1) The predictable crash landing back to earth
Ever seen a film sequel that turns out to basically a lazily reassembled retread of the first one, just changed enough in terms of plot to justify its existence? Think The Hangover 2. Home Alone 2. Jaws 2. Well this was one of those games. A follow-up to March’s home defeat by the same opposition, it told the same story and produced the same result, the only difference being that the sting in the tail came much, much later. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…
As in March, Stoke dominated possession, spent much of the game on the front foot and played some pretty good stuff at times. And as in March, two brainfades ensured that we finished the game with nothing.
Though there were no illusions that this would be anything than a difficult game. This season has seen Alan ‘Chunky’ Pardew’s steady transformation from reviled, player-butting, dinner-stealing punchline to England’s rose continue apace, as the team he’s fashioned, defensively sound yet with pace to burn in attack, had the opportunity to end the day in the Champion’s League places. Yet we were on quite the tear ourselves, still high on the fumes of our demolition of Man City, one defeat in our last six games, and with no Yohan Cabaye in the Palace XI, we fancied our chances.
What makes this result so frustrating, like the home defeat to Watford, is that everyone and his dog knew what Palace’s gameplan would be – the same one they arrived with, the same thing they do most weeks, it seems…
…sit deep, and look to catch us on the break through the velocity of Zaha, Puncheon and Bolasie, the last of the three operating centrally but frequently pulling wide and switching with the others.
In the early going we seemed very much prepared for this – indeed, we invited them onto us and looked to beat them at their own game. The first half was almost a complete non-event as the two sides had each other well scouted and showed each other possibly too much respect, the feeling-out process lasting almost all of the opening period. Our best chances came from potshots, as Wayne Hennessey made a fine save from Bojan’s drive from the edge of the box and Marco van Ginkel clipped the post from Pieters’ ball.
Just when it appeared that the first half was going to fizzle entirely, we gave the Eagles the opening they needed. After a poor headed clearance from Philipp Wollscheid saw the ball knocked back into our box, Glenn Whelan’s clumsy challenge knocked over Wilfried Zaha. It really was a brainless move by our vice-captain – Zaha was very much sailing away from the exclusion zone when the Irishman torpedoed him – and we could have no complaints when penalty addict Bobby Madley pointed to the spot.
None of Crystal Palace’s strikers had scored in a league game this season. Lumpen hedonist Connor Wickham had done pretty much nothing all game, but 43% of his goals in the last two seasons have come against us. So of course, it was Wickham who stepped up to blast a strong penalty past Jack Butland and open the scoring.
Here we go again. Now Palace really could sit back and then enjoy themselves when the opportunity to break presented itself. It was brown trousers time whenever one of their speed freaks got on the ball, though they struggled in that time to create much beyond James McArthur’s blocked shot following a corner.
Stoke did at least make chances of their own, a marked contrast to other games when opponents have battened down the hatches. Most of them came after a reversion to our ‘usual’ system of 4-2-3-1, the best of them falling to Bojan, whose close range effort was blocked by Hennessey, and Arnie, whose shot deflected wickedly past the far post with the keeper beaten. We kept knocking and knocking though and in the end were rewarded with a penalty of our own when Damien Delaney inexplicably handled as the ball came down following an up and under. Bojan hasn’t missed yet from the spot for Stoke, and he tucked this one away assuredly as well.
You could be forgiven for going a bit Kevin Keegan at France ’98 after that and assuming that the only team that was going to win it now would be Stoke. The momentum was firmly with us and we pushed for a decisive goal. That still left us with the threat of Palace on the break to worry about though. With three minutes left, Bolasie breezed past Johnson only for Butland to come to the rescue, but from the resulting corner some dreadful, lackadaisical defending saw us pass up several chances to clear until the ball came out to Beswick’s own Lee Chung-Yong, on as an 81st minute sub, who struck a brilliant, swerving 30-yarder through a crowd of players, giving Butland no chance. Roll credits.
In the immediate aftermath of this game I could feel nothing but cold fury at the way we’d let this slip. And let’s be brutally honest, the continuing inability to address both the issue of breaking down organised defences and our really quite dreadful home form in general are failures of the management team, pure and simple.
