1 An unholy shambles
Wretched. Miserable. Abject. Pathetic. It’s hard to find words to do justice to just how poor Stoke were in their latest catastrophe of this most nightmarish of starts to 2016. Franz Beckenbauer once famously said of a German world cup side; “if you put all the players in a sack and punched it, whichever one you hit would deserve it” (and that was after a quarter-final win). The same pretty much applies here. It could, nay should have been a five or six goal battering. Only poor finishing and our goalkeeper prevented such an outcome.
There was no shape, no cohesion. No invention or inspiration. The fluid, exciting team that, even below their best for long spells, bagged four at Goodison was nowhere to be seen. That game was six weeks ago. It felt like aeons.
It hurts so much because we didn’t see it coming. Despite recent poor results and performances, it felt like we’d put things right soon enough, and that this game would be the one we needed; against a team we’ve done well against in recent years, one who famously have problems at the back, who were without one star player and had another reportedly well below 100%, and whose manager was finding new ways to embarrass himself.
When the team was announced it had us purring. Both wingers were restored, as was saints be praised, Mame Diouf up front! We had managed to find two fit centre halves to put out, and our shiny new record signing started as well. It looked balanced, capable, dangerous. Yet the only thing we turned out to be was a danger to ourselves, like that kid at school who always had to be told about running with scissors.
Things were fairly unremarkable for the first 10 minutes or so, but there were warning signs even in that short space of time. Our final ball was again AWOL, while we had no ideas beyond knocking it to one of the heavily marked wide men and hoping for the best.
Ross Barkley was a worry whenever he got on the ball, and it was the raw-boned young Liverpudlian who undid us. With Glenn Whelan not even in the same postcode, Barkley emerged in the final third to slip a killer through ball in to Tom Cleverley. Jack Butland was unusually slow off his line, and compounded that error by taking the erstwhile Man Utd man out for the easiest penalty Andre Marriner has awarded since the last time he refereed this fixture. Lukaku rolled it home.
Even then, the warning sirens weren’t blaring loudly enough and it seemed we might still get back into the game. Yet our attacks remained one-paced and predictable, our movement non-existent, and our backline increasingly snoozy. When we dozed off altogether at a corner, 5ft10 Seamus Coleman rose quickest and highest to flick an impressive header past a Butland dive I’m contractually obliged to refer to as ‘despairing’. And that’s when things really headed south.
Stoke’s fragile confidence fractured irreconcilably at that point. We played passes into touch. We whacked the ball to nobody. Our full backs and wingers were never where they should’ve been. Our midfielders offered the defence no protection. Our striker looked miles off the pace. And finally, inevitably, we gift-wrapped a third goal and the game itself for the Toffees when Philipp Wollscheid played a square ball straight to the menacing Aaron Lennon, who strode forward before finishing neatly to make it three. Half time was still three whole minutes away.
Things couldn’t have got much work for Stoke and they didn’t, but through no action of our own. Everton seemed to take their foot off the gas in the second half yet we still fell over ourselves (literally at times) to try and help them boost their goal difference further. We started on the front foot but lacked the nous to do anything, overplaying and reluctant to shoot when we did get into good positions, Diouf failing to anticipate the pass and make the run on the few occasions when we did put any kind of move together. The visitors found plenty of space on the break. Barkley crossed for Lukaku, but his powerful close-range header was magnificently tipped onto the bar by Butland. McCarthy was left unmarked but blasted inches wide. Sub Arouna Kone got in behind us but this time Butland was out quickly to block his shot. Everton were everything we weren’t. Solid, direct, powerful. It somehow finished just 0-3.
The fans, silently, grimly watching this 90-minute game of stop hitting yourself while the wind swirled icy rain into our faces, had plenty of time to reflect on this latest humiliation as the game drifted to its conclusion.
We cannot dismiss this as just another bad day at the office. Too many of our long-standing problems from front to back were on display yet again, at their very worst, for that to be the case. My dad asked me in the aftermath if I thought this was the worst performance of the Hughes era, but just lately, that benchmark is being re-set every week.
The season is disintegrating before our eyes. It’s up to the manager and his team to save it.
2) The honeymoon is over for Mark Hughes
Before anyone cries (someone always cries), let’s define what is meant by ‘the honeymoon is over’. I’m not calling for Mark Hughes to resign or suggesting that a parting of ways should be anywhere remotely in the ether. That would be preposterous, embarrassing, and disrespectful to man who has done an excellent job in his two-and-a-half seasons here.
