1) Charity begins with Stoke
Fairytale story threatened by a reality check? Does it look like the wheels are in danger of coming off? Star striker not scored for a while? Star winger becoming more renowned for missing penalties than bamboozling full backs? Well never fear, ladies and gentlemen, because Stoke City are coming to town, and when you most need a lifeline, you can usually rely on the lads in red and white to make sure everything will indeed be alright, by rolling over and having their bellies thoroughly tickled.
A contender for Stoke’s worst performance of not just the season but the Hughes era, this was the classic ‘frog in a saucepan’ display, in which the team got subtly, progressively worse until things became a raging, boiling, gloopy mess by the second half.
The match was essentially lost by then. You could argue it was lost before a ball had been kicked. The manager stuck with 4-2-3-1, despite only fielding one winger…whom he played in the hole, with two strikers out wide. The decision to rest Bojan and give Marko Arnautovic the chance to shake off his hamstring trouble was entirely understandable given Tuesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg. However, it’s difficult to believe that Mark Hughes looked at the options he did have available and thought this badly arranged jigsaw was a goer.
Leicester did not even have to be at their best to crush us like an ant. Their trio of star turns had been somewhat out of sorts of late; but Vardy, Mahrez and Kante excelled against The Potters.
We didn’t actually start the game too badly. Shaqiri, operating behind the striker, pinged a couple of balls in behind their defence for Walters to chase, the first being miscontrolled by the number 19, the second overhit. The final ball wasn’t quite there yet, but it suggested there was space to be found in the final third. It didn’t take long though for Claudio Ranieri’s men to smarted up and snuff out Shaqiri, and with no natural winger to run at players and cause problems and Joselu starved of service, it became increasingly clear that a long afternoon was in prospect.
Leicester had initially appeared short on confidence, but once they realised we weren’t going to trouble them they were emboldened and began to cause difficulties. Mahrez had the beating of Pieters. Albrighton found space down our right. It was his cross that teed up Jamie Vardy in the box for the first serious chance of the game 17 minutes in. Mahrez was then left alone at the resulting corner but acrobatically volleyed just wide.
Things would get worse on 29 minutes, when Stokies were greeted with the scary sight of Ryan Shawcross prone on the turf, with his bothersome back injury the source of his pain. He was ultimately not able to continue, and if the storm clouds had been gathering, this was the moment of the cloudburst.
We reached the 40 minute mark having failed to muster a single shot on goal. But one was coming for the hosts, and it arrived four minutes before the break. A Leicester corner was only cleared as far as Danny Drinkwater, around 20 yards out, and with Mame Diouf slow to close him down, the defensive midfielder struck a fierce, low effort back into the mixer that pinged off Shawcross’ replacement, Marc Wilson, and beyond Jack Butland. It was no more than Leicester (and Stoke, for that matter) deserved.
Stoke needed to come out firing in the second half, and to be fair, it wasn’t long after the restart that we forged our one and only proper chance of the afternoon. Glen Johnson was finally able to make a forward foray of his own and delivered a cracking ball for Joselu in the box. Unfortunately, the striker could only head straight down Kasper Schmeichel’s throat.
And that was that for Stoke. We descended into a sludgy, turgid mire, with Whelan and Shaqiri crowded out as soon as they got the ball and Walters’ attempts at crossing reading like a cry for help. We weren’t waving, but drowning.
At the other end, Leicester were menacing again. Leonardo Ulloa often seems to make life difficult for us and he was getting the better of his exchanges with Wilson. That foreshadowed the killer blow that was struck on 65 minutes, when the impressive Drinkwater dinked a beautiful pass over the top and Vardy left the man from Aghagalon choking on his dust before he went round Butland and coolly dispatched the ball into the net. It was a very well-worked goal.
It became clear that we’d given up on the afternoon, perhaps with one eye on Tuesday, perhaps recognising a lost cause when we saw one. It’s sad to say, but the arrival of Peter Odemwingie off the bench was almost a physical manifestation of a white flag being waved, and though we should have been chasing the game, it was the home side who continued to look the more dangerous. With no Shawcross our defence looked like it was having a collective bad acid trip, and salt was rubbed deep into the wound with four minutes to go when Mahrez weaved his way through, nutmegged Philipp Wollscheid and then squared for Ulloa to nonchalantly stretch a boot out and make it three.
Things were so bad by the end that Robert Huth actively took pity on us, cheerfully spannering a free kick out for a throw in like a father going easy on his son in a garden kickabout.
It’s a lazy trope of sports writing in general (and one I eagerly, hungrily use most weeks) to discuss about a team or individual on their ‘best day’ or ‘worst day’. This felt like Stoke on their worst day. Yes, key players were missing for either some or all of the match but virtually nobody, from the manager down, could be pleased with their work at the Walkers Stadium. None of the ingredients that have made Stoke such an exciting team at times this season were on display. Every single fault that has frustrated us, in all areas of the pitch, was showcased.
Hopefully this can be dismissed as an off day – no team in the league is immune to them this season – and nothing more. We don’t want to look back on Saturday 23rd January as the day we left the building during a season when opportunity knocked.
