The Top 5 Conclusions from WBA 2-1 Stoke City 02.01.16

1) A few alarms, but no surprises

PROGRESS! After three fruitless attempts and nearly 11 years, Stoke City finally scored their first goal against a Tony Pulis team since October 2005, when handsome Luke Chadwick breached Plymouth Argyle’s defence in a 2-1 defeat to the Pilgrims during Pulis’ ‘lost weekend’ at Home Park between spells in the Potteries.

Other than that, this was essentially the same game we always have against TP’s teams, a dour, sour affair settled by a scabby set piece. Albion were typically well-organised and effortlessly stopped us from playing, sticking like limpets to our creative players and nullifying them comprehensively. As usual, in the face of these attentions, we possessed very few creative ideas, never got into any kind of rhythm, and had next to no cutting edge. Their players did their jobs better than ours, and for the third game in four our defence fell asleep and gave away some desperately disappointing, avoidable goals.

We might point to the hosts’ good fortune, given the role played by a dubious red card and a 93rd minute winner that owed more to pinball than football, but this is a sport in which you tend to make your own luck, and over the course of the game, or at least the second half, the Baggies asked more questions that Stoke did.

Mark Hughes sought to keep our Christmas momentum going by again fielding an unchanged line-up, but the first half was nevertheless the anticipated attritional slog. With our front three well shackled, Glen Johnson provided our biggest threat, having some joy down the right and testing Boaz Myhill with a couple of palm-warmers. Arnie did manage to find the space to get a shot away once, but Myhill was equal to that too. We did force five corners in succession towards the end of the half, but we gave up long ago on those ever amounting to anything.

The Baggies lined up with a formation that looked closer to 4-5-1 than 4-4-1-1, though the energetic James Morrison did provide support to lone striker Rickie Lambert. Chances for them proved few and far between however, with stopping us being their primary concern. Their best opportunities were, as you’d expect, from dead ball situations, with Jonny Evans shooting just wide after one corner, and a scramble from another culminating in Darren Fletcher poking over the angle when he might have done better.

By half time there had only been one goal scored in the entire Premier League, and we were entitled to feel we had every chance of taking something from what had been a very even contest.

When Xherdan Shaqiri was played in, six minutes into the second half, it even looked as though we might take the lead, but the Swiss screwed his shot wide. In truth he had less time than it appeared watching the game live. Any remaining optimism however, was extinguished within nine minutes. A slack pass from Erik Pieters was intercepted by Fletcher, who seized on the mistake and came forward, swiftly finding Morrison, who played a peach of a ball to Stephane Sessegnon in the box, with his marker, Pieters, still out of position from his ill-starred foray forward. The Benin star wasted no time in lashing a smart finish into the roof of the net to open the scoring, notching his first goal for 15 months.

From that point on we saw the usual ponderous huff and puff that is Stoke’s stock response to trying to get back into a game against teams who defend deep. Our attacking lacked speed of thought and deed, our movement wasn’t good enough, there was no incision.

No wonder our heat map looked so sad.

Changes were called for, and again Joselu replaced Bojan, Walters came on for a midfielder (this time Glenn Whelan) and we went 4-4-2.

Somewhat bizarrely, Walters went to the left wing in this system, with Arnie partnering Joselu in attack. This seemed frankly insane to me, more so when Walters interchanged not with our Austrian winger but with the big Spaniard. Arnautovic did manage to hit the post with a low shot that bounced up and surprised Myhill, but overall was increasingly marginalised, and a goal appeared further away than ever…

…and then we got one. In the 81st minute, Joselu picked up a Walters knockdown and incongruously jinked down the left, before swinging over a picture-perfect centre for the number 19, barrelling into the centre, to crash a strong header, Hotshot Hamish-style, past Myhill. The formation change had worked its magic again.

At 1-1, you fancied us to gratefully grasp the point with both hands. However, just two minutes later came the game’s pivotal flashpoint. The contest had turned increasingly feisty during the second half, with niggly fouls from both sides and Shaqiri reacting to some heavy challenges with a little kick out from the deck. The man to crack though was Geoff Cameron, who responded to being trod on by hatchet man Claudio Yacob with a soft swipe at the Argentine’s head. Of course, the midfield hard man crumpled to the turf as if  he’d been run through with a cutlass, peeking out from his own cocoon of faux-agony to see if our old friend Lee ‘Pumpkinhead’ Mason was buying it. He was. Red card.

He took it well at least.

Albion smelled blood and went for the win. Seven of their 17 attempts on goal came after the sending off, and deep down you knew they were going to score. In injury time we fell asleep at a short corner, and as we attempted to get rid of Craig Dawson’s shot, the ball cannoned off Ryan Shawcross into another body in the sea of humanity, then pinged across to Evans, practically on the line, to knock in. As you were.