However, having calmed down, there is reason to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. Though there were a number of sub-par performances across the park, this was not the equal of the shambles against, say, Watford or Sunderland. We did not look utterly clueless when faced with bodies behind the ball, we tried to implement a Plan B when Plan A wasn’t working, and we did create chances. There was enough, even in maddening, avoidable defeat, to make one think that our current renaissance after a poor start to the season will continue. Things ARE getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
2) The new system fails its first big test
There have been a lot of deserved plaudits for our new false 9 system, given its role in our destruction of Manchester City and a decent showing at the Boleyn Ground that could easily have taken all three points on another day. However, the big question was always going to be whether the system was ‘the one’ when it came to healing the Achilles’ erm, heel that is our aversion to packed defences.
There was a suspicion, even after that Citeh game, that it had served merely to accentuate our already strong ability on the counter attack, given that was exactly how it had worked best against Manuel Pellegrini’s men, the vision and movement of our creative trio opening up yet more space for each other to revel in. There was also the hope, however, that the false 9 could in essence lay a honey trap for deeper defensive lines, drawing them out as he drops deep and thus creating crucial room for the wide men and midfield runners.
That didn’t really happen against Palace. We could never quite operate with the cohesion and fluidity that the system brings at its best. Bojan worked hard and dropped off but could never quite rid himself of the attentions of defenders, Shaqiri got crosses in but wasn’t on top form and Arnie kept making those central runs but wasn’t fooling Delaney or Dann.
Our best chances while the system was in place, other than Van Ginkel’s shot against the post, tended to come from range – Bojan’s fierce effort from the edge of the box in the first half, Glen Johnson’s shot early in the second that Hennessey palmed out, with Bojan just unable to react in time to get to the rebound.
We actually created more clear cut chances when we introduced a centre forward into the mix. Jon Walters himself didn’t pose a huge threat, but the presence of a focal point gave the Eagles something to worry about, and we then enjoyed our best spell, with the Bojan close range chance, the deflected Arnie shot, the penalty all coming after the reversion to 4-2-3-1.
That’s not to suggest, however, that it’s time to give up on the false 9 just yet. It clearly has its uses, as we’ve seen, and there have been numerous occasions this season and last where we played with a proper centre forward and created zilch.
That said, it’s equally a bit soon to be proclaiming the death of the centre forward.
3) Creative positives even in defeat
Irrespective of the system, there are signs that our creative players are starting to hit their stride.
The problem prior to the Man City game was that we were not creating enough genuine scoring opportunities. It was a bizarre anomaly that a team boasting some of the most written-about talent in European football over the past 10 years was so shot-shy. The ongoing problems of our worst displays in the Hughes era – ponderous football, static forwards, lack of ideas – still resurfaced regularly.
The last three weeks however have seen us forge numerous opportunities, even if we haven’t taken as many of them as we should have done. Saturday was no exception. Despite the visitors sitting deep from the outset, we made five or six really good scoring chances, and Hennessey in goal had to be at his very best. We did so despite neither Bojan, nor Arnie, nor Shaqiri being anywhere near their best. Some of these spurned openings, like Arnie’s deflected effort, were just rank bad luck. Others, like Bojan’s close-range second half chance when the flag stayed down, should have been buried. Nevertheless, the more we create, the more we’ll score. It’s that simple.
That’s why, despite a growing clamour among supporters, it is not time to press the panicky button marked ‘big-money striker’ in January.
For starters, how many quality goalscorers are available in the winter window, a period notorious for its lack of value? Second, while our scoring woes have been characterised as long-standing, the nature of the problem over the course of the season has only just changed. First we weren’t creating. Now we are, so how about giving the players we’ve got a chance to stick those chances away?
There’s plenty of evidence that we might be onto a winner with the false 9 thing but even if not, Mame Diouf (assuming he’s in a good place mentally to play), is yet to start a game with the golden triangle behind him. Walters will always be worth 10 goals a season. Joselu hasn’t been given a proper chance yet. We have options, and we have time. There’s no need to panic.
