1) Majesty, thy name is Stoke City
Let’s lay it all out on the line here. In 25 years, I have never seen Stoke City play football of that quality. There have been plenty of dizzying highs: the high-octane, relentless winning machine that was Lou Macari’s 1992-93 team; the pugnacious, snarling beast that represented the best of the Pulis era, 2007-2011. The dismantling of Spurs and Liverpool within a fortnight of each other last May. Yet in terms of grace, skill, aesthetics and effectiveness, nothing tops Saturday.
Stoke repeatedly sliced through one of the most expensively assembled teams in the history of football as if they were Kidsgrove Athletic. This was football by John Woo, balletic yet explosive. Our high-profile attacking players put out a smorgasboard of their best tricks for the watching world, but it was never mere showboating – every piece of one-touch witchcraft had a point to it. Backheels were used to set overlapping full backs away down the wing. Shimmies, dummies and nutmegs were used to lose defenders and create the space to pick that killer pass. It was the football equivalent of a Nick Cave murder ballad, elegant, seductive, but with bad intentions. Stoke City were, to quote the prophet Taylor Swift, a nightmare, dressed like a daydream.
If this gala performance, beamed to the world as the day’s early televised kick-off, doesn’t drive a stake once and for all through the heart of our previous reputation, and the beyond-tiresome bores who still crash on about “wet and windy nights in Stoke”, long balls and long throws, nothing will. Now they know. Now they all know.
Some Manchester City fans and journalists have tried to make excuses, pointing to the notorious weather conditions at the Britannia.
That seems like a pretty lame attempt at mitigation given their resources, and besides, it didn’t appear to knock the likes of Shaqiri and Bojan off their game, did it? The injuries to key players sob story perhaps carries more water – as we know ourselves, rip out the spine of any team and they won’t look the same, and Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero may well have made this a different game – but shouldn’t the money they’ve spent guard against that to at least some degree? The Manchester City starting XI cost £259m. Stoke’s cost less than £30m.
Yet on that showing, there were players in Manuel Pellegrini’s side who wouldn’t get into ours. Would you rather have the listless Fernando than Citeh old boy Glenn Whelan? Is Nicolas Otamendi really 24 times better than Ryan Shawcross? And what on earth has happened to £28m Wilfried Bony, a player who looked the complete Premier League centre forward at Swansea but was doing his best Vincent Pericard impression at the Brit? Here, BBC Sport helpfully compares his forward play to that of Marko Arnautovic: the left image displays the number of touches made by Arnie, the one on the right those of Bony…
It has to be said that the Citizens played entirely into our hands. This was the type of game that suits our counter-attacking style anyway, but once Mark Hughes had fine-tuned it by setting us up with a bold, modern strikerless system, our threat on the break was magnified.
It didn’t take long for the new set-up to yield results. Just six minutes had elapsed when Glen Johnson fed Shaqiri, who sashayed past Fernando, then around Kolarov before crossing for an onrushing Arnie to belt the ball past Joe Hart from close range.
The early goal positioned us perfectly to carry out our plan to the letter. The visitors were permitted to dominate possession, but we finally did unto others as others have been doing unto us, getting massed ranks of red and white shirts behind the ball, pressing high up the pitch, winning it back and then countering at lightning speed. The second goal followed 10 minutes after the first, Shaqiri’s searing vision leading to a through ball that just eluded Bojan but fell perfectly in sync with Arnie’s run, the Austrian calmly slotting the ball under Hart.
2-0, but we didn’t want to stop there. You wouldn’t have believed we were the lowest scorers in the top division, as we made it our mission to make up for the dearth of chances created in previous weeks in the space of one afternoon. Arnautovic could have had four in the first half alone, heading inches wide from Whelan’s tasty cross from the left before slipping and hitting the post when Shaqiri sent him clear once again just before half time. The way we found space in the final third with such a mind-boggling array of flicks, tricks and smart runs (our dribble count was 20 to Man City’s four) didn’t so much make you want to pinch yourself as wonder if someone was controlling us with a joypad.
There had been precious few signs that we would be made to pay for our profligacy. Bony might as well have not been playing. David Silva was anonymous. Raheem Sterling split his time between falling over and hitting Row Z.
There was some menace to £54m Kevin de Bruyne’s play, and he really should have scored with the score at 1-0 when one of Philipp Wollscheid’s trademark air shots let him in and he could only sidefoot tamely at Jack Butland. Unluckier was Kolarov, who got in down the left to strike a fierce shot at the near post that Butland did brilliantly to stop. Yet that was as good as it got for the team in blue.
The second half was more of the same. We prepared for an onslaught that never came. Hart and co emerged pumping their fists and intimating that they were up for a fight, but while they looked faster and better able to get in behind us on the flanks, they created nothing of note and Butland had a pretty quiet afternoon, all things considered.