But up to this point it has very much been a land of milk and honey. Even when results weren’t fruitful during various spells of the Sparky era, we have generally tried to play enterprising, positive football that has been a breath of fresh air; the manager has equally refreshingly tended to run a meritocracy, with players picked on form. And starting line-ups and tactics have generally made sense. Two ninth-placed finishes, a cup semi-final and some never-to-be forgotten moments add up to a hell of a lot of credit in the bank.
However – there are a number of problems, gremlins and flaws in our set-up under this manager that appear to be getting worse, and our failure to even look like addressing them is a cause for concern.
Starting with the defence: the sterling job our back four, deprived of their leader, did at Anfield was based on them staying fairly deep and having lots of protection. So why on earth have we gone back to a high defensive line when neither Wollscheid nor Muniesa are quick enough for it to be anything other than a dreadful idea? We’re rapidly approaching the one-year anniversary of the Blackburn debacle yet we persist with the exact same approach. Why? It caught us out for two of the three goals on Saturday and would have cost us a couple more in the second half as well.
You have to adapt your team to suit your personnel. Muniesa and Wollscheid are our only fit centre halves at present. The high line is a line on which they’re being hung out to dry.
A newer foible is our wide players’ reluctance to spend any time out wide. Shaqiri has drifted all over the place since arriving and that’s fine if you’ve got players to interchange. But with Bojan either of form or out of the side that’s thrown entirely off-balance. Marko Arnautovic meanwhile has taken to standing around scratching himself up front, offering no help in an attacking or defensive capacity to Erik Pieters. This is fiercely at odds with a player who has wreaked havoc on defences from that station earlier in the season while busting a lung to track back. What gives, Arnie?
If this ineffectual move to the centre is Arnie’s idea, Hughes needs to reign him – and Shaqiri for that matter – in. If it’s his own idea to let the full backs shoulder the entire burden of attacking and defending down the flanks, he should have a word with himself.
One problem that’s been very much with us since the dawn of the Hughes era is our ponderous build-up play. Remember that godawful home defeat to Norwich early in his first season? That continues to haunt us. We still overplay and tiptoe around the box, going for one pass too many rather than pulling the trigger. We still have nobody to incisively cut swathes through massed defenders. We persist in crossing into one solitary, heavily marked striker. We still pussyfoot around with the ball at the back in an age when fast forwards press from the front. We dominate possession in non-dangerous areas.
All of these traits were present against Everton. The movement of our forward players was once again static and unimaginative, with Shaqiri heavily marked but reluctant to take players on, Arnie seemingly averse to staying wide, Afellay ineffective and Diouf turning his nose up at the scraps he was left to feed on. Again, what is most concerning is our failure to learn or develop to resolve these issues.
The same thing can be said for set pieces. Everton’s movement for Coleman’s goal was excellent. Whenever we got a corner, the movement of our players was non-existent, as they stood around resembling a group of particularly morose, sedentary cattle. WORK. HARDER. AT. THESE.
Finally, our transfer window was again exposed. If Ryan Shawcross’ fitness is going to have even a tentative question mark over it, then a centre half in the same vein was required. Imbula looks the real deal, but we still lack a genuine rival/heir for the struggling Glenn Whelan in the holding role. The replacement of Shaqiri by the no longer fit for purpose Odemwingie, which earned the manager his first audible boos as Stoke boss, underline how badly reinforcements in the wide areas were required, yet hardly any were so much as linked.
There is some mitigation. Injuries have again taken their toll and we are missing not just Shawcross but the likes of Adam and Cameron, players who can also make a difference. The heartbreaking defeat to Liverpool after three and a half hours of football and a penalty shootout has surely had a draining effect, physically and mentally.
Moreover, it’s our misfortune to stumble into a season in which there are such gains to be made by smaller clubs at a time when we’re in transition. The loss of Nzonzi was always going to be an extremely difficult one to compensate for and I think most of us accepted that this season would be made all the harder by such a critical void. The success of Leicester City and the odd brilliant performance of our own has perhaps ratcheted up expectations that were not, in truth, hugely realistic.
But, as clichéd as it is, the buck stops with the manager. It’s is job to right these wrongs, and in the midst of some of our worst performances during his time at the club, we need to see what he’s made of.
3) The defence was a house of sand after all
In the wake of our ultimately doomed heroics at Anfield, a hefty chunk of the plaudits went to our back four – Johnson, Wollscheid, Muniesa and Pieters. It’s difficult to believe that the same four players comprised our defence on Saturday.
There was palpable relief that we’d managed to restore that back line, having seen Johnson forced to deputise as an emergency centre back during another rotten trip to Manchester United midweek and with the terrifying prospect of Dionatan Teixeira (dubbed surplus to requirements at Fleetwood, placed 65th in the pyramid) being our only fit centre half.