A few weeks ago, yesterday’s game would have finished 1-0 and been over and done with at half time. That it wasn’t, and we hit back, even though we made a cock of it in the end, demonstrates incremental progress.
Hopefully the sheer quality of our attacking talent is beginning to click to the extent that the Watfords of the world won’t be able to rock up to the Brit and have the cigars out after an hour.
4) The grim return of defensive carelessness
I don’t want to be overly critical of our back line, as it’s been superb since Ryan Shawcross returned to the side. I’d go as far as to say the defensive showings since the captain made his first start of the season against Chelsea in the League Cup in October have been the best of Hughes’ tenure so far.
There was even plenty of good Stoke defending in this game. Shawcross won more in the air than anyone else and had Wickham dozing off in his pocket. Philipp Wollscheid, despite his standard one mistake per game, played some nice, positive passes out from the back and read the game well, covering for the full backs against the speed of Puncheon and Zaha. Even though they looked dangerous, we limited the number of serious chances the visitors were able to create.
However, the goals we conceded were down to the kind of silly lapses that plagued us last season and at the start of this one, and I thought we were on our way to stamping those out. Wollscheid’s poor defensive header to put us right back under pressure was bad enough, but there was just no need for Whelan to commit himself and make that challenge on the ex-Man Utd man – he was going nowhere. It was the Irishman’s poorest game in some time.
It was always likely to be a difficult afternoon for the full backs, and neither had their best day. Erik Pieters was unusually wasteful, completing just 62% of his passes, while Glen Johnson too put in his weakest showing for some time, giving the ball away dangerously a couple of times, vulnerable to the running of Puncheon and Bolasie, and beaten all too easily by the latter to set in motion the chain of events that led to the winner.
So onto that calamity. Our defending from set pieces isn’t the living hell it was last season, but the way we dealt with that 87th minute corner was amateurish. In particular, Charlie Adam’s no man’s land state on the edge of the box, in which he actually stood and watched while Mutch thankfully miskicked and then was slow to get out to Young, was worthy of particular censure. Adam had a shocker in general when he came on, managing to misplace five of 10 attempted passes. Maybe he had his own hootenanny a wee bit early this year.
We did have a lot of attacking players on the pitch at the time and it is the risk you take – and one worth taking – when you push for a late winner at home, so we just have to take this one on the chin. There’s little in football more frustrating though, than being the architects of your own downfall.
5) A tale of two keepers
While Tony Pulis was busy enjoying a game of 9 vs 11 from an entirely different perspective this weekend, two young men he got to know pretty well were contesting an impressive duel 40 miles up the road.
Say what you want about the man, but he knows a goalkeeper when he sees one. Wayne Hennessey was TP’s first signing for Crystal Palace. Jack Butland was the last made during his stewardship of Stoke (yes, yes, I’m aware there’s much debate as to who exactly was responsible for the deal). Both are busy underlining their value to their respective clubs’ prospects.
Of the two, Butland was by far the quieter, but the mark of a good goalkeeper is one who doesn’t drift off and lose concentration when he’s had little to do (a big hello to Simon Mignolet!) and stays alert when the spotlight does fall on him. Butland’s late save from Bolasie, even if subsequent events did render it for nought, was out of the top drawer. He was quick off his line, brave in confronting the DR Congo international, and used his considerable frame to great effect, all but blot out the goal as Bolaise bore down on him. It was a typically brilliant moment from a young man whose debut Premier League season has gone even better than anyone dared imagine.
Hennessey, meanwhile, was the game’s Man of the Match, not just for the outstanding saves from Bojan that were as responsible as anything for the destination of the points, but for his confidence and command of his area in dealing with high balls and pressure from Stoke attackers. The Welshman has had to wait for his chance in Croydon, with the esteemed Julian Speroni and Alex McCarthy in front of him for much of his three-year stay at Selhurst Park. But the competition has done him a power of good, and he has matured and earned the top dog spot with some aplomb. There are more glamorous names among the current golden crop of Welsh football talent, but he is another key player in the dragons’ incredible rise.
What price that the two men do battle again in Lens on 16th June?