The best chances again fell to Stoke. A lovely move ended with Arnie squaring for Shaqiri who somehow managed to put the ball wide. Some twinkle-toed brilliance from Bojan saw him bamboozle Demichelis before Hart stopped his low, angled shot. Arnie could only find the side-netting with the rebound.
Both sides made changes and, perhaps inevitably, our sparkle wore off as our creative maestros were withdrawn, like that point in Super Mario Brothers when that disco biscuit star thing that makes you invincible wears off and you have to go back to being a perfectly serviceable plumber.
A sleepy-looking Joselu was perhaps a slightly odd replacement for Bojan when we had the pace of Mame Diouf on the bench, but Marco van Ginkel dug in and made some important interceptions in a spirited cameo. We managed the game beautifully, and the fear that we’d somehow contrive to throw this all away was never really there.
If you were to bury a time capsule for future generations to get a sense of this current golden age, this – possibly even more than the Bolton semi final or the Liverpool 6-1 game – would be the match you’d choose. It’s one that will be talked about in the Potteries in 20, 50, 100 years. Not just the goals, not just the outrageous skills, but the subplots – Butland vs Hart, and the Dandruff song taunting from the Boothen; the quiet heroics of Whelan, Cameron, Pieters, Wollscheid, Shawcross; the rise of Ibrahim Afellay; the arrival of Shaqiri.
Stoke City didn’t just take on and beat the richest team in the world. They mesmerised them. And the watching world.
2) Adventurous Hughes aces it again
It must be a pretty good feeling to put one over on the club who sacked you. To do so having comprehensively out-manoeuvred one of the managers to follow in your footsteps must really make one want to fully engage smug-mode.
Mark Hughes is feeling sassy at the moment. He took a sizeable gamble in midweek by resting so many big players for Tuesday’s League Cup quarter-final, then put his feet up as the team he picked eased into the next round without so much as breaking sweat. He went one step further on Saturday; not only did he retain some of the players who’d impressed against Sheffield Wednesday, again demonstrating that there is room for upward mobility in this squad (unless your name’s Stephen Ireland), but he changed the formation as well, opening the oft-discussed file marked ‘false nine’.
I’m happy to admit that I’d long had reservations about the idea of using Bojan in this role. I’d always felt that in the Premier League you need an aerial option and a strong focal point leading the line to hold the ball up and bring others into the game. To choose this windiest of days to unveil such a ground-based plan, at a time when we were already guilty of overplaying and trying to walk the ball into the net, looked like lunacy to me.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
What was in effect a 4-1-2-3-0 formation turned out to be perfect for this game. The lack of a proper centre forward was not a hindrance but in fact a huge boost, as it created an enormous amount of space in the final third and allowed the three creative talents who would normally operate behind a striker the freedom to interchange.
There was finally some fluidity to our play, as Shaqiri, Bojan and Arnie popped up all over the place, dragging the befuddled Citeh back line with them. Rather than making us even less direct, the quick, one-touch passing, almost telepathic at times, finally got us moving the ball incisively and proved a faster route to goal than anything we’ve come up with in the four months since the campaign kicked off.
It looked like the most balanced Stoke XI in some time. Not only did we create chances in abundance, but the presence of the excellent Afellay as a third central midfielder stiffened things up there, enabling us to defend in numbers, protect our back four, swarm bodies around opposing players when they had the ball, win it back and feed the creative talents. To a Man City side still enduring night terrors from being gegenpressed to within an inch of their lives a couple of weeks ago, it was the last thing they needed to see, their dark visions made flesh.
As usual, the acid test for Hughes’ brave new world, should he opt to make this our go-to system, will come against the Sunderlands of the division. There’s an argument that the false nine strategy actually just reinforced our strengths, making our counter-attacking, which has already impressed away from home this season, even more effective.
Yet it could also be suggested that this system could be the key to unlocking those sides. Teams like Watford have been able to easily shackle (Shaqle?) Shaqiri and Arnie by double marking them and crowding us out in the final third. Take out the striker, and you can create more space for that trio to operate in, and can also create a honey trap, drawing central defenders higher up the pitch and then striking like a viper.
It’s going to be fascinating to see what the manager does next.
3) The magic triangle comes of age
While Hughes deserves oceans of praise for finding a way to get the best out of his triumvirate of genii, all you could really do was sit back and salivate at the football they produced.
It’s what we’ve been waiting for, and it finally happened. Shaqiri, Bojan and Arnautovic combined consistently to thrilling effect.
For the first time, we saw why Shaqiri has more nicknames than Apollo Creed. Here was the Alpine Messi, running at speed and with intent, using his ingenuity, low centre of gravity, quick feet and dazzling skills to go past players. Here was the Power Cube, a stocky pocket dynamo, small but strong enough to burrow through defences, players who towered over him unable to knock him off the ball. Here was the Magic Dwarf, seemingly using a greater percentage of his brain than anyone else like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, always one step ahead, his vision finding Arnie in bags of space on numerous occasions before opposing defenders had an inkling of what he was planning. The pieces of skill he used to make both goals were mouthwatering; the fake-out stepover to confuse Kolarov for the split-second it took to go round him and cross for Arnie was then surpassed by the dummy to lose Fernando, again made to look like Wile E. Coyote, for the second, essentially nutmegging himself to turn and set Arnautovic away.
