1) 93 minutes of insanity
It’s not enormously fashionable to invoke Alton Towers at the moment, but during my youth in the early 90s, the box office ride at Staffordshire’s foremost adventure park was the Corkscrew. This was very much the ride to go on, full of fast, furious turns, loop the loops, and a feeling of genuine danger. To paraphrase the tagline from Wayne’s World, you’d laugh, you’d cry, you’d hurl – and potentially all three when your head repeatedly snapped back hard against the seat as you went upside down. After your ride you’d emerge, sort-of exhilarated, sort-of convinced you were about to have an embolism. That’s pretty much the same feeling I had at full time on Monday.
How to even begin to catalogue the events of this match, one in which Stoke scored 20% of their total league goals for the season in one afternoon? It had more drama than the Sopranos box set, more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan biopic on the life of Chubby Checker. Two players bagged their first goals for the club. Three of the four goals were absolutely terrific. The fourth was a penalty awarded in injury time. Stoke had the lead twice, lost it twice, went behind, levelled, and then won it. The defending would have sent Alan Hansen on a Falling Down-esque rampage. And somewhere amid all the madness, two enterprising, likeable if erratic sides played out a thrilling, mostly good-natured corker. Forget the tiresome histrionics of the Mourinho and LVG sideshows. Forget the fawning over Jurgen Klopp. This was the best advert for the Premier League in a long time.
In some ways it’s hard to fathom just how we managed to win that match. We were under the cosh for long spells, we were frequently sloppy and careless with possession, and the false 9 system again threw up as many awkward questions as it did answers. Nobody will remember any of that when they talk about this in years to come though. And to be honest, why would you, when there were exquisite chips, delightful through balls, brilliant crosses, fizzing half-volleys, and goals, goals, goals?
Everton made four changes, with the return of first teamers like James McCarthy and Gerard Deulofeu giving pause for ominous thought. Perhaps more surprisingly, Stoke were unchanged, despite three players limping off 48 hours earlier in the famous win over Manchester Utd. Yet there was little sign of fatigue in the opening 15 minutes, as the Potters started much the brighter. Bojan engaged full-on ‘phantom menace’ mode, gliding around almost unseen to dribble past defenders, teeing up two decent half-chances for Arnie before picking up the ball on the left, ghosting between another two blue shirts and sending an eye-of-a-needle threaded pass to Arnautovic in the box, who cleverly nutmegged Funes Mori, playing it on first time for Shaqiri to slide home his first goal for the club. The magic triangle had combined to breathtaking effect, and Stoke deservedly had the lead.
The script called for us to run riot, with Everton, all dodgy defence and attacking instincts, on paper the perfect opposition to take the lead against when you’re a counter attacking team. What that overlooked however, was just how good that Everton front four is, and while Stoke appeared to switch off as they did after going two up against Man Utd, the Toffees began to ask serious questions. Arouna Kone on the right was doing what Arnie does for us, making darting runs from the flank into the centre, and we struggled to keep up with him. Ditto Romelu Lukaku, who was dragging our centre backs all over the place. An equaliser was coming, but it was disappointingly basic when it arrived. McCarthy took Wollscheid out of the game with a well-timed ball in to Lukaku, and Erik Pieters was caught napping, ensuring the striker remained onside with time to turn and fire home.
For much of the half’s remaining 35 minutes Stoke appeared as if they were running through treacle, as the home side got into the danger zone time after time. In particular, the wing play of Deulofeu and the clever craft and strong running of the impressive Ross Barkley were proving problematic. Stoke asked no questions of their own (managing just one blocked shot from Geoff Cameron) as they simply could not get the ball, and when they did, they gave it away. Bojan’s unusually slack square ball to Barkley saw the England star go on a mazy run before brilliantly backheeling into the path of young Brendan Galloway, who thankfully shot wide. Everton seemed to have us sussed, pressing or getting men quickly behind the ball to stop the counter attack and then giving the ball to Barkley.
We were desperate for half time, but as the interval approached we played our ace in the hole; Bojan got on the ball in his own half and pinged an outrageous 40-yard pass to Shaqiri. The Swiss, as you’ve seen, decided he could top such a piece of quality with THAT chip, taken first time, from just outside the box, from full stretch, the ball carefully carefully dipping from the right into the top left corner in a way that was beautiful. Entirely against the run of play, Stoke led again!
Despite getting our noses back in front at the appointed ‘perfect time to score’, Everton’s dominance resumed from the start of the second half, and within 20 minutes they were level with a fine goal of their own. Sub Tom Cleverley produced his own Bojan moment with an equally excellent searching long pass that picked out the terrific run of Lukaku, which bisected two Stoke defenders, giving him time to bring the ball down on his chest and screw a shot into the net. The 22-year-old is surely the best striker in the Premier League at the moment. At various points throughout the afternoon he made himself simply impossible to mark through his power, timing and movement.
