1) The rot has been stopped emphatically
Finally some good news. Two days after we learned about Bojan’s shiny new four-and-a-half year contract, Stoke purged their addiction to 3-0 reverses by bagging a trio of their own, popping The Cherries in the process. Their best result for weeks, their best league performance for months, this was much, much more like it.
Yes, the last half hour was pretty hairy at times, but everyone in that want-but-can’t-have sexy white third kit played their part. There were chances. There were goals. There was no clean sheet, but our defending was greatly improved.
What made things all the more impressive was the fact that we were really scraping the barrel with our back four in terms of fit personnel, while there was redemption, albeit unconventionally in some cases, for each of the front four so lifeless against Leicester last month.
It was The Cherries who started the brighter, and Stoke looked initially ragged and short on confidence again. Mame Diouf, once more marooned on the left, committed three fouls in the first five minutes, as he struggled against the speedy Adam Smith.
Then, eight minutes in and out of nowhere, we were in front. Our record signing Gianelli Imbula picked the ball up, fed the erstwhile holder of that title, Xherdan Shaqiri, and continued his run. There’d appeared to be little danger when the Swiss’ speculative effort from around 30 yards out was blocked by Simon Francis, but the ball sat up invitingly for Imbula, and the Frenchman caught it sweetly first time, thundering an unstoppable 62mph effort from a good 20 yards out past Artur Boruc and into the far corner.
98 minutes into his Stoke career and Imbula – hardly signed to score goals, don’t forget – was off the mark and bagged the first goal from a central midfielder since the last Frenchman to play in the position signed off with a similarly spectacular drive against Liverpool last May.
The opener settled Stoke right down and we could now enact our game plan with comfort, happy to let the hosts have the ball and break at pace. It was pleasing to see us close their defenders down high up the pitch, belatedly doing unto others as others have done unto us in recent weeks. Bournemouth were rattled, with Boruc having an amusing tantrum when his right back spannered an overhit backpass into his chest.
Walters nearly added a wonderful second with a David Platt-esque spinning volley that hit the side-netting. Shaqiri cut inside, danced past two defenders and slammed a shot straight into Boruc. Bournemouth did force a succession of corners around the half-hour mark, but their threat was scant, and players and crowd seemed more concerned with whinging about the referee than their own side’s non-performance. There were howls when man of the moment Benik Afobe went sprawling after Muniesa ran across his path, but replays showed the young Catalan never touched him. Their best effort of the half was what journalists queasily insist on referring to as a ‘cross-cum-shot’, Jack Butland tipping over Daniels’ attempted centre/chip. Shortly before that we’d forged two more decent chances, first a long ball over the top from Pieters being well-controlled in the box by Walters, whose tame finish let him down, before an expert through-ball from Afellay played in Shaqiri, who shot just wide under pressure.
Stoke had had a lot less of the ball but created all of the game’s notable opportunities, essentially a mirror-image of the previous week’s home humbling by Everton. Yet we hadn’t punished Bournemouth as The Toffees had punished us, and you felt we might pay for that. Sure enough, when the start of the second half greeted us with the arrivals of King and Ritchie for the home side, while Fleetwood reject Dionatan Teixeira replaced the injured Marc Muniesa, there might