As Stoke vs Pulis games go, this performance was perhaps marginally better than the defeat to Palace in January 2014 and loss at The Hawthorns last March (both of which we were lucky not to lose by a greater margin), but worse than our brave nine-man loss in August. West Brom, for their part, did not look as dangerous as they did last spring, despite scoring more goals. They’ll be more and happy with the points though, and with turning the tables on the hoodoo, with Stoke now very much the ones afflicted.

Three successive defeats to West Brom. No wins over a Pulis team since Lou’s boys beat his Bournemouth team 24 years ago. These games have become our own personal Groundhog Day, and we look no closer to winning one. There look, grimly, to be a fair few days of winter ahead where our clashes with Punxsutawny Tone are concerned.

2) Stoke were no readier for the Pulis playbook

One slightly disconcerting thing about our approach this season is that, amid all the plaudits, we never seem ready for teams with a gameplan.

Everyone was well aware of how Watford and Crystal Palace, for example, would set up, but in both cases we played right into their hands and made it easy for them to carry out their strategy. Likewise, we’d have known what a Tony Pulis side was all about even if we hadn’t spent 10 years being one. Yet we still allowed ourselves to be riled up by them, gave them nothing to worry about in the final third and gave them all too generously the opportunities they needed to edge in front and lock the game down. They, for their part, knew which of our players to stop and how to stop them, swamping our much-heralded golden triangle and crowding us out whenever we had the ball in their half.

Then again, how exactly do you play against a team like this on their own patch? A team that’s as well-organised as West Brom, shows fairly limited ambition of their own and is so masterful at killing a game dead? When he was Stoke manager, we went unbeaten at home for nearly a year in the league, and that run straddled his final two seasons, with the glory days of his time in charge firmly behind him. Moreover, bigger teams than us have come a cropper at The Hawthorns since he took over – Arsenal and Chelsea to name but two.

So how do you beat them? When you’re playing a team who play the percentages, the margins are often very fine – so the chances, even the half-chances, that we missed proved costly. If Shaqiri or Arnie had been able to convert their opportunities, however loosely we might apply that term, then the outcome may well have been different. Equally, on those rare occasions when we were in a position to start a quick break, we dithered and missed our chance. Jack Butland more than once could’ve gone long to the flanks to create a scenario where we outnumbered them in a good area. When he did quickly find Stoke players, both Shaqiri and Johnson checked back inside and allowed them to regroup.

Our game management could also use some work. At 1-1 with nine minutes to go, there was every reason to take the draw, keep things neat and tidy and get out of there. We’d lost our heads within two minutes, and even if the sending off was ludicrous, Geoff Cameron did give Mason a decision to make. The angry reaction of Shaqiri to some similar rough treatment earlier in the game, Arnie’s daft booking for some beyond-stupid petulance at a late free kick and our sendings off in the home fixture in August underline the efficiency with which Pulis’ men have been able to get under our skin. There’s no question it’s a deliberate ploy to wind opposing players up (we did it often enough ourselves), and it’s part and parcel of the game. It’s no good crying about it, we have to learn to keep our discipline. No Premier League team has had more players sent off this season.

Pulis has created more aesthetically pleasing teams than this West Brom side, and, as was the case with us towards the end, you get the sense that they’d benefit from having the shackles let off. Yet there were still some impressive showings from the team of grizzled professionals he’s assembled. Evans and Fletcher’s schooling was evident. Morrison always plays out of his skin against us. Sessegnon has long been a pain in our backside and he caused Pieters problems all afternoon. Give that lot some freedom, and maybe they’d be talked out in the same admiring way that the Leicesters, Palaces and, yes, Stokes are being discussed.

That isn’t going to happen though, and for now, with results like Saturday’s, Baggies fans probably don’t care – and won’t until it becomes clear that the chance to ‘push on’ will never be taken.

From a Stoke perspective though, we only have ourselves to blame for another drab defeat at the hands of our former manager.

3) Can Albion’s divers and playacters expect their manager’s wrath?

Tony Pulis hates diving. Ask him, he’ll tell you. He’s fined players for doing it in the past. He’s “had a word” with players for doing it since going to West Brom. It is, in his view, expressed repeatedly, the scourge of football, and stronger action, even if taken retrospectively, should be taken against divers, in the form of three-game bans.

It’s curious then, that this West Brom team contains so many would-be thespians. Following on from Craig Gardner’s successful playacting to get Ibrahim Afellay dismissed in August, we were treated to the sight of Sessegnon falling over whenever Erik Pieters so much as glanced in his general direction, while Yacob carried on Gardner’s strong work by rolling around to ensure Cameron walked.

Are they always like this, or do Stoke bring out the worst in the Albion?

Though there are more frightening Albions…

Given that Pulis is a renowned micromanager, who demands his players buy into every aspect of his ethos if they want to play for him, why is this an area in which he is apparently unable to imprint his vision? Is he losing his touch? Are his players not listening to him? Or when it comes to Stoke, the club who sacked him, is all fair in love and war and anything goes?