2-2 and the momentum was really against us now as the Toffees poured forward in search of the lead. It was only a question of time, and after Cameron badly misjudged a bounce and succeeded only in weakly knocking it into Barkley’s path, he slid a low ball across to Deulofeu for the ex-Barca starlet (are other teams allowed to have those?) to tap in before celebrating like some sort of obnoxious Jim Henson creation.
At that point it felt like Everton might go on to get a couple more, but you’ve always got a chance against a Roberto Martinez defence, and a switch to 4-4-2 brought an unlikely Stoke comeback. Now Everton were the ones looking tired and vulnerable, with the likes of Afellay and Arnautovic suddenly getting more time on the ball. It was the Austrian who created the equaliser with 10 minutes left, delivering an outstanding cross that was palmed out into the danger zone, where substitute Joselu loitered to spin and fairly lash the ball into the top corner. 3-3!
Now both teams went for it. Mark Clattenburg awarded a ridiculous free kick against Joselu after the ball was booted into his side from close range. Everton made a mess of that, but hearts were in mouths when Wollscheid spooned a clearance straight to Coleman in the box, only for the Irish full back to balloon his shot over.
The game ticked into injury time and Arnie had one last run in him, and as he got in behind £40m-rated John Stones (who, like most defenders on show, had been diabolical) the England man was forced into a last-ditch sliding tackle. There was a pause. Clattenburg pointed to the spot. Pandemonium ensued.
The Everton players were furious. Joselu hugged the ref. Clattenburg booked Stones. Joselu hugged the ref. The crowd booed furiously. JOSELU HUGGED THE REF.
Was it harshly awarded? At the time I thought it wasn’t a penalty. Getting the ball isn’t a magic shield that makes any tackle ok, but to me it looked as if Stones had made a decent challenge. Having seen the replay multiple times since, I can see why it was given. Stones gets a toe on the ball but it’s the follow-through that brings down Arnie. Tough call, glad I didn’t have to make it, may well have been incandescent if it was awarded against us. Football, eh?
There was still the small matter of a decisive 91st minute penalty to take, and Arnie, somehow the calm, reasoned one in all this, picked up the ball, ran up, slipped as he kicked, and still buried his shot to win the game for Stoke.
And then we could all breathe and try and make sense of what we’d just seen. Analysing the game completely dispassionately, there was a good 20-30 minute spell in each half when Stoke were, in fact, pretty rubbish. Second best, under the cosh, at sixes at sevens at the back, chasing shadows in midfield and prone to carelessly ceding possesion. In the same game, they scored some of their best goals of recent times, produced some outstanding passages of play, and came back to life more times than Jason Voorhees, even in the face of relentless pressure from a home side boasting some of the league’s best attackers.
All you can do is shake your head and smile. What a sport this is. What a team we’re building. And what a Christmas we’re having. Noddy Holder’s grin won’t be as wide as ours when he looks at his bank account this month.
2) The genie is completely out of the bottle
If 10,000 years can give you such a crick in the neck, being messed around and ignored by some of Europe’s top clubs, despite being your country’s most gifted footballer for 20 years, must give you an almighty chip on the shoulder.
If Johan Boskamp taught us anything though, it’s that almighty chips come in all shapes and sizes, and even in a match as dramatic and incident packed as this, Stoke’s very own genie, Xherdan Shaqiri, produced the biggest, classiest talking point.
It’s been coming. Though Stoke’s marquee player was without a goal to his name, you could sense it was only a matter of time. He was increasingly threatening opposing defences, getting into good positions, whipping in dangerous balls. As Arnie and Bojan regularly got their names on the scoresheet, Shaqiri’s frustration palpably festered at his failure to join them. You knew that when it happened, it was going to be good.
It was fitting that Everton, generally considered our only genuine rivals for his signature in the summer, should be the victims of Shaqiri’s finest hour in English football to date. If his role in the first outstanding goal was ‘merely’ to apply the cherry on top, finishing neatly and bravely as Galloway tried to stop him, following customary magic from Bojan and a briliant pass from Arnautovic, he took centre stage with the second. Yes, Bojan’s raking pass was magnificent, but the skill, the vision, the gumption to try what he tried and pull it off was world class.
Make no mistake about it, if Messi or Zlatan had done that there wouldn’t be even the merest whiff of an insulting debate about whether he ‘meant it’. Nor would there be if the Swiss had a red devil or a liver bird on his shirt. Shaqiri meant it. What else was he trying to do? He looked in Arnie’s direction but he was a way behind him – funnelling it back to him would’ve required a feat of dexterity that Inspector Gadget after six months’ intensive yoga couldn’t pull off. If a player glances at the linesman when he’s clean through, is his shot an attempt to pass to the man with the flag? It’s depressing that ‘awareness of one’s surroundings’ should be literally a foreign concept to English football.
