1) The favourites upset the underdogs
Do not adjust your sets. Stoke City played at home against a team below them in their table, and they actually won…and pretty comfortably at that.
Yes, we played over an hour against 10 men, and even then we weren’t especially brilliant. Yet this game might come to be seen as a milestone – a ‘winnable’ home fixture in which we did actually manage to prevail. This is the closest Stoke get to ‘winning ugly’, but even then, at least two of the goals were pretty damn sexy.
Injuries to Geoff Cameron and Xherdan Shaqiri forced Mark Hughes to make changes, and so Joselu and Jon Walters, both of whom have impressed in sub cameos and in the cup at Doncaster last week, came in. 4-2-3-1 was back, baby!
Norwich, in their ghastly yellow and green hooped ensemble, went into their pre-match huddle, resembling a terrifyingly massive, sentient key lime pie…
… but then proceeded to make the stronger start. The Canaries looked quick and powerful and had plenty of the ball around our box, with Dieumerci Mbokani giving our centre-backs plenty to think about. It appeared that Stoke were content to let the visitors have plenty of the ball and try to hit them on the break.
It was a strategy that almost yielded success after only seven minutes, when a lovely bit of counter-attacking interplay between Joselu and Marko Arnautovic culminated in the striker bending a lovely ball into the Austrian’s path. But Arnie didn’t get the purchase he needed as his shot headed towards the bottom corner, allowing Declan Rudd to tip round the post.
Norwich continued to look to unlock us, but the next proper chance again fell to the home side, Arnie returning the favour for Joselu, but the Spaniard, at an angle, unable to direct his shot on target. It wouldn’t be long though before the Canaries had their own best opportunity of the half, a scramble following a corner seeing the ball drop to Ryan Bennett around six yards out, whose shot was brilliantly saved from point-blank range by Jack Butland.
Just before the half-hour mark came the game’s defining moment. Ibrahim Afellay, increasingly influential even without the protection of an extra body in midfield, headed to the touchline to take a throw-in around 50 yards from goal when he was poleaxed, right in front of his own bench, by a wild scissor-tackle from behind by Gary O’Neil. Our playing and coaching staff were livid, it all kicked off, and when things had simmered down, out came Neil Swarbrick’s red card for O’Neil. It was a completely senseless decision by the former Portsmouth midfielder; Stoke had been attacking and were enjoying a spell of pressure, but Afellay was going nowhere – the ball was heading out of play. Given that this is a player who lost a chunk of his career to a dreadful injury, what possessed O’Neil is hard to fathom.
Rather than signalling the crumbling of Norwich’s resistance however, it galvanised Alex Neil’s side, and they became even harder to penetrate than before. It didn’t help that Stoke really weren’t playing well. Neil must’ve watched the Capital One Cup semi-final, as our continuing obsession with slow build-up play from the back was continually stymied by Norwich players zipping out from midfield to close us down. There was a sloppiness and anxiety to our passing, with players like Erik Pieters, Glenn Whelan and even Afellay giving the ball away. Our attacking play suffered from Shaqiri’s absence; Walters, nominally operating on the right, was very narrow, with Glen Johnson shouldering the responsibility for the entire right flank. This denied the right back a passing option when he advanced down the wing, meant he couldn’t overlap, which is where most of his threat comes from, and asked a lot of him defensively against the speedy Robbie Brady.
No goals at half time, but there was the eerie sensation of déjà vu.- the extra man hadn’t made much difference, and it wasn’t hard to foresee more points dropped against another well-organised side.
A strong start to the second half was required and thankfully that was what we got. The breakthrough came just three-and-a-half minutes after the restart, and it owed much to some classic Arnie. Having drifted more and more from the left, into the centre and out of the game, he calmly trotted over to his station to pick up the ball, bamboozled Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe with a little rabona-style piece of skill, then put over an immaculate cross for Walters at the far post, who slotted into the far corner to complete a very well-taken goal.
Sighs of relief were palpable around the ground, but those of a red and white persuasion on the pitch and in the stands became complacent, and The Canaries equalised six minutes later. The impressive Brady found way too much space down our right, knocking a ball unchallenged from around the halfway line to Odjidja-Ofoe just inside the box, who cushioned the ball to Johnny Howson, who struck an absolute missile into the top corner from 20 yards. It was an outstanding finish, but it came largely because we’d gone to sleep. Again.
Feeling sassy, Neil injected some pace into proceedings, throwing on Matt Jarvis and Nathan Redmond. Yet it was the hosts who pushed for the goal, as Norwich’s 10 began to flag a little. Nevertheless, we still couldn’t find a way through, and looked to be running out of ideas, the dreadful lack of movement and stop-start nature of our attacking play again evident.
Then Afellay found Joselu on the edge of the box and, out of pretty much nowhere, he decided to just hit one. Goal! Hard, low and right into the corner, it was a terrifically precise shot from Stoke’s man of the moment, and everyone was so delighted for him that they politely overlooked his odd ‘crank it’ celebration.