For a man who brought such good times to Stoke City, and is at least respected by the majority of Stoke fans and remembered with affection by a great many, the two fixtures with his Baggies team haven’t half been rancorous affairs. If the memory of his jumping up and down and brandishing imaginary cards on the Britannia touchline in August wasn’t distasteful, the behaviour of some of his players on Saturday was.

Sessegnon has form for falling over of course, being reprimanded by Pulis last season and being an arch-enemy of gravity in his Sunderland days. Yacob meanwhile, very much lived up to the stereotype of the Argentinian footballer. There’s a culture in Spanish and Latin American football, personified by the likes of Maradona and Luis Suarez, that conning officials is a badge of honour, a piece of sneaky ‘cleverness’ to be celebrated.

On some level, as discussed in the last conclusion, it’s our fault for again allowing ourselves to fall victim to West Brom’s wind-up tactics. Nor can we complain about the bulk of the dark arts they employed, having been perfectly happy for them to be utilised for our own gain for so many years; the time-wasting, the infuriating other players (Walters and Huth were masters of it), the sneaky fouls, the manhandling.

Yet we never looked to get other players sent off via playacting or feigning injury. That is as weaselly as it gets, and the Brit crowd has traditionally treated players who did this, like Marc Bircham or John Paintsil, as pariahs.

“I don’t need you to get me sent off, pal.”

As Pete Smith notes in his Sentinel Conclusions Talking Points from the game, when Andy Wilkinson spared Gardner a potential card by dusting himself off after a typically wild challenge from the pudding-basined simpleton, Pulis was full of praise. That was what his Stoke City team were all about.

It’s not what his West Brom team is all about though. And if he isn’t embarrassed, after the song and dance he’s made over the years, he bloody well should be.

4) Not the game for Bojan

I’ve seen it suggested that Saturday’s result was caused by fatigue; personally I think we could have gone into this match at any time of the year, fresh as a daisy, and seen the same outcome. However, with our creative players well-marshalled, it soon became clear that this was not a game for our diminutive Catalan genius.

Never one for tackling at the best of times, there were a few occasions where Bojan bottled 50/50 challenges, perhaps understandably wary of getting injured, with his comeback just starting to catch fire. He took a couple of whacks, and under the constant heavy attentions of assorted West Brom henchmen, he didn’t really get into the game.

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps a rest for Mr Krkic might have been in order, with Joselu used instead to give us a presence higher up the pitch and provide added height when defending set pieces. Though there’s not much basis for arguing that doing so would have made any difference to the result, it would at least have saved Bojan’s legs ahead of Tuesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final first leg.

On paper, the false 9 seemed to represent our best chance yet of shifting parked buses, with Bojan dropping deep to lure packed defences out like some kind of red and white pied piper. So far though, that hasn’t happened, with the well-organised, deep-sitting back lines of Palace and West Brom resolutely unmoved by the wee man’s wiles. Instead, there has just been a lack of presence up front that has hampered our attacking play against this kind of opponent, with our goals against each coming after a switch to a different formation.

I’ve still think there’s a lot to be said for the false 9 set-up, but the quest for a golden key to unlock defensive sides continues.

5) An afternoon not entirely devoid of positives

Disappointing though another insipid defeat to our local rivals was, there were a few rays of light amid the gloom.

Chief among them was the goal we scored. Teams who are able to get a result away against a Pulis team generally do so by having that extra splash of quality (Darlington notwithstanding). For the first time we produced just such a moment, which is testament to the growing quality throughout our squad.

After a great first goal for the club on Monday, Joselu capped off a fine week with a terrific assist. Weird though it was to see his 6ft3 frame pop up on the left wing, his cross with the outside of his boot (that’s how you do it Geoff!) was a thing of beauty, providing further evidence that there is a player in there being teased out as he finds his feet. Walters’ swashbuckling arrival to finish a move he started, meanwhile, underlined his own value as an impact sub. There are still goals in the old dog of war.

It was also promising that for the second game in a row, the manager’s substitutions had a positive effect, as two of them combined for the equaliser. If the sight of Arnie up front was odd and an experiment one should imagine won’t be repeated in a hurry, the fact that Hughes experimented, as well as changing the formation again, demonstrated his tactical flexibility. Even though we did not play well, this is a team and a manager not prepared to meekly accept their fate.

Another positive was another strong performance from Ibrahim Afellay, who is fast becoming the key player in our system. Increasingly, all of our build-up play goes through him, and his ability to turn, find space where there seemingly is none and lay the ball off is a vital commodity. Nobody completed more passes than the Dutch international.

Perhaps the biggest plus, however, was emerging relatively unscathed. Yes, assuming the red card isn’t rescinded, we’ll miss Cameron. Yet all three of our attacking maestros appear to have come through the game ok, as has the captain, as has our goalkeeper – that’s the spine of our fine team good to go as we head into our biggest game for five years.

We’re ready for you, Herr Klopp.

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