Yet it didn’t take long for everything to fall apart. Though we started well enough and Muniesa won a couple of morale-boosting aerial duels with Lukaku, the big Belgian was soon roughing both he and Wollscheid up and winning every remaining battle, while Lennon was tearing Pieters to shreds with his direct running and quick changes of direction. As dicussed, the ludicrous high line was a gift to Everton’s attackers, given the centre halves’ lack of pace, and blue shirts found space in behind us almost constantly.
That lack of pace and need to sit deeper in the heart of defence meshed uncomfortably with Glenn Johnson’s typically high starting position and cavalier approach, and it made for an unseemly, ungodly Frankenstein’s monster of a defence, something that hadn’t seemed the case on Merseyside in the semi-final.
In fairness, the defence was given little protection; Glenn Whelan has looked a pale imitation of the player of the last two seasons, chasing shadows and contributing little bar a frustrating hesitation that slows down attacks before they’ve even started, while his midfield partner Gianelli Imbula, impressive though he was, was no more given to tracking back than the last Frenchman to occupy his position. The wingers weren’t interested in helping out at the back either.
Of most concern though was the evident lack of confidence without Ryan Shawcross. We completely fell apart after the goal, our organisation, shape and game plan fell to pieces. Surely we’re not so reliant on one man? Are we that fragile? Nobody took up the mantle to be organiser-in-chief. Whelan and Butland had a paddy at each other towards the end, but neither did any sort of job in given the orders or whipping the defence into shape. We do have a number of players who at times seem quick to point the finger at others but are a lot less keen to remove the beam from their own eye.
If question marks over the captain’s fitness are to persist then we have to plan accordingly, and treat the games when he is available as a bonus, rather like Leeds used to do with Lucas Radebe, while getting in another centre back cut from the same cloth who do the job all season long.
4) Ireland has become an unlikely candidate for a start
It’s not clear if it’s a startling renaissance or merely a sign of how desperate we’re getting, but Stephen Ireland, in the space of one cup exit and two sub cameos, has gone from outcast to viable starting option.
He’d seemed set for a lucrative trip to the retirement home that is football in the Gulf, with him not so much as appearing on the bench since November.
His start in a deeper midfield role at Crystal Palace was the surprise selection of that cup tie, and he was by all accounts one of precious few highlights in South Norwood that day.
His brief substitute appearances in our last two league games have told a similar story. At Old Trafford he showed an eye for a controlled, smart pass and good movement off the ball. Against Everton, he again demonstrated his ability to keep the ball and to make space and chances with clever passes in tight spaces. For a man who’s killed off more grannies than Harold Shipman, he’s a surprisingly intelligent footballer.
Most importantly, he sees the value of recycling the ball quickly – and that’s a potential antidote to our ponderous, slow-witted build-up play.
He gets stick – deservedly at times – for being inconsistent and anonymous at times – but those are criticisms that could be made of any of our more glamorous flair players at present. Something needs to change, with goals and creativity in such short supply, Bojan struggling and Afellay’s good form tailing off.
He owns a shark tank and a pink-trimmed Range Rover. He looks like pop-up pirate. But he’s a gifted, if mercurial talent and he has the potential to provide what we’re lacking. What have we got to lose?
5) Imbula offers the lone ray of light
There were no reasons to be cheerful, but the smallest crumb of comfort was offered by the £18.3m man.
Many of us were expecting Giannelli ‘Gilbert’ Imbula to be eased into English football slowly. Instead, he was chucked in from the start. And in a low-key way, he was comfortably and deservedly Stoke’s best player. His display wasn’t perfect – there wasn’t much tracking of runners, and we will need to be patient while he gets a feel for the pace of the league – but early indications are that he’s the ‘shuttler’ we’ve been missing since Steven Nzonzi left, the powerful yet graceful player to move the ball quickly up the pitch and transition defence into attack.
That is the most important type of player in Hughes’ system, and in a team that has forgotten how to attack through the middle or counter with any kind of efficiency, that has to be good news.
Imbula’s influential credentials (that sounds like a crap indie band from about 1992 doesn’t it?) stemmed from him being involved in the game’s top six passing combinations. He made the most passes by far of anyone on the pitch – 20 more than his nearest rival – and misplaced just five of his 99 passes for a 95% completion rate. No player this season has either attempted or completed that many either for or against the Potters. He also made more passes in the attacking third than anyone else, and went past more players. He is going to be this team’s N’Golo Kante.
He’s not subtle, but subtlety in a central midfielder in England is overrated. We need some rock n’ roll to go with our central European orchestrators on the flanks, and Imbula is going to provide that. He’s going to be a big, big player for us, and there’s still time for him to make a sizeable impact this season.
As the campaign threatens to go flaccid, he may yet prove to be a reassuringly expensive blue pill.