Almost lost amid the hype for the scorer and creator of the goals was the clearest evidence yet that Bojan is back. Up to now we’ve seen him at about 75%, which is still pretty bloody brilliant. Saturday brought peak Bojan. Unfettered thanks to the new system, he more than anybody revelled in the extra space, dropping deep to collect the ball and weave past defenders in his own inimitable style. That confidence seemed to be back as he eagerly looked to take on challengers, providing a different kind of focus as the team’s creative starting point, the man who made the killer pass before the killer pass. He almost had a wondergoal of his own too, his brilliant second half run and nutmegging of Demichelis only halted by Hart’s strong save – though his exuberance was perhaps highlighted even more by the uncharacteristic reducer he left on the goalkeeper’s chest just before his exit.
Then there’s Arnie. The Viennese virtuoso operated as the de facto striker of the team, very much in the Cristiano Ronaldo mould, starting wide but frequently getting in behind the Man City defence with a series of clever runs into the centre. His movement, which is often a big weakness of his when the going gets tough, was simply sensational here – Pellegrini’s side just weren’t expecting him to be the man getting into those positions and couldn’t deal with him, and his acceleration, strength and instincts made him tailor-made for the role.
When all was said and done, he’d made himself our top scorer this season, getting himself in the right place at the right time to add the punctuation mark to two superbly crafted moves. He could and probably should have scored double that figure. He is fast becoming the MVP of our campaign.
You’d expect teams to be better prepared than the Mancunians were for our magic triangle, but when they’re in that form, is there any stopping them? If Saturday serves as a blueprint, there are heady days to come.
4) All hail the unsung heroes of the engine room
Though the creative players will grab the headlines, and their breathtaking interplay is what will be remembered, the selfless dogs of war in midfield were just as important. They were the ones who won the ball, who strangled nascent Citeh attacks at birth, who provided the foundation on which our house of bling was built.
We have to be careful not to take Glenn Whelan for granted, so consistent is he in the holding role. He was as good as ever on Saturday, making more passes than anyone else, sitting at the base of midfield and screening aggressively, like an ill-tempered bouncer. He took a whack in the head from Bony’s elbow and almost seemed to enjoy it, making sure to take some revenge on Sterling by shamelessly goring him like a Rhino in the second half.
One of the real stories of the last few weeks is the emergence of Ibrahim Afellay. After a string of useful cameos and a goal and a man of the match performance in the cup on Tuesday, he turned in his finest display in a Stoke shirt so far. Used slightly deeper, as part of a genuine three-man midfield, he was exactly what we needed in this type of game. His intelligence, energy and experience were all vital in keeping some composure in the middle. His technical quality meant that people could ping passes at him and however overhit, underhit or wayward, he could bring them under control, make himself some space and lay it off. He worked tirelessly, and his own ability to dribble past players in tight spaces was invaluable as an outlet and in transitioning from defence to attack. He was the pivot around which a lot of our play revolved.
Just as crucial was Geoff Cameron. Another who impressed in a rare midfield outing against Wednesday. The Attleboro boy’s work off the ball on Saturday was ridiculous. Given the thankless task of doing not just his own running but also a lot of the defensive load of Bojan and Shaqiri, he manfully got on with it, charging around when we didn’t have possession and closing them down. He must have been absolutely knackered by the end, so much ground did he cover. Both he and Afellay have surely earned a run of starts in the middle now.
It appears that our midfield is learning to share the burden as we belatedly adjust to life after Nzonzi. We have Whelan being Whelan and doing the dirty work. We have Cameron to press and win the ball. And we have Afellay to bring it forward and distribute it with laser-guided precision. That could well be the balance we’ve been looking for.
5) A seismic few weeks ahead
‘May you live in interesting times’ is a famous old Chinese curse. Yet there’s every reason to believe these uncertain yet exciting days will hold plenty of riches for Stoke City. The next few weeks will have a considerable say in the direction our season takes. Not only do we have the traditionally packed Christmas programme, with three league games in a week, but those fixtures are immediately followed by a League Cup semi-final first leg and an FA Cup third round game.
That going to be a considerable test of the squad. It also comes just as the transfer window swings open, with a few players probably needing to move on (basically anyone called Steve) and a few areas of the squad in need of restocking. Additionally, we need to ensure we hold on to our crown jewels and in a couple of cases, hopefully get them to sign new deals. The business done or not done may well decide just how far we can go on all three footballing fronts.
Then there’s the question of whether we stick with the system that served us so well in this game, or look to reintegrate a centre forward. If we do stick with it, will it continue to be as effective? Will it find the much-needed breakthrough against defensive sides? What’s to come from our cosmopolitan crop of maestros?
We ARE living in interesting times. And now they know. Now they all know.