But I digress. Shaqiri, in an instant, spotted Howard’s positioning and deftly but precisely guided it over him and into the top left hand corner. As chips go, it might even have been better than Wayne Biggins’ second goal against Preston in the 1992-93 Coca-Cola Cup…but I don’t want to kill any sacred cows here.
So it was that we were treated to the player’s first ‘Flaschengeist’ in Stoke colours – the arms-crossed-smug-smile celebration apparently half-inched from Robin Williams’ Disney genie. Shaqiri’s Stoke highlight reel has been slowly growing – there was the elastico against Chelsea, the destruction of Manchester City, the tornado takedown of Daley Blind. Yet this was him truly announcing himself to the Premier League.
The second goal took everyone by surprise, not just because of it happened so quickly, but because it came totally against the run of play. It’s precisely those circumstances for which he was signed at considerable expense; a difference-maker who can turn a game in an instant.
Everton, like many teams this season, double marked him from the outset. As he increasingly gets to grips with the league however, he’s becoming harder to stop, and the Toffees found themselves suckered by an old-fashioned double bluff – just as they turned their massed attentions away from the Swiss to start worrying about Arnie, Shaqiri sprung into life to sting them.
The quietest of the magic triangle thus far, he has now exploded into supernova. This is what he’s all about. And the worst thing for Premier League defenders is that there’s much more to come.
3) Eyebrow-raising subs make the difference
With Everton very much in the ascendancy at the start of the second half, it was clear that Mark Hughes needed to change something. The problems with the false 9 system that were evident in the second half against Manchester Utd surfaced once again. With no focal point to help take the pressure off us high up the pitch, the ball kept coming back at us.
In that context, the entrance of Joselu not long after the hour mark made sense – a target man to try and get the ball to stick in the final third. Still, there were plenty of grumbles and scratching of heads at the manager’s decision to replace the false 9 himself with the little-glimpsed Senor Mato. And to be fair, it initially looked like it might prove a disastrous switch. Everton equalised just 29 seconds later, took the lead for the first time seven minutes after that, and we had sacrificed the one player who’d been at the centre of our best creative play. Bojan’s exit seemed to take our hopes of a goal with him.
Slowly but surely though the plan came to fruition, as Joselu’s presence did manage to gain us a foothold in the final third. The move to 4-4-2, with Walters replacing Cameron, further strengthened us, doubling the presence up there with two players pulling away into space and forcing the rickety Everton back line to drop back.
Joselu’s main task was surely primarily to make a nuisance of himself, but it went even better than anyone hoped. When Arnie’s wicked cross caused the thin blue line to crumble altogether, the big striker took his chance beautifully. It was by no means an easy one – it was at an angle, he had to swivel quickly to get a shot away quickly – but he caught the shot powerfully and perfectly to find the top corner. His first goal for the club, it will do him a power of good.
I’m not quite sure why Joselu seems to have raised the ire of some supporters. Of the few outings he’s had, there have been some admittedly poor ones (Watford, his Norwich and Luton cameos) but there have been just as many promising ones (his Spurs and Everton cameos, the Sheffield Wednesday game). He is being bedded in slowly, taking time to acclimatise, but from what we’ve seen there’s every chance he’ll go on to do very well for us. His finish at Goodison provided yet more evidence that there’s a player there, and he’d been one of Hughes’ top targets for some time prior to signing.
The manager takes a large portion of the credit for this one. His substitutions can often make you want to drill a hole in your own head, but the changes he made on Monday won Stoke the game. Well played gaffer.
4) A team that never says die
One of the many pleasing things about the current iteration of Stoke City is that its battling DNA is still very much intact. In the old days under TP we had it in spades. More often than not it was showcased in backs to the wall defensive masterclasses. Yet the side was also super-fit and during the good times scored plenty of late goals when they needed to.
The Mark Hughes version believes in scoring goals early, ideally bagging a couple in the first half hour and then sitting back and hoping to catch teams on the break. It’s also true, however, that this is a team who absolutely, 100% does not believe in draws. Hughes’ philosophy as a player was decidedly all-or-nothing – if he was attacking a cross he was as likely to put the keeper and the centre half marking him into the back of the net with the ball – and that’s extended into his management career. Every game is there to be won. Sometimes it pays off beautifully, as it did at Goodison. Other times we get our pants pulled down, as we did at home to Palace. It’s arguably not always sensible – but by God is it exciting.