2) Shaqiri in the hole isn’t a bad idea…but he can’t do it on his own
It was interesting to see Xherdan Shaqiri deployed in the hole for the first time (I think?) in a Stoke shirt. It’s a position he excels in for his country, and there’s a strong argument it’s the role to which he is best suited; it allows him free reign, with little-to-no defensive responsibilities, it enables him to pop up all over the final third, and it gets him into positions to use that traction-engine left foot we’re told he allegedly possesses.
The first 20 minutes at Leicester did show some signs of promise for Shaqiri in that central role too; he was involved in all of our early reasonably decent play, showing the vision to spot the runs of Walters and Joselu and play the ball into them, even if the execution might have been better. He also drifted wide from that position to clip a peach of a ball to the back post where Diouf lurked, with Danny Simpson required to make a last-minute intervention before the Senegalese star could strike.
It was a shame then, that it was so easy for Leicester to silence Shaqiri, our lone creative voice in the boggy wilderness. Kante dropped back to do a job on him, and not satisfied with that, The Foxes managed to stick another couple with him, effectively creating a nullifying forcefield whenever he got on the ball.
Shaqiri had a thankless task. Just back from injury, plunged into a role he hasn’t played for the club before, and given no help whatsoever. Flooding the team with strikers might have been enough to (just about) see off Doncaster, but the team who started the day second in the Premier League are, spoiler alert, a different proposition altogether.
‘The Power Cube’ was so easy to mark partly because there was nobody else in attacking areas worthy of the Leicester defenders’ attentions. Jon Walters’ recent renaissance came to a shuddering halt with a fairly wretched display, while Diouf offered yet more examples of why he should either be used up front or not at all.
Indeed, that would have really helped Shaqiri out by giving us a centre forward capable of making the runs for him to pick out. Neither Walters nor Joselu have the pace to get on the end of the kind of balls into space Shaqiri was pinging forward, but Diouf does, and his presence would have given Leicester a lot more to think about. At this point, his ongoing exile from a central striking role is beyond bewildering. We’re deep into nose-cutting, face-spiting territory here.
Nevertheless, the glimpses of promise shown by Shaqiri early on suggested he may yet be an alternative as a number 10, especially with Bojan flagging. Until we sign a winger of course, that has to be Shaqiri’s primary function, but it may well be an option further down the line. Don’t write the idea off on the basis of Saturday. He never stood a chance.
3) Shawcross’ latest injury must not be allowed to define our season
When Ryan Shawcross’ back injury forced him off, following a characteristically Trojan attempt to shake it off, you could sense the hearts of thousands of Stokies watching at the ground and around the world plummet to somewhere in the vicinity of their left testicle. The captain’s return has underlined the fact that he is the single most important player in the team. The regenerative effect he has had on our defence since his return in November cannot be overstated.
Your correspondent does not number himself among Marc Wilson’s myriad detractors, but there isn’t much pleasant to write about his return at centre back at Leicester, an outing that can charitably be referred to as ‘rusty’. The Ireland international might bizarrely be sporting a Brother Cadfael-style haircut, but there was no monk-like vow of chastity about his defending, as our back line was penetrated again and again by Leicester’s lusty strike force.
The deflection for the first goal was a case of wrong place, wrong time, but he was bullied repeatedly by Ulloa, and then caught entirely the wrong side of Vardy for the second goal.
It’s unfair to single out Wilson though. Replacing Shawcross midway through a game when you haven’t featured as a centre back for months is a tough gig, and he was hardly the only defender to wrap himself in farce as if it were a particularly garish onesie. We didn’t so much make a drama out of a crisis as a pantomime.
Of more concern was the deflating effect Shawcross’ absence had on the team. The panic and loss of confidence it engendered was of a kind I haven’t seen in football since a Neymar-less Brazil hosted Germany in the world cup semi-final. We just didn’t seem to ‘back ourselves’ to survive in his absence. Our defence became an unwitting preview to the new Dad’s Army film, a rudderless collection of well-meaning but jittery wrecks, running around screaming “don’t panic!” while making a stream of bad decisions, each worse than the last.
At the time of writing, it is reported that Shawcross’ injury will rule him out for three to four weeks, which isn’t as bad as it might’ve been. At the same time, there are no guarantees, and it seems that his back problems may hang over us like the proverbial sword of Damocles for a while. Suddenly the mooted pursuit of £7m Michael Keane doesn’t sound quite so left-field.
We cannot allow ourselves to be so totally reliant on Shawcross. Our existing defenders will have to step up if we are without him for any length of time. One or both of the Marcs need to stake their claim. Wollscheid’s improvement pre-dated Shawcross’ return and he has the chance to establish himself as the back four’s main man in the event of the skipper’s absence. We can’t allow ourselves to fall back to the sans-Shawcross slapstick of the early part of the season.
There may well be nothing to worry about. Should our worst fears be realised however, and Shawcross is ruled out again for any significant length of time, this team has to show us what it’s made of. And you can bet your bottom dollar Ryan will be the first to tell them that.
