1) Flat, but not the end of the world
There’s little more deflating in football than when your team doesn’t turn up for a big game. We’ve seen it countless times at Stoke, from relegation six pointers, to play offs, to derbies – the excitement in the weeks before, the buzz, the anticipation all building not to a crescendo but ultimately to a smack round the face with the massive, slimy haddock that is reality.
With the added frisson that a night game brings and the club heading into its biggest game for years, the Brit was set on Tuesday night for a seminal occasion, a cup tie to be discussed for years to come. By the time it was over, Stoke’s flat performance had left us feeling little other than gratitude that this wasn’t the embarrassing pumping it might have been.
Wembley feels a lot further away than it did on Tuesday morning.
The first half was a mauling, pure and simple, an ordeal from which we were fortunate to emerge with only cuts and bruises. The tie could conceivably have been put to bed by half time. The Liverpool team so insipid against West Ham at the weekend was nowhere to be seen; the Stoke team so insipid at The Hawthorns was very much present and correct.
The opening half hour saw The Potters given a harsh introduction to the world of gegenpressing that knocked the stuffing out of team and crowd alike, every loss of the ball in our own half being greeted with the woozy horror of waking up after a botched operation.
Inside 30 seconds, Erik Pieters had given the ball away to Roberto Firmino, and if the save Jack Butland made from the Brazilian was fairly routine, it was a warning shot across the bows. Butland would be needed again soon afterwards to deny Adam Lallana’s altogether better struck effort, with Liverpool forcing three successive corners in between.
Both teams were deploying a false nine, but where Liverpool found space at will, we were finding it impossible to gain a foothold. A hamstring injury to Philippe Coutinho afforded us little respite as the fast, surprisingly stocky Jordon Ibe replaced him. Ryan Shawcross charged down another fierce Firmino effort, and made a couple more last-ditch interventions to stop attackers going clean through. Ibe got a clean sight of goal in the box but could only fire straight at Butland.
It was the 25th minute when we finally got our first shot of the evening away, Ibrahim Afellay’s long-ranger being charged down, and that did seem to momentarily calm things. Now we slowly started to find pockets here and there in Liverpool’s half, with Afellay’s influence growing and the well-shackled Arnautovic managing to bump players away from him and go on some dangerous runs. A low, pulled-back corner found Bojan on his own but the wee man made a right hash of his shot, succeeding only in kicking the ball into himself.
Having apparently weathered the storm, we then went and conceded the only goal. Lallana was sent away with entirely too much space down the left to pull back for Joe Allen, who took two defenders out of the game with what was either a genius sideways pass or a complete miscue, leaving Ibe, entirely, painfully unmarked, to shoot past Butland.
It was a real kick in the nuts but hardly an unexpected one, and it nearly got immediately worse when Firmino robbed Whelan and headed for goal. Shawcross was again required to be the hero, getting back to concede a corner. Ibe was then once more afforded space in a dangerous position, only to curl a shot wide.
Finally we started creating chances, with Glen Johnson providing most of them. He whipped in a series of dangerous balls, one of which was headed over by Arnie at the near post when he really should have got it on target. Our right back then had a fine chance of his own when he found himself in front of goal after a corner, but Simon Mignolet made a brave save to keep things at 0-1 at half time.
Something clearly had to change for the second half and Mark Hughes took immediate action, hooking the desperately poor Bojan, throwing on Jon Walters and going 4-2-3-1. Stoke went more direct and improved significantly, helped by a Liverpool team who had eased well off the accelerator, now wasting time whenever they could. Ryan had a close-range shot blocked following a free kick, while there was more incision to our passing, with Shaqiri almost getting on the end of a very clever Arnie through ball and Arnie himself just failing to reach a similarly fine pass from Afellay.
Liverpool could still find space when they wanted to and James Milner could have effectively settled the tie, but Pieters cleared his goal-bound shot off the line, before Ibe wriggled free only to fire into the side-netting. Shaqiri, in his one dangerous moment, did the same at the other end for Stoke. Ryan headed a cross over. Sub Joselu hit a deflected shot from the edge of the box that Mignolet could only tip over the bar. Stoke were now asking most of the questions.
It became clear it wasn’t going to be our night however. Even when our old friend the long diagonal suddenly sent Walters clear deep into injury time, you didn’t sense he was going to score and he didn’t, screwing a tame shot well wide. It summed up our night, for all our second half improvement.
Too many of Stoke’s players just weren’t at the races, and we set up to play straight into Liverpool’s hands. Our dreams might not lie in tatters, but they have been given a bruising rinse in a tumble dryer.
Yet all is not lost. We were much better with a striker on the pitch in the second half, and even well below our best we created chances. Hopefully, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and we’ll go to Anfield better for the experience of the first leg, fully aware of what we need to do and only one goal down rather than three or four.
The best thing you can say is that it could have been so much worse.
2) Liverpool were underestimated
We went into this game with some confidence given our good form and Liverpool’s indifferent recent showings, and there was no reason to believe that optimism was misplaced.
By the same token, there were some fans and pundits proclaiming us the favourites, and that never sits comfortably on Stoke’s shoulders. This was never going to be an easy game. The 6-1 was a long time ago, this is a different Liverpool team, possessing some very good players, and this is a cup semi-final. It’s a serious business, and teams aren’t going to roll over and have their belly tickled at that stage.
It was the first time I’ve seen Klopp’s gegenpressing live and in the flesh and it was both impressive and terrifying. His Dortmund team at their peak were like a hive of radioactive wasps malevolently swarming all over their victims from the start. Here we got his English equivalent – a pack of hyenas in black rushing out at pace to close us down as soon as our defenders received the ball.
Our players looked completely shell-shocked as Liverpool players in two and threes dashed to close down available passes and pressure us into mistakes before we could even get near the centre circle. Pieters giving the ball away seconds after kick-off set the tone and it would happen time and again throughout the opening period.
Yet the hive mind also worked defensively, with Liverpool quick to get bodies back en masse when their first wave wasn’t able to win the ball, and multiple man-marking snuffing out our trio of creative aces almost entirely.
Given the chances Liverpool missed in the first half-hour, and the number of times we needed either Butland or Shawcross to prevent a massacre, it’s a touch ironic that the decisive goal came after we seemed to have withstood the fiercest salvo of their attacking. We were just starting to get into good positions ourselves when Ibe struck the killer blow.
Such an intense, high-tempo style is bound to take a physical toll, and the hamstring injuries to Coutinho and Lovren (as well as the one Ibe was diagnosed with 24 hours later) made you wonder if Klopp was somewhat over-gegen the pudding (sorry).
However, it became clear once they’d gone in front that they only press when they need to, the visitors sitting back and attacking less fervently than they had previously, and Mignolet taking as long as possible when it came to goal kicks. Maybe he kept having flashbacks to May.
You got the sense that Liverpool could easily have cranked things up a gear if they’d needed to, but whether they’ll be made to regret deciding that a one-goal lead was enough will only be answered on 26th January.
You have to ask questions about the shelf-life of a system that demands its players grow an extra lung apiece – in the end Dortmund burned themselves out – but before that happens, Klopp will get the pieces of the puzzle he needs to turn the club back into title contenders. They’ll take some stopping.
From a Stoke perspective, it was troubling that once again we played into the hands of a team whose gameplan was well known in advance. We all knew that they’d try to close us down high up the pitch yet we persisted with our ponderous build-up play from the back – Klopp presumably couldn’t believe his luck.
Hughes has shown himself to be a tactically flexible manager who is prepared to experiment with different systems, but you do wonder how much time we dedicate to scouting the opposition or preparing for them in training.
As with set pieces, have we gone from a manager who worried way too much about opposing teams to one who doesn’t worry enough?
3) The great ‘unchanged’ debate
The big talking point before and since the game centred around whether Hughes had made a mistake in fielding the same XI in four consecutive games.
I supported the manager’s decision to persevere with the same team. ‘Momentum’ is a mysterious, mythical commodity in football, something you can’t bottle and sell, and it’s understandable that a manager should seek to keep it going any way he can. His team was flying, it was finally scoring goals, and he didn’t want to risk breaking up a winning side.
That said, I concede that the decision to go with an unchanged team for so many games was perhaps questionable given that this is the most fixture-congested time of the year, we had three games in a week, and our next game after that was against perhaps the most high-intensity team in the league, one that was always going to try and run us ragged from the get-go.
There’s no denying that the busy schedule finally caught up with certain players against Liverpool. Pieters, Whelan, Cameron and Bojan all looked absolutely knackered by half time.
Those players and others will get a much-needed rest at the weekend against Doncaster, and Hughes will presumably rotate his squad throughout the rest of the month.
Maybe the manager did get it wrong, maybe he could have used his squad better over Christmas. But whatever course of action he decided on would have represented a risk – there’s no guarantee that the ‘fresh’ players he’d brought in would’ve done any better, and then he’d have faced criticism for hurting our momentum with the changes.
You could make a case for either side of the argument, and if Hughes got it wrong, at least his thinking was understandable. He doesn’t deserve to be castigated for it.
4) The Johnson trade-off is just about worth it
Few players emerged from the game with much credit. Butland, Shawcross and Afellay all did well, while Walters made an impact in the second half. Glen Johnson’s name can be added to that list – but with caveats.
Johnson was easily Stoke’s best attacking threat, bombing forward like a man with a point to prove against the team that released him in the summer. He delivered some whip-smart, excellent crosses, was one of the few players for the home side who consistently found space in the final third and essentially performed like a winger, always looking to take players on and create. But for Mignolet he might have bagged himself the equaliser as well.
However, Liverpool posed a threat down both wings and our full backs struggled defensively. Johnson, to be fair, was given no protection whatsoever by an out-of-sorts Xherdan Shaqiri, with the rejuvenated Alberto Moreno’s spring-heeled forward forays from left back causing almost as many problems as those from Ibe. Johnson though has to take a fair amount of the blame. His positioning, which has mostly been very good since his arrival here, was all over the place against The Reds. He was absolutely nowhere when Ibe – his man – scored the game’s only goal, and given that the move that produced it came from Liverpool’s left, and started with a big punt from the goalkeeper, you have to ask why that didn’t give Johnson enough time to get back.
Two minutes after the goal, Ibe nearly struck again when Johnson was slow to push out and close him down. Thankfully the youngster curled his shot wide, but had we gone in two goals down at half time, fingers would have been pointed at our right back for both goals.
Ibe is a real talent and he is going to cause a great many full backs problems in the future. But we were offered a stark reminder of Johnson’s defensive shortcomings.
That is what you get with Johnson though, and we have to accept that. He’s always been known as a full back whose attacking talents vastly outweigh his defensive capabilities throughout his career. Is that good enough though?
The answer is…probably. None of our right backs are much cop defensively. Phil Bardsley appears to have a greater phobia of defending the back post than Captain Hook did of crocodiles. Geoff Cameron’s positioning is his biggest Achilles’ heel, even more than shanking crosses into the first defender with the outside of his boot.
Johnson sometimes gets caught up the pitch, sometimes fails to track his man, sometimes flat out looks as if he doesn’t want to defend. But for the most part, his defensive work as a Stoke player has been surprisingly efficient. In numerous games he’s looked to get tight, stop the cross and shepherd opposing wingers into touch.
His attacking play meanwhile, has been sensational and has added an extra dimension to our play. He’s quick, he’s incisive, and he has admirable vision, able to put spot the run of an attacking player and put the ball right into his path. His crossing from wide positions has been a revelation, and it has been a long time since we’ve had a right back able to deliver that kind of quality consistently. He’s been so good going forward that he’s become a key element in our system.
He’ll have his defensive lapses probably semi-frequently, and I hold my hand up and admit that after his first couple of months I was not at all sure about him. But his form since then means there can’t be many better free transfer signings made by any Premier League team this season, and his attacking play is the best I’ve seen from a Stoke right back.
In short, the trade-off is worth it.
5) Still all to play for
After such a downbeat evening, on which we were outplayed and never really turned up in our biggest game for years, it’s easy to feel as if we’ve missed our chance. We haven’t won at Anfield for 57 years. Our last three scorers at that ground were Peter Crouch, Paul Peschisolido, and Tony ‘play me or sell me Kelly’.
25 years, 10 games, three goals.
But there are still reasons to believe.
One-nil is a slender scoreline, and this Stoke side, set up as it is to hit teams on the break, has thus far shown itself to be more effective on the round than in ST4. There has been talk that all Klopp has to do is have his team sit on that lead at home, but in front of a large home crowd, in a game they’re expecting to win, with the Kop roaring them on, that’s going to be easier said than done, especially as this new-look Liverpool perform only intermittently and therefore need to engender all the goodwill they can get.
Even when not playing well and fortunate not to be dead and buried, Stoke still created several good chances against their opposition, and surely will not be that bad again. We will now hopefully be well aware that going direct is the best way to take on a Klopp team and model our performance on our second half showing, where we found space and got in behind them more. They barely have a centre back worthy of the name, so lets start with a centre forward and go for it.
We have been here before. We lost the home leg in 1972 to West Ham. We lost the home leg to Cardiff in the play offs in 2002. Whether it’s by saving a penalty apparently shot from a bazooka or laps of honour spoiled by a half-dead Guinean literally turning the other cheek, Stoke City find a way. We can do it again.
It won’t be easy, but being the underdogs still suits us better than being favourites. We’re still in this tie. Wembley has not disappeared from view altogether.
Vis Unita Fortior.