There was more good news on the way, as the bothersome Mbokani was replaced by the altogether more modest threat of Cameron Jerome, and Stoke could now go for the kill. As the game drifted into the quarter of an hour, Afellay floated over a free kick, and Bennett – cruelly denied his moment by Butland in the first half, rose like the proverbial salmon to flick the ball past the bemused Rudd and put the game out of his team’s reach.
The Boothen serenaded their new goalscoring hero, who was too bashful to celebrate, and though Norwich did still offer the occasional reminder of their pace and danger when they got into the box, it was pretty much party time at the Britannia. The match degenerated into a kind of unofficial testimonial for Peter Crouch, on as a sub, with everyone and his dog trying to tee one up for the big man. He had one shot well saved after a corner, then shaped up for the spectacular to meet a cross from the left but just mistimed, and loitered like the world’s least subtle Trojan horse at set pieces, trying to hide behind men a good two or three inches shorter than him as he looked to bring death from above.
It wasn’t to be his night, but it was very much Stoke’s. Norwich had given it their all with 10 men, but Stoke, for all their sloppiness, lack of balance and disjointed football at times, had just had too much for their 10 men. There was a pleasing ruthlessness on display that we don’t always show. After recent disappointments at The Hawthorns and against Liverpool, this was the perfect tonic.
2) O’Neil demonstrates how far beyond him Stoke have moved
Remember the early days of our Premier League stay, when we were constantly linked with Gary O’Neil? It seemed inevitable that he’d pull on the red and white at some point, given he’d played under TP at Pompey when he was a slip of a boy, and what’s more, it couldn’t happen soon enough. His performances against us, for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and West Ham appeared to demonstrate the exact qualities we needed in midfield. He was hard-working but creative, had quick feet and used the ball intelligently. Compared to turgid artisans like Seyi Olofinjana and Dean Whitehead, he resembled no less than a footballing Mozart. To sign Gary O’Neil was to dream the impossible dream, and every move he made to another club stung like a strap lashed across our back.
Then one day, our midfield had players like Ibrahim Afellay in it, and the very idea that we wanted GON anywhere near our side seemed absurd. And based on Wednesday night, he knew it too.
It’s perhaps not a fair comparison – O’Neil has struggled badly with injuries in recent years and it’s to his credit that he has found a route back into the Premier League, apparently reinventing himself as an unlikely, slightly sickly looking hatchet man.
To see him and Afellay on the same pitch however, was like lining up a 19th Century penny farthing next to one of those hover boards from Back to the Future 2.
Afellay ran rings round O’Neil, losing him with a single body swerve as he set off up the pitch, getting on the ball and pivoting from defence to attack in a single moment, knocking beautiful passes into the channels. He was the heartbeat of the team, shrugging off the loss of protection brought by the change in formation and both shielding and creating.
Hence O’Neil’s act of bizarre hari-kari. It was an act committed in full view of everybody, with the ball not even in play. There was no need for him to attempt a challenge of any kind, let alone one that constituted GBH. It was nothing more than a red-mist moment, a peevish, spiteful attack on a man who’d made him look a fool. It was like a sort of socio-realist version of Toy Story, with Afellay as Buzz Lightyear to O’Neil’s obsolete Woody. Only there’s no happy ending. In this telling, Woody consigns himself to a car boot sale.
O’Neil essentially cost his team the game, while Stoke – still a work in progress in many ways, can simply marvel at the quality we possess in our ranks.
Don’t call us Gary, we’ll call you.
3) Joselu and the joy of shooting
Five games, two assists, two goals. It’s fair to say everything’s coming up Joselu at the moment.
There’s no question that his recent contributions have earned him a run in the side, and he more than justified the manager’s decision to start him against Norwich. Not everything he tried came off, but we are seeing more and more why Mark Hughes saw fit to make him the fourth most expensive SCFC player in history. He’s good in the air. He’s skilful on the deck. He holds the ball up well. It’s a good blend, and with Peter Crouch starting to creak a little bit, Joselu has a bit more of the mobility we need as well as impressing with the link play needed from a lone target man.
His intelligent movement during the first half was at the heart of all of our best chances. It was he who exchanged passes with Arnie before playing a brilliant ball into his path that our number 10 should’ve stuck away. He had a great chance of his own not long afterwards, freeing himself but not able to hit the target. And he floated another great pass for Arnie towards half time, the Austrian just missing his kick at the crucial moment.
Getting into scoring positions has been something of a weakness in his game since his arrival, so it was encouraging to see him drift away from his marker time after time, even though he isn’t blessed with electric pace.
His goal came from nowhere, at a time when we were struggling to reassert our dominance in the wake of Norwich’s equaliser, and he might just have offered a glimpse into how to break down defensive sides – shoot!
Stoke have been guilty throughout the Hughes era of an Arsenalesque tendency to try and walk the ball into the net, and when faced with massed ranks of defenders, we frequently just scratch our heads and pass the ball from side to side, with an occasional trip all the way back to the goalkeeper. We often pass up opportunities to shoot, and have few players who are prepared to just take a deep breath and try and charge towards goal.
