1) A win surprising in its lack of surprise
“This man is magic. He scores goals that others simply dream of!” The fact that, 22 years on, every Stoke fan still remembers Alan Parry’s commentary (while conveniently forgetting that we actually lost the tie overall) is testament to the importance of beating Manchester United. Faded force they may be, but this remains the biggest scalp. To claim it on Boxing Day, a morning on which some of us still wake up and still half-expect to be mired in some sort of footballing purgatory where we only ever play Preston, makes it all the sweeter.
That our two wins over the Red Devils in the Premier League are mildly tarnished by the fact that they did not come over Sir Alex Ferguson’s big red machine (the Charlie Adam-inspired win over the David Moyes’ vintage was akin to expecting the Beatles and getting Wings) does not render them any less memorable. Though this game was weird – it essentially ground to a halt after half an hour – its highlights will live long in the memory. Memphis Depay’s comic pratfall and Marko Arnautovic’s sublime, arcing strike will be replayed in the Potteries, on big screens, small screens, in hearts and minds, for years to come.
Parallels have inevitably been drawn with our demolition job on the blue side of Manchester at the start of the month – same score, two early goals, early kick off, televised game – but Stoke were actually a couple of gears (at least) below that performance in terms of quality and intensity. There’s an argument that our attacking play was better in spells in last week’s defeat to Crystal Palace.
Nevertheless, this is as close as we’ll get to a walk in the park against Manchester United, and that says much about both teams. Stoke’s defensive resilience was another one in the eye for the ‘no leaders’ schtick that some lazy pundits continually peddled earlier in the season. This counterfeit version of the Red Devils meanwhile, did a passable impression of 2015/16 Chelsea, appearing to go through the motions as they await the axe falling on a manager they’ve utterly lost interest in playing for. It would be ironic if their apathy hastens the arrival of Jose Mourinho, a man unemployed because his own charges couldn’t wait to see the back of him. I’m sure LVG would see the funny side…
There is more than enough talent in that Man Utd side to mount a serious title challenge, and Louis van Gaal’s long-awaited dropping of Wayne Rooney and restoration of Ander Herrera, with Mata, Martial, Fellaini and Memphis also included, gave us reason for concern. Yet everything they did on Saturday was limp, one-paced and half-hearted, with Fellaini and at a push Mata the only ones to emerge with the merest smidge of credit.
The good news for our starting XI was the return of Geoff Cameron, who’d been so impressive in a midfield role prior to injury, and though the visitors started brightly we soon found our rhythm and began to get in behind the full backs and cause problems. The Man Utd left was particularly defective, with Memphis posing little danger and Shaqiri embarrassing Daley Blind at every opportunity. It was that flank that produced the first goal, with fine work from Geoff Cameron sending Glen Johnson haring away down the right, terrifying Depay into the worst defensive header in recorded history……before picking up the pieces and squaring for Bojan, who took a touch before enjoyably nutmegging the ever-hapless Phil Jones on the line.
The second goal followed just six minutes later, when Arnie’s chipped pass was intercepted by the hand of Ashley Young, an infringement so blatant that even Kevin ‘Friend to the Stars’ Friend, who spent the game cringing at the prospect of having to book any of van Gaal’s team, was forced to put his hand in his pocket. Bojan’s free kick was charged down but Arnie reacted fastest to the rebound, pouncing to whack in a meteorite of a 25-yarder into the corner that gave David de Gea no chance whatsoever. The Austrian ran the length of the pitch to milk his applause.
And that was pretty much that. Stoke sat back for the remainder of the game, occasionally looking to pick off their illustrious guests on the break – Arnautovic spurned a great chance 10 minutes before half time to totally kill off the game when Bojan’s brilliant through ball put him in, while a well-placed second half hand from de Gea prevented Bojan’s cross from gift-wrapping a goal for sub Mame Biram Diouf. It was Man Utd who dominated after the break as they sought to get back into the game, but again they had few ideas beyond pumping it long to Fellaini. When Ashley Young, bizarrely started at right back again, was given licence to play further forward he did cause some problems, and the brilliance of Jack Butland ensured our memories of the game would be happy ones, as he brilliantly denied Fellaini from point-blank range and also made important stops from Martial and Mata late on.
