected inches wide. Remy’s pace was causing problems, and when he went clear and nicked the ball past Butland it looked as if the jig was up. But Remy weebled and wobbled and finally put the ball wide of an empty net, while Anthony ‘Spanish penalty’ Taylor shocked us all by not pointing to the spot when other refs might have seen Butland’s actions, even without contact, as impeding the striker.
Despite the customary wrong-headed substitution that saw Shaqiri, our best attacker, removed, we continued to impress on the break, and had Arnie played in Ibrahim Afellay during one such raid, we may well have killed the game off. As it was we held on, our intelligent, rugged defending winning the three points we deserved.
It was another fantastic evening to be a Stoke fan, and there were some promising signs. Ryan Shawcross’ return has immediately strengthened the defence. There appears to be less inclination to prat about with the ball near our own box. Our wing play was exciting and dangerous throughout.
We are fully aware though, that this type of fixture suits us far more than the home games against teams who won’t try and attack. The real challenges lie against the Watfords of the world. We have three home games before Christmas – Sheffield Wednesday, Manchester City, and Crystal Palace. As things stand, it’s Yaya Toure and the boys who you feel most confident about turning over.
2) Enter Shaqiri
We’ve been waiting a while now for a big performance from our record signing, Xherdan Shaqiri. The vast, vast majority of fans are patient and reasonable and appreciate that it’s likely a player new to the league, with little regular football on his CV over the past couple of seasons, won’t instantly make a blazing start to life in England. However, there was a little bit of unease creeping in here and there, a sense that sooner or later, we’d need to see more than just the odd glimpse of his enormous talent. Shaqiri’s Stoke career thus far has been that of support player – a character actor to the leading men of Bojan and Arnie, an understudy, a man on the undercard to that lofty duo’s main event.
Saturday went a long way towards changing that.
Against Chelsea, Shaqiri took centre stage, turning in comfortably his best display in English football so far and taking man of the match honours. While Arnie took time to warm up and Bojan struggled throughout, XS was the Blues’ tormentor-in-chief, causing Baba Rahman problems from the get-go.
The Swiss showed a hitherto unseen eagerness to run at his man, constantly having the beating of Rahman and getting to the byline to deliver some tantalising crosses, the most notable being his fizzing ball for Walters in the first half after flummoxing the Ghana left back with a delightful elastico.
Yet we also saw plenty of elbow grease from Shaqiri, as he displayed strength belying his diminutive stature to wrest the ball back from opponents and protect it in tight areas. Indeed, his quick feet to emerge with the ball when surrounded by Blue shirts was positively swashbuckling, while his excellent vision was underlined by that brilliant pass into the channels for Johnson that set in motion the move that produced the game’s only goal.
The only downside was his premature exit, which appeared mystifying given he was easily our best creative player and that Arnautovic looked considerably more spent than he did. Was there an injury there I’ve missed?
This was a performance to truly announce the arrival of the Shaqiri whose signing got us all so excited. I have no doubt he’ll get better and better – but his next challenge is to show he’s not only a big game player but a bread and butter talent as well. If that sounds uncomfortably close to the beyond-tedious “can he do it on a wet and windy night in…” I apologise, but it’s no less valid.
One suspects the £12m was spent on a player expected to be the difference in tight games against packed defences, more so than internationally televised games against one of the biggest clubs in the world.
I’ve got full confidence that Saturday’s performance will become very much the norm, rather than the exception.
3) The defence is improving week by week
There has been a dramatic turnaround in our defensive play, with a back four that appeared worryingly frail just a month ago really starting to look the part. Yes, we still rode our luck at times – Pedro was unlucky to hit the post, Hazard’s deflected shot could’ve gone anywhere and I’m very much in the group that thinks we got away with the penalty when Butland impeded Remy, but you’re always going to need a bit of fortune when you’re Stoke City playing the Champions. That the Blues were limited to just four shots on target says as much about the quality of our defending as the poverty of their attacking play.
It has taken the two recent games against Mourinho’s men to finally bury, once and for all, the ‘no leaders, no fight’ argument, and make certain people look very silly indeed in the process. Stoke showed incredible heart over the two games, in the cup coming back from a wrenching injury time equaliser and red card to hold their nerve in a shootout; in the league displaying a terrific team effort to keep the visitors at arm’s length while threatening on the counter.
It wasn’t just the four defenders who played their part. Jack Butland again made some fine saves, and his confidence, at 22, radiates throughout the side. Glenn Whelan was his customary excellent self, while even bit-part players like Ibrahim Afellay displayed real energy and helped carry the ball out of danger.