Joselu loves a shot though. He showed that at Everton, he showed that with his bobbling, deflected shot against Liverpool, and he showed it again here, seeing the tiniest of gaps and hitting a laser-guided low shot into the corner past the ‘keeper’s reach.
Sometimes you just have to have a go, and hopefully more of his team mates will follow Joselu’s example.
Senor Mato and Walters have given the manager a good, old-fashioned ‘selection headache’ when everyone’s fit again, and his form has confirmed that those with ants in their pants about wanting to sign a striker were being premature.
Stick with us kid. We’ll make you a star.
4) Wollscheid’s quiet excellence
Norwich were a better side than I was expecting them to be. They possessed plenty of good attacking players and even had no shortage of impact players on the bench in Jarvis, Redmond and Jerome, though thankfully they had little impact on the night.
Even before we sleepily allowed them back into the game they had caused us some discomfort, even if that rarely translated into actual chances created. Up front, Mbokani was excellent, hard-working, winning the bulk of the aerial duels and holding the ball up well. Robbie Brady’s pace and enthusiasm made him a royal pain in the backside. Johnny Howson passed the ball well and scored an absolute belter – a sweeter struck shot you will not see.
Though we finished with by far the greater share of possession, it seemed that we were pretty happy for them to come at us, certainly in the first half, knowing we had the quality to hurt them when we found space on the counter. That meant our defence had plenty to do, and it was a challenge that some coped with better than others.
Erik Pieters has developed a severe case of contractitis, his form taking a huge dip since he put pen to paper on a new contract. There’s no suggestion the two things are connected, but it is a strange quirk that’s hit several Stoke players this season.
Our left back’s use of the ball was, frankly, diabolical and he looked a yard off the pace for much of the game, bereft of confidence and appearing knackered. To his credit, he did improve in the second half and put in some good, low crosses, but the man needs a break.
Glen Johnson was caught out of position a fair bit, but then the selection of Walters out wide meant that was always going to happen – it was asking far too much of him to take on full defensive and attacking duties on that side of the pitch. Ryan Shawcross is rarely less than steady and was customarily unflustered, but Mbokani didn’t let him have things entirely his own way.
Easily the pick of the back four was the Saarland monster himself, Philipp Wollscheid, who made comfortably his classiest appearance in a Stoke shirt.
Like comedy, the secret of good defending is timing, and Wollscheid’s was impeccable. His reading of the game, his tackling, his passing (most of the time), every judgement call he made he got 100% spot on. He is excellent at winning the ball cleanly and then proceeding up the pitch, and the way he brought the ball out against Norwich was Baresi-like. Two of the game’s top three passing combinations involved him, only two players completed more passes all game, nobody made more interceptions, and he won twice as many tackles as anybody else. That’s pretty influential for a central defender.
There are also signs he’s growing the confidence to take a greater role in organising the defence, and could be seen barking orders to Pieters and Johnson throughout.
The German cuts an odd figure, and is prone to the odd Basil Fawlty-like meltdown now and then. He also has a very curious gait that, with his height, makes him resemble a Jim Henson character, as if he spends his spare time winding up Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, or lolloping round the Labyrinth trying to touch up a teenaged Jennifer Connolly.
Yet his improvement has been remarkable and, despite the odd hiccup here and there, he is getting better and better. It’s telling that the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Robert Huth’s departure has lessened considerably since the start of the season in spite of the Foxes’ remarkable season, so good has Wollscheid’s form been.
I’ll hold my hands up and say I was one of the doubters, but that number is fast dwindling. Wollscheid is shutting us up week by week.
5) Man Alive! A set piece goal!
What witchcraft is this? The weirdest occurrence of the night was Stoke emerging as a threat from dead ball situations.
The unfortunate Ryan Bennett’s own goal was our first from a set piece (not counting penalties) since August, when Xherdan’s Shaqiri’s first act in a Stoke shirt was to plonk a free kick straight onto Mame Diouf’s head.
But we didn’t stop there, and remained a threat from corners for the rest of the game, largely thanks to Peter Crouch’s lanky presence, the 6ft7 star nearly getting a second goal in as many games when his close range volley was pushed away by Rudd.
The improvement in our attacking from set pieces owed much to Afellay’s delivery. The Dutchman was been overlooked until now, with the golden triangle sharing the responsibility for corners and free kicks between them, but his free kicks and corners proved hard for Norwich to defend – whipped in at pace, unerringly accurate, easily clearing the first man (take note literally everybody else!) and then dipping and curving deep into the heart of the danger zone (or, if you like, ‘the mixer’).
Beyond that delivery however, there were hints that we’d been working harder on the training ground. There finally seemed to be a bit of old-school chaos about our movement, with players swirling around, peeling off to the posts, causing confusion in the Norwich defence.
The signs are good, as given our difficulties finding the net this season, set pieces provide an important source of goals we can ill-afford to ignore.
Whether this is the start of greater Stoke potency from dead balls or merely a false dawn remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure though, we couldn’t have better opponents coming up against whom to put that to the test.
We’re coming for you Arsene.