It was not a perfect performance from Stoke by any means. Our second half showing in particular saw us fail to take the pressure off ourselves and make poor decisions when he did get into the final third. Yet there’s no question this was a deserved victory – almost a routine win. It’s frustrating if not surprising that coverage of the game sidelined us, irrelevant opponents on a day when the last of the emperor’s flashy garments were revealed to be just fleshy love handles. But from a Stoke perspective, the real story was that we beat Manchester United whilst never getting out of third gear. That bodes well.
2) More pros and cons of the false 9
There have been widespread calls among the faithful for the restoration of a centre forward to the team, but I seem to be in a minority that actually likes the false 9 system and would like to see it persevered with for a while.
It was not at its Citeh-spearing best, but again it saw us create space and chances against another top side, and there was real menace in our counter attacking. It helped of course, that van Gaal played right into our hands with full back selection almost calculated to stick two fingers up at our wide men and challenge them to do their worst.
Young isn’t and never will be a right back, and his befuddlingly pointless handball gave us the decisive goal of the afternoon. Blind, meanwhile, is slower than Meatloaf, and the sometime left back had quite the nightmare. After Shaqiri haunted him and then taunted him, beating him with three successive Cruyff turns at one point (presumably the equivalent of an Englishman being beaten to death with his own fish and chips), he appeared to hide from him for the rest of the game. When Johnson surged down the Stoke right for the first goal, he was nowhere to be seen. Fittingly, for someone with the haircut of a member of Hanson, in an mmmbop he wasn’t there. 1-0.The false 9 again worked its magic in drawing out the centre backs and allowing our three wise men to interchange and pop up all over the final third, and if we didn’t create the same number of cast-iron chances we did against Man City, our creative magi still threatened to run riot. Shaqiri flashed a dangerous ball across the box early on. Arnie went close with a free kick. There were the two goals and the big Arnie chance, all before the 35th minute. Even in a second half mostly spent under the cosh, Diouf was a whisker away from a tap-in, Arnie was clean through on the break but fell over, and we got into numerous good positions.
The problem was an old one; a reluctance to shoot. Too often we got within range but went for one pass too many, with Arnie the chief offender but van Ginkel and Bojan not far behind. Afellay was guilty on occasion too, but given his shots tended to end up in the vicinity of our banner on the international space station, perhaps that’s understandable.Given that the greatest strength of the system is that it intensfies the potency of our counter attacking, it’s unfortunate that one of its biggest drawbacks is that it keeps us under sustained pressure when the opposition attacks. Yes, when we do find an out ball we have the outlets out wide to get from back to front quickly. But keeping the ball high up the pitch and out of trouble is a different story entirely. With no proper striker in the side – and the de facto striker only five foot seven – there was nobody to hold the ball up, which meant that it kept coming back at us, wave on wave. We were incapable of keeping the ball for any length of time in the second half.
Thankfully, Man Utd were so poor and devoid of ideas that it didn’t make a huge amount of difference, but even then, Jack Butland was called on to be the difference. We really could have done with a Crouch or a Joselu (wasn’t that the whole point of signing Joselu, in fact?) to just ease the pressure now and again and while away the minutes away from danger.
All’s well that ends well of course, but given our gameplan appears to be getting into a decent-sized lead early on and then protecting it (50% of our goals this season have come before the 30th minute), our game management, so impressive against Manchester City, is perhaps still in need of a little fine-tuning.
3) A remarkable defensive turnaround
2-0 and cruising after half an hour, we found ourselves in the slightly surreal situation of being able to take our foot off the gas. Against Manchester United.
With a big game against a direct rival coming up just 48 hours later, and the emotional trauma that is a game against Tony Pulis’ West Brom, a League Cup semi-final and an FA Cup third round tie all on the horizon, you need to take your breaks where you can find them. After Arnie gave us the two-goal cushion, we seemed to take the decision to have a bit of a breather, sit back, let them do the running and then try and hit them on the break when the opportunity arose.