There have been times in the past when we’ve gone to Merseyside with the express mission of emerging with a solitary point, and make no mistake about it, a draw at away at Everton is never a bad result. Yet we had numerous opportunities to dig in and try and settle for the draw – at 2-2, when the momentum was firmly against us, at 3-3 when we’d improbably got back into the game – and we still gamely pushed on for the winner. And the winner did come.
It’s risky, but those are the risks that separate the teams content with 40 points and safety and those with loftier aspirations. Dare to dream.
What was so remarkable about our continual rebounding from adversity was that there were times when we looked dead on our feet. I wasn’t at all convinced Mark Hughes’ decision to field an unchanged XI during the busiest stage of the season was the right call, and during spells in the first and second halves we looked tired. Glenn Whelan and Geoff Cameron spent the half-hour between our first two goals chasing shadows, while our defence practically nodded off at times, struggling against the movement of Everton’s excellent front four and switching off altogether for Lukaku’s first goal and Deulofeu’s strike.
We kept going though, because that’s what this team does. Whelan got a second wind and was back to throwing every part of his anatomy in the way, or nipping at the ankles of the likes of Barkley. Cameron, evidently not 100% and after having a bit of a mare with his contribution to Everton’s third, nevertheless continued to dash around, his off the ball work improving dramatically before his understandable removal in the 78th minute.
An oasis of calm in all this was Ibrahim Afellay. Unusually quiet for an hour or so, once we went to 4-4-2 he really stepped up to the plate, exuding a cool authority, looking to get on the ball, keep us ticking and ensure we didn’t lose our heads. No Stoke player completed more passes, and as the game became even more strecthed and frenetic, we were grateful for his wise old head.
After two exhausting games in 48 hours, God only knows what our players have left in the tank. Regardless, there’s no disputing they’ve earned every penny of their ridiculous wages this Christmas.
5) Arnautovic is unstoppable
Is there a better player in the Premier League at the moment than Marko Arnautovic? The mainstream media have finally woken up to his talents, and he is being raved about everywhere from Match of the Day to the brain’s trust on Sky Sports News.
This season, Arnie has been a tour de force, a wide player who can do it all. Want him to play the very modern, Cristiano Ronaldo-style ‘false 7’, making darting runs from the flank into the middle as a de facto centre forward? No problem. Unselfishly find team mates in better positions when he could shoot himself? Check. Function as an old-fashioned, chalk on the boots winger in a 4-4-2 and whip the crosses in? Yes, yes and thrice yes.
In this game, Arnie did all three. The first two chances of the game fell to him as he tore into the middle, finding pockets of space, his first shot blocked, the second whipped inches wide. They served as mere warnings. The next time he got into a central position, expertly fed by Bojan, he took the covering defender, £9m Funes Mori, totally out of the game, nutmegging him with a single flick of the boot, sliding the ball into Shaqiri’s path for the opener.
He continued his tireless running and continued to cause Seamus Coleman problems, but when we were chasing the game and switched to 4-4-2 he was fully unleashed once more. Picking up the pieces when one move broke down in the Everton box, his purposeful run down the left led to a wickedly curving, teasing delivery that Howard could only knock away, giving Joselu his big moment.
But Arnie wasn’t finished. Debate the penalty all you like, but it came from him again getting in behind the Everton defence and forcing Stones into action. To then pick up the ball himself and, in injury time, nervelessly convert the winning penalty says a lot about his current temperament. You never really doubted he’d score (even the slip looked like it was just for show). He’s simply irrepressible.
He is surely in the form of his career – even though he’s starred at moe iluustrious clubs, at higher levels, it’s hard to imagine he was better at Twente, Inter or Werder Bremen. Pace, strength, intelligence, trickery, work rate and a frankly regal first touch are all now finally consistently on display. There was always the suspicion that he’d be the total package if he could just put it all together with any kind of regularity. That, finally, is what we’re now seeing.
Criticism of him in the past centred around his inability to step up and be the talisman we (perhaps unfairly) wanted him to be, with a tendency to vanish when the going got tough. Ironically, the arrival of two more star turns in Bojan and Shaqiri has enabled him to do just that. The burden shared, he has stepped to the front of the queue of our superstar trio. He is the top scorer, he is the chief threat, he is the don.
Involved in three-quarters of our goals on Monday, he has either scored or assisted 10 of our 20 scored in the league this season.
Of course, the storm cloud on the horizon is his contract situation. People are already beginning to agitate at the transfer team, but the player (and his agent) will be acutely aware of his value, his form, and the admiring glances cast in his direction, and in those circumstances, as the Nzonzi situation attests to, there might not be a lot we can do. We are going into a transfer window with Arnie in sensational form. There is the gigantic shop window that is the European Championships in June. We have a job on our hands convincing him his future lies here.
So let’s eat, drink and be merry and cherish him while he’s here. Sometimes all you can do is live for the moment.