Clearly though, it’s no coincidence that we look more solid since the captain’s return. With him at the heart of the defence, the organisation is back, there’s more structure, less panic, less confusion. Despite a long-term, potentially debilitating injury, Ryan Shawcross looks as good as new. He’s wasted no time in throwing himself straight back into the physical joys that are the lot of the central defender, relishing every second of his scrap with Costa, knowing full well that the Brazilian-born Spain international can’t handle defenders who fight fire with fire. Give the striker a ‘cultured’ sort, reared in Arsenal’s academy and lauded for his ball-playing skills, and he’ll eat them for breakfast. Put him up against a hairy-arsed defender who trained against Jon Parkin every day for a couple of years and there’s nothing he can frighten them with, as the £25m man’s risible performance underlined.
A word of praise now for the defence’s one constant this season, Erik Pieters. Surviving an almighty whack in the chops, Pieters was a warrior, throwing himself into every challenge with impeccable timing, standing firm and straining every sinew to turn back the blue hoards. His delivery was disappointing, as he spurned a great chance to put a goal on a plate for Jon Walters, but he at least provided an option with his forward forays and link play with Arnie. Following a shaky start to the season, he is in the form of his Stoke career. As safe a pair of hands as you could want at left back, his recall to the Dutch national side is richly deserved.
The real pleasure however, came in the performances of the more divisive members of the back line.
This blog owes an apology to Glen Johnson.
I felt, up to and including the unconvincing win over Bournemouth, that we simply couldn’t persevere with a defender who either couldn’t or wouldn’t defend.
A right back with 50 England caps deserved more respect.
With the exception of the Watford debacle, Johnson has been exceptional since then, as defensively sound as anyone. He has read the game well, kept pace with opposing wingers, and made numerous crucial blocks and tackles. He’s also a strong proponent of that most basic but oft-ignored full back responsibilities – getting tight and stopping the cross.
Nevertheless, it’s his attacking play that has really made the difference. Going forward he has been a complete revelation, with a confidence and an ability to create chances that shows us what we’ve been missing for so long at right back. Is there a full back of recent times who was such a consistent threat?
His assists have put the delivery of the other contenders for the right back slot, with their hit and hope balls into the mixer, to shame. His cross for Diouf’s winner against Bournemouth was a thing of beauty, mid-height, wickedly curved and perfectly weighted. His pass for Arnautovic’s winner at Villa was equally astute, a clever ball into space to pick out the Austrian’s run. His cross for the winner on Saturday was another sharp piece of play that rewarded a player who manages to get his head up despite travelling full pelt, cutting the ball back perfectly where others would close their eyes and whack it in the vicinity of the six yard box.
Forgive me Glen, for I knew not what I was on about.
Arguably the defensive kingpin against Chelsea, however, was the man from the Saarland. Philipp Wollscheid was outstanding, and this was his best game since that eye-catching performance at Leicester last January. His greatest asset is his ability to read the game, and he read this one brilliantly, always one step ahead of the danger, hanging back to tidy things up, getting a well-timed foot in here and there, getting his body in the way when it mattered, playing his way out of trouble. This was the defender we were promised, the Champions League star, the German international.
It’s true that this was the type of game that played to his strengths, as the defence could sit deep, and he didn’t have to worry about a nippy striker causing him bother until Loic Remy’s entrance (when he did start to look slightly less comfortable). It’s still hard to see him as a long-term fixture in the first team, yet his form at the moment deserves plenty of plaudits, and he has shown real strength of character to recover from a messy end to last season, a plunge down the pecking order and burgeoning boo boy status.
The last of the street footballers won’t let himself be kicked to the kerb.
4) Chelsea’s strengths have become their weaknesses
The collapse of the champions is the defining story of the Premier League season so far. Though there have been other feeble defences of the crown before now, they were usually signposted and easy to fathom, involving the departure of either the manager who masterminded the triumph (Dalglish, Ferguson) or the talisman who was the on-field driving force (Vieira, Cantona, Ronaldo).
Chelsea are a unique case. They have the same world-class manager that won them the title last season and the same world class players. Yet they have become, almost overnight, a walking collective calamity, every piece of the puzzle that fit together so perfectly now looking ragged, broken, shapeless.
There’s no clear reason why, as far as we can see, either. There are theories – the Carneiro incident and its aftermath; friction between players and manager; friction between manager and board, given that the erstwhile ‘Special One’ was only permitted to purchase squad players in the summer, just as the sale of Petr Cech over his head significantly strengthened a rival.
Still, does any of that wholly explain why the Blues are a shadow of the team they were? The defence, which has been the very bedrock of their success, looks utterly destabilised, playing like strangers. Branislav Ivanovic has crumbled from titan to a liability not trusted to be anywhere near the side. No sooner has one element apparently righted itself than another falters; on Saturday the central defenders coped easily with Walters and Bojan in the centre, but the full backs neglected the wide men to their ultimate cost, Rahman being hooked after Shaqiri twisted his blood for 70 minutes, Arnautovic left alone to fire in the only goal of the game.