4) The Kante show makes sense of Imbula pursuit
Our well-publicised interest in Porto’s Gianelli Imbula initially seemed strange for several reasons. First, reports suggested we were set to smash our transfer record to smithereens for a player who can’t get into a team in an inferior league. Second, if we were in the market for a central midfielder, the smart money had appeared to be on signing an heir to Glenn Whelan in the holding role, as opposed to recruiting another box-to-boxer. Third, it seemed a little late to be recruiting the much-vaunted like-for-like Nzonzi replacement when Ibrahim Afellay’s more graceful gifts appeared to be going a long way towards ticking that box.
Though the Imbula chase still leaves some questions unanswered, after the Leicester debacle it makes a lot more sense, particularly having witnessed the performance of the game’s outstanding player, N’Golo Kante.
Kante’s display on Saturday was that of the complete midfielder. Defensively, he stuck like a limpet to Shaqiri and neutralised him. Nobody recovered the ball more times. Nobody won more tackles, nobody made more interceptions. However, he also proved adept at bringing the ball forward with pace – only three players made more attacking third passes, only two won more free kicks, only one went past more players over the course of the afternoon. He was the engine of the Leicester side.
That kind of influential midfielder would make a huge different to our team, given our counter-attacking set-up – someone who can set the tempo, show a bit of grit, get in there when the muck and bullets are flying but also transition onto the front foot and get us moving. That is reportedly what Imbula, at his best, brings, and his performances for Marseilles, which prompted Porto to break their own transfer record and apparently make him the highest paid player in their history, have seen him likened to players like Patrick Vieira and Michael Essien.
Since moving into a central midfield role, Afellay has been a total revelation, and he was again Stoke’s best player at the Walker’s Stadium, completing more passes and more attacking third passes than any other player and coming second only to Kante in the ball recovery stakes. I certainly don’t want to see him dropped, but at the same time there is still a need for a bit of Led Zeppelin in the middle of the park, melodic and graceful at times, relentlessly, powerfully crunching at others. Could it be possible to find room for both?
Moreover, Afellay, excellent though he’s been, isn’t a long-term solution. He turns 30 this year, his injury problems are well-documented, and that makes his status as ‘the answer’ in midfield mightily precarious.
The presence of an Nzonzi-type player in midfield remains key to what Mark Hughes is trying to build here, and that explains his eagerness to do such expensive business in that department.
5) Leicester’s goals magnify our own attacking shortcomings
I’ve seen Leicester play better this season than they did on Saturday (though obviously they were head and shoulders above us), yet they could have scored more than the three they bagged with better finishing. The goals they did score underlined the very things wrong with our own attacking play at the moment.
The first came from a corner that wasn’t properly cleared, and owed much to Drinkwater’s willingness to have a go. Though we are, embarrassingly, the only team in the league not to score from a corner this season, there had been signs since our win over Norwich that our set piece game was improving, and that we might be more amenable to actually having a crack at goal from time to time. The recent goals from range from Arnie, Shaqiri and Joselu are evidence of the latter; Afellay’s delivery that produced a goal from a free kick vs Norwich and two chances from corners in our two games before this one are evidence of the former.
All that went out the window on Saturday.
Our efforts from dead balls were frankly pathetic. Shaqiri’s delivery simply isn’t good enough for a player of his reputation and price tag. Afellay has been taken off set pieces despite being on a decent roll with them. Why? Do we not run a meritocracy?
It didn’t help that Leicester left three players up when defending corners, ready for the break, but we still surely could have got more than the 3-4 uninterested-looking statues in red and white we routinely sent into the box when we got the chance to put a ball into the box. Our movement at corners was much better against Norwich and Arsenal. What happened?
We’ve all seen how bad Liverpool are at defending set pieces and if we’re to have any hope of beating them on Tuesday night they should be a valuable weapon in our arsenal. There’s little hope that will be the case, sadly.
The second goal was a beauty, coming courtesy of a great ball from Drinkwater and a brilliantly timed run and finish from Vardy. What made that all the more frustrating was that, as discussed, in Diouf and Shaqiri we had a combination capable of delivering the same thing – a quality ball player and a striker who plays on the shoulder of the last defender – but we totally misused them.
Joselu has played well of late of course and shouldn’t have been dropped to make way for Diouf as a striker, but there were alternatives that could have incorporated both (such as matching Leicester’s 4-4-2, or playing Shaqiri and Afellay wide with Diouf behind Joselu). The system Hughes picked hamstrung us from the get-go.
The third LCFC goal owed much to the skill of Mahrez, and we could only look enviously at a Foxes squad with wingers coming out of their ears (Mahrez, Albrighton, Gray, Dyer) while we have to make do and mend with strikers out wide when either of our marquee wide men needs a break. This lack of depth really should have been addressed by now, yet links to wingers remain thin on the ground with the transfer window entering its final week.
There’s been a lot of envy and sour grapes tossed in Leicester’s direction by some Stokies given the season they’re having, but there really shouldn’t be. Their story is great for the league, and what’s more, they’re showing clubs like us the way.