That meant the back four had a job on. The clean sheet is testament to their efforts. Yes, Butland made a large contribution to that, but the defence deserve plaudits of their own. With the England manager in the stands, it seems inconceivable now that Ryan Shawcross can be ignored for much longer. While Phil Jones was as clumsy and cumbersome as ever, Shawcross was, again, excellent. Put up against his old friend Fellaini, he was, as you’d expect, completely unfazed. He marshalled the defence, he made timely, safety-first interventions, he jockeyed attackers out of dangerous positions and made more tackles than anyone else. There isn’t a better exponent of the dying art of pure defending out there.
Alongside him, Philipp Wollscheid was almost as good. At his best he is a joy to watch, the way he sees danger before anyone else and steps back to head it off at the pass; his skilful use of the ball, sidestepping attackers to start attacks of our own. This is the player we were told about when he arrived last January, the international footballer, the Champions League star, the ‘Last of the Street Footballers’. His turnaround from fifth-choice centre half and ungainly laughing stock to Shawcross’ first-choice partner is one of the stories of our season. That pairing had literally no chemistry whatsoever in their early outings together. Now they’re an imperious duo, reminiscent of the captain’s partnership with another big German, only with more quality on the ball. £36m Anthony Martial, the league’s latest striking darling, barely had a kick, as the two engaged in a personal tussle for the man of the match award.
A quick word too for Glen Johnson, who bounced back from a difficult game against Palace to inject real vim into our attacking play. He was terrific in the first half, always looking to run at Memphis, and his assist for Bojan was yet more evidence of what he’s brought to the right back role – a quality of delivery that was singularly lacking in the past.
As we saw last weekend, the real problems at the back tend to come in games where we’re on the front foot for long spells and switch off. However, the strength, confidence and organisation now evident in a back four prone to chaos in the first few months of the campaign is a thing of wonder.
Our defensive performances since October have been the best of the Hughes era.
4) Is a defensive midfielder really required?
The mantra for months now, repeated by everyone from the chairman to supporters, has been that a defensive midfielder is our priority in the January window. It’s wisdom that hasn’t really been questioned, but maybe it’s about time it was.
There’s no denying that Glenn Whelan remains our only specialist in the holding role, and that a direct replacement for Steven Nzonzi eluded us in the summer. Yet at the same time, most of our options in central midfield are blossoming.
Geoff Cameron played both the holding role and the more expansive Nzonzi position on Saturday and performed both well. His range of passing in the more advanced role was excellent – his skill, vision and beautiful chipped pass into the channels for Johnson to chase started the move that led to the opener, while he launched another great, raking long pass to Arnautovic not long afterwards. When he stepped back to patrol in front of the back four, his customary skill with an interception came to the fore with some well-timed stops, and he did an important job in playing the ball out of danger. Influential, good in the air (only Chris Smalling won more aerial duels) and showing more physicality than he ever did as a defender, he looks born to play in midfield.
Marco van Ginkel was a surprise half time entrant in place of the injured Whelan, and his improvement continued. Sensible, strong and energetic, his box-to-box instincts are finally starting to show, and he was one of the few pressure valves we had. He broke up play well, and nobody made more interceptions or clearances. He is getting better by the week.
Ibrahim Afellay meanwhile, was excellent again, and you’d think he’d been playing in that central midfield role all season. He is perhaps the key cog in the new system, a master technician in the engine room whose ability to find time and space to pick a pass adds an extra layer of security in the middle but whose dribbling and close control also offer a springboard to attacks. If there was a player of the month award for Stoke, he would win it hands-down for December.
Even Charlie Adam, who for the second week in a row played as if there was absinthe in his Lucozade bottle, demonstrated that for every bizarrely kneed attempted clearance towards his own goal and complete inability to track a runner, he has plenty of battle in him to win back lost causes and shepherd the ball out of the danger area, while retaining that impish ability to try and create something from nothing.Then there’s Whelan, even not fully fit, doing what he does, throwing himself in harm’s way, a second general providing yet more leadership.
It’s taken time, but Nzonzi has been replaced by an ensemble cast – a symphony orchestra in place of a virtuoso. Every option, barring the oddly excommunicated Steve Sidwell, has something to offer, and you just wonder if another addition at this stage is really necessary, or even risks upsetting the balance. Much depends on the severity of the injuries to Whelan and Cameron – if they’re out for any significant length of time we really will have a problem with the holding role – but if it’s not too serious then I really think we’re well enough stocked in that area until at least the end of the season.