Things aren’t much better in midfield. For Ivanovic, read Fabregas, with added petulance, a man who has treated the journey from hero to zero like the Black Hole at Waterworld, a pitch-black race to the bottom of a glum, murky tank. He sulks, he hides, he gives the ball away, he looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. Now he too, can’t get a game, just over a year after his signing was hailed as a masterstroke.
Nemanja Matic, the finest defensive midfield player in the Premier League for the 18 months after his return, looks utterly bereft of confidence, as if he has forgotten completely how to play the role. It’s bad enough looking like Matthew Wright. Now the lolloping Serb has started to play like the Channel 5 breakfast buffoon.
Eden Hazard remains a mesmeric dribbler, able to change direction in a flash with the ball all but velcroed to his toes. Yet the end product has vanished, the little Belgian banging against an invisible forcefield as soon as he gets to the 18-yard box.
Then there’s Diego Costa. The man-eating shark of a centre forward from last year has become little more than a sad, second-rate ugly sister. His pantomime villainy is less an asset than a hindrance to his game, with scoring goals interesting him less than his raison d’etre of winding defenders up. And they’re wise to it. In what could be a first, Alan Shearer summed up his performance perfectly on Match of the Day. He wasn’t making the runs, wasn’t making any impression on the game, wasn’t getting into dangerous areas. He just wanted to play British Bulldog with Ryan, and when he came off worse, he lost interest altogether. It became apparent a long time ago that, like most bullies, Costa can dish it out, but he can’t take it.
Yet it all comes back to Mourinho. Whatever the root cause of his problems, every decision he makes to try and extricate himself only serves to push himself and his team further into the manure. Every high-profile name sacrificed, every self-serving rant at an official, every chippy press conference only serves to make him look more foolish. Chelsea fans continue to defiantly sing his name, but even they must know, deep down, that the Portuguese is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.
D-day is surely looming. Roman Abramovich has rarely been reticent to swing the axe, and while there may be no quick-fix for this most bizarre of declines, it’s hard to think of a cure beyond cutting off the head of the snake. With the majority of neutrals tiring long ago of his increasingly petty mind games and diversionary tactics, Mourinho won’t be much mourned outside West London.
5) Revenge of the man-child
For the reporter, it’s a delicious angle: the player once dismissed by Jose Mourinho as having “the mind of a child” might just be the one to seal his fate. Unfortunately for media sorts however, Marko Arnautovic was too classy to allow himself to be led down that particular path, despite the increasingly desperate attempts of Match of the Day’s interviewer. The former Inter star only had good things to say about Mourinho, insisting his old coach’s words were meant in jest and that his relationship with the artist formerly known as ‘The Special One’ had been a good one.
Nevertheless, that winner must have felt extremely cathartic for the Viennese virtuoso. A player who’d appeared destined at one time for superstardom, now perceived to be slumming it at what is still, in the grand scheme of things, considered very much a footballing backwater, finally got his moment on the big stage, putting the champions to the sword in fine style.
It’s fair to say Arnie has had better games this season than on Saturday – he was quiet during the first half, and it was clear his race was run a good 10 minutes or so from the finish, while his decision-making was selfish on occasion. However, he grew into the game and for most of the second half provided a valuable outlet, his legs pumping pistons as he used his acceleration and strength to continually take the ball to safety and turn defence to attack.
What the game will be remembered for, however, is that goal. We’d already witnessed superb contributions in the build-up from Shaqiri and Johnson, but the coup de grace was that finish – just as it looked like the chance had gone when Walters couldn’t quite react quickly enough, Arnautovic managed to brilliantly adjust his body shape and had the confidence to take the chance first time. It was a marvellous piece of quick-thinking and athleticism, showing a suppleness not seen this side of Dhalsim in Street Fighter 2 Turbo.
The goal underlined Arnautovic’s improvement this season. Not only has he begun to show his traditional late-season form from the off this time round, but the glaring weakness in his game – his finishing – is coming on leaps and bounds. That was his third goal of the season (not forgetting the perfectly good goal he had ruled out at Villa Park), making him our joint-top scorer in the league this season and trebling his tally for the entirety of 2014-15.
That form makes him a frightening prospect for opponents, but it’s a trifle scary for us too. As he finally starts to deliver on that colossal potential, attentions turn to his contract situation. Following the welcome news that Jon Walters will remain a Potter after all, it’s critical that we move heaven and earth to get Arnautovic signed up, given that come May he’ll only have one year remaining on his own deal.
The fear is that, like Steven Nzonzi before him, he may be in no hurry to do so.
Regardless, it’s something you would hope is very much at the top of the to-do list for messrs Hughes, Scholes and the boys.
It would be heartbreaking to see Arnie say Hasta La Vista. Baby.