1) Hughes’ gamble pays off
When you’re Stoke City Football Club, League Cup quarter-finals don’t come along every day. While the FA Cup’s baby brother remains our only major honour, our record in the competition since – particularly in the 21st Century – is thoroughly dismal. Since the turn of the Millennium, Stoke have made humbling exits to lower league opposition on no fewer than seven occasions – with an 8-0 battering by Liverpool thrown in for good measure. It’s been traumatic.
So here we stood on the cusp of a semi-final appearance, at home to a Championship side, with some trepidation. We have form for cocking this up.
Those nerves were intensified by the teamsheet. The latter stages of cup competitions are a selection migraine for Premier League managers, with a need to give squad players a run out counterbalanced by the first, faint beating of the far-off drums of Wembley. What do you do?
Hughes stuck to his guns and gave his fringe men some minutes (and it’s telling to see just who wasn’t involved – the lack of Ireland or Sidwell in the squad surely means the Great Steve Purge of 2015-16 will soon be complete). The XI selected looked, on paper at least, worryingly pedestrian, with Crouch, Afellay and Walters all included in attacking positions. It was a ballsy move from the gaffer – Stoke fans tend not to react well when they perceive a manager to be jeopardising one of our rare chances for glory – and he’d have been on the receiving end of some considerable flak had this gone pear-shaped.
Yet we needn’t have worried. Those on the periphery rose to the occasion and the gulf in class was evident from the first whistle. Stoke turned in a controlled, professional display, with the result never truly in question.
Though again there were few genuine chances, we kept the ball effortlessly over the 90 minutes. Marko Arnautovic had the beating of Wednesday’s right back throughout the contest, Ibrahim Afellay was able to find space at will, and the midfield provided a solid platform while pleasingly pushing forward as well.
We stroked the ball around and took our time, but our patience would pay off after half an hour. In the aftermath of a Stoke corner, Joselu, on for the injured Crouch, chipped a clever cross in from the right, and it was met first-time by Afellay, whose sweet volley found the bottom right-hand corner. That would have got you 9/1 if you’d been tempted by a first-scorer flutter pre-match.
The sold-out Wednesday contingent was in fine voice, but their team simply hadn’t turned up. They’d made seven changes to our five, and were chasing shadows for the bulk of the evening in what frequently resembled a training match. There were a few nerves at the start of the second half, when the on-loan Gary Hooper struck a long-range effort that looped off Philipp Wollscheid and went over, and sub Daniel Pudil whipped an angled effort from the right just past the far post, but those half-chances represented the full extent of the Owls’ threat.
We got ourselves back on the front foot, and a great ball from Geoff Cameron played in Joselu in the box, but his shot was well saved by Wildsmith. We needed a second goal to really kill off the tie, and it when it came it was a real collectors’ item; a free kick 25 yards out was tapped sideways to Phil Bardsley, who struck a terrific low drive in off the post.
There were 15 minutes still to play, but it was over. We played out time with a panache worthy of more “Oles!” than the crowd gave them, and waltzed into the final four.
If there was one gripe, it was that we still, against opposition a long way from their best, failed to create many chances, with our attacking play bordering on the over-elaborate. You can’t shake the feeling more directness is required.
It’s a minor quibble though on a night in which we bounced back from our Wearside setback. Our visitors hailed from Sheffield but it was Stoke who were the steel city, doing what we needed to do with no alarms and no surprises. Underdogs we might be (before Wednesday’s remaining tie we were the bookies’ fifth-favourites in a round of four), but we can give anyone a game. We can go all the way.
2) It’s time for Afellay to shine, but where?
For once, the sponsors got their man of the match spot on. There were a few contenders, but Ibrahim Afellay stood head and shoulders above the rest. He displayed his class not just with the technical quality of his first goal for the club, but with his all-round play. It’s difficult to recall him wasting a pass despite being heavily involved throughout, and with a single pivot or drop of the shoulder when the ball was played to him he was able to find an extra yard of space and get on the front foot. He seemed to possess a sixth sense for where team mates were, and while positioning is a weakness for more than one member of the squad, it’s a real strength for the Dutch international.
Cool and composed, he dictated play. Stoke’s approach to the game was something akin to a boa constrictor, patiently devouring the Owls via slow strangulation, passing them to death, taking their time probing for openings. It was the first time we’ve really been able to get this strategy to work, and Afellay was at the heart of it, his Oranje and Blaugrana schooling really shining through.
He’s been steadily improving for a while now, his cameos from the bench full of the energy and ball retention skills required to protect a lead away from home. Between those contributions and his performance on Tuesday night, there’s a strong argument that he’s played his way into a start. The only question is where?
Against Wednesday, Afellay was nominally deployed in the number 10 role behind the striker. However, he does not play the position the same way that Bojan or even Stephen Ireland does. He doesn’t float around in the final third, inventing, looking to unpick defences. Instead, he naturally drops deeper, essentially ensuring we have a three-man midfield, which is great for helping us win the battle there, but deprives us of a genuine link to the centre forward.
He’s been used out wide, the position for which he has been most renowned throughout his career; yet so far, probably as a result of so many injuries that have taken their toll, we’ve yet to really see the pace required to offer much on the wing – especially since we’re crying out for a speed merchant out there to offer an alternative skill set to Arnie and Shaqiri’s more subtle gifts.
The most likely role for him looks to be in one of the two deeper central midfield spots, with Charlie Adam in all probability the one making way. Certainly, this would feed into his strengths when it comes to recycling possession, dribbling and getting into good positions. However, although Adam has been neutered somewhat in recent weeks, are we really ready to remove his wild-card ability to fashion something from nothing at a time when creating chances is our biggest frailty?
It’s a tough call, but that’s why Mark Hughes gets the big bucks. Either way, Afellay is making an increasingly compelling case for his inclusion.
3) Midfield contenders do their prospects a power of good
One of the more interesting facets of the game was how a midfield bereft of Whelan and Adam would get on. A number of fans have soured already on Marco van Ginkel, with the Dutchman failing to immediately set the world alight, but he was a player in dire need of a run out, while Geoff Cameron was offered a rare opportunity to stake his claim for a berth in the engine room. Both impressed.
While MVG didn’t exactly boss proceedings, he did offer a reminder of his pedigree, making a number of purposeful forward runs with the ball that demonstrated the kind of midfield engine we’ve missed this season, working hard, winning the ball in the air and getting into good positions. There were definite, if faint, signs of the ‘new Lampard‘ who signed for Chelsea two years ago, and hopefully his encouraging performance can kick-start his career rehab. It’s still way too early to write off a player who was one of the most talked-about in Europe not too long ago.
Cameron meanwhile was superb. Yes, it was ‘only’ Sheffield Wednesday, and Premier League sides will offer far sterner examinations of his defensive qualities in the role, but he patrolled in front of the back four very effectively, proving strong, winning the ball well, getting his body in the way but also showing more positive inclinations that we see from Glenn Whelan, finding opportunity to push forward with real energy.
Passing is sometimes a weakness for Geoff but here he showed real vision, and his sumptuous 40-yard cross-field ball for Joselu was comfortably the pass of the night and one of the best of Stoke’s season so far.
The chairman has intimated that a defensive midfielder will be a priority in January, but Cameron has surely catapulted himself to the front of the queue behind Whelan in the meantime.
4) Wednesday’s support deserved better
Not that we were complaining, but the visitors should have provided a much stiffer test than they did. Sheffield Wednesday are eighth in the Championship and have lost one of their last 12 league games. They had previously eliminated Newcastle and Arsenal from this season’s Capital One Cup, and have played some enterprising pressing, quick passing football so far this campaign.
They appear to be enjoying something of a Boskampian adventure, as Stuart Gray, who led them to a seemingly respectable 13th placed finish last season, was waved on his way in the summer and replaced with enigmatic football adventurer Carlos Carvalhal, who has 13 other football clubs on his managerial CV including Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas. 16 new players have also walked through the entrance at Hillsborough.
Team in transition they may be, but their impressive results of late still gave us reason to expect more from them than we saw last night. It was a surprise that Carvalhal made seven changes to his starting line-up from the previous weekend, and even if some of those were enforced (Barry Bannan was injured, Fernando Forestieri was cup-tied), that still had to be disappointing for the 4,500 travelling Owls fans.
They would have made the journey to the Potteries confident of getting a result given their team’s form and our own poor home record and non-performance at Sunderland at the weekend. The Wednesday fans were absolutely brilliant, loud for most of the game and possessing a range of songs that puts our own songbook (at present the most embarrassing collection of tunes this side of JLS) to shame. Even Sloop John B sounded good, with a verse thrown in and the song actually sounding like its supposed to, rather than the punch-drunk dirge most crowds turn it into.
Yet their reward was a no-show from their players, who sleepwalked around the pitch for 90 minutes unable to get the ball off us, reduced in the end to aimless punts, the lack of desire evident in all departments. Almost every surge forward was whipped off a toe by a Stoke defender or midfielder with ease.
They did create a couple of half-chances, and the well-travelled, mercurial Lewis McGugan did add a bit of a spark when he entered the fray in the second half, but for the most part they played the role of cannon fodder, one of the Joker’s henchmen that Batman swats aside early on, one of the red shirts in Star Trek who gets killed off without anyone shedding a tear, one of those little goomba things Mario jumps on en route to rescuing the princess.
Nevertheless, this is an exciting time for Wednesday fans. Their Thai tuna baron owner (!) has grand designs on promotion by 2017. Whether or not Carvalhal is the man to deliver it (Boskamp looked half decent at this stage of the season too) remains to be seen, but life certainly won’t be dull for the boys in blue and white.
5) The two faces of Joselu
The selection of Crouch over Joselu suggested that the manager is still not yet at the stage where he feels he can trust the fourth most expensive player in Stoke City history. Indeed, with the exception of Peter Odemwingie, it appears that every conceivable striking option is preferred to the big Spanish forward at present.
Nevertheless, Crouch’s unfortunate injury just 13 minutes in gave him his chance, and he may well have just pushed himself up the pecking order. That cliche is perhaps an appropriate one, as Joselu seems to be very much the ugly duckling of the set-up, unloved but slowly adapting to his surroundings and looking incrementally more assured with every showing. He’s not a swan yet, but he’s getting there.
It was an unusual performance from Senor Mato. At times he seemed to be playing almost anywhere but up front. He dropped into central midfield, with one of Afellay or van Ginkel pushing ahead of him; he spent a frankly bizarre amount of time on the right wing. It was in these roles that he displayed his stellar footballing upbringing in La Liga. Joselu is not your typical carthorse of a target man. He is very adept with the ball at his feet. His close control with little space or time won us free kicks in good positions, as it did at Swansea, his lay-offs to the wide men were good, and his cross for the first goal was a peach. His first touch to control Cameron’s brilliant 40-yard pass was a bit special too.
Yet it was that moment that also showed the flip-side to his game. At present, he just doesn’t look like he has a goal in him. He rarely got into shooting positions when we were on the attack, and on the solitary occasion he did, his shot was as tame as Jon Walters’ sitter at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. He needs to show a bit of killer instinct.
Still, he showed enough in his all-round game to suggest he deserves a bit more of a look-in than he’s had so far, and even if we were ‘only’ playing a Championship outfit on their worst day, we’ve had plenty of players in the past who’ve failed to show any promise against even more modest opposition.
Hopefully we soon get a proper look at what the Six Million
Dollar Quid Man can do.