What Saturday again showed is that the chief priority this window simply has to be a third winger. Shaqiri rarely completes 90 minutes. Arnie, again, was dead on his feet by the final whistle. That means that our attacking threat late in games is nowhere near as effective.
Diouf showed again that he is not a winger. He doesn’t have the control, he doesn’t have the tricks, he doesn’t have the instincts. He’s a centre forward, and that’s where he should be used. Jon Walters can certainly ‘do a job’ there, but no more than that. He has a goal threat, but not the creativity needed to cause consistent panic in defences, and at 32, he’s not getting any younger.
There is a need for an alternative, a young, rapid rising star to run tiring defenders ragged and make sure we still have an edge deep into the second half. If Demarai Gray really is available for £4m it’s a no-brainer. Maybe we could chuck some money at Matt Phillips? There are surely some reasonably priced gems on the continent. Paul-Georges Ntep? Filip Kostic? Andre Carillo?
After another big win and some titanic performances in front of the cameras, the real business to be done in January will be holding onto our stars. Yet if we do go into the market ourselves, a wide man has to be top of the list.
5) The weekly Butland eulogy
In the seminal Championship Manager 2001/02 – to this day the best incarnation of the game – you knew things were going well when you were told that the press are ‘running out of superlatives’ to throw at your team or one of your players. That’s the situation we have with Jack Butland at the moment.
I realise it must be getting boring to rave about the young goalkeeper every week, but the impact he has had on our season is hard to measure. Shawcross, Arnie, Whelan and Cameron are all having strong, influential campaigns. All trail in the 22-year-old’s wake.
This game distilled his importance into its clearest, purest form. For all the positives of the performance, the memorable moments, the feelgood factor in beating the country’s biggest club, we essentially owe it in large part to Butland. Without him, we do not win that game.
The outstanding save he made from Fellaini has been likened to Gordon Banks’ finest hour, and while our Club President would no doubt have been proud of that stop, I think that’s going overboard a bit. I’d compare it more to David Seaman’s famous save from Paul Peschisolido in the 2003 FA Cup semi-final – it was a fine save, but Fellaini, like Pesch, should have scored – he had the whole goal to aim at and put it close enough to Butland for his marvellous reflexes to take care of the rest.
It was nevertheless the game’s pivotal moment. Had that gone in, in the 63rd minute with the visitors very much on top, the outcome may have been altogether different.
The other two big saves he made also merit a mention. Though there wasn’t much power in Martial’s shot from just outside the box, the deflection it took might have thrown other ‘keepers, but Jack reacted to the slight change in direction to keep it out and away from the danger area. Equally, the late Mata chance wasn’t what it should have been; the Wayne Rooney of old would have hammered that into the roof of the net at the first time of asking, rather than dithering and teeing up a less well-positioned Mata. Yet it was still a forceful effort on target that Butland had to be equal to, and he was.
His command of his area and confidence on crosses are further reasons why he inspires such confidence among his defenders, as well in the dugout and the stands.
Even the flaws to be ironed out do little but underline how frightening his potential is and just how good he could be. His kicking still needs some work, and there has always been the odd breakdown in communication lurking – thankfully we got away with the one with each centre back in this game – but he is such a student of the game and so committed to improving that there’s no doubt he’ll put all that right.
It’s tempting to play the iconoclast and say the rush to proclaim Butland as the equal or superior to Asmir Begovic is rooted in the circumstances of the Bosnian’s exit. Begovic’s decline in form in his final season, his refusal to play and his eagerness to leave left a sour taste with some supporters that appear to have eclipsed his brilliance for most of his tenure in the Potteries, including the two seasons, Pulis’ last and Hughes’ first, when he pretty much kept us in the Premier League.
However, based on Butland’s displays this season, it’s hard to find an area where Begovic has the edge over him. He has been every bit as good as Asmir at his very best in every department thus far.At the start of the season, there was much talk amid Petr Cech’s move to Arsenal, of the value of a top keeper to a team’s aspirations, and Brian Clough’s old quote about Peter Shilton being worth 18 points a season got a queazy remix from John Terry.
Butland might have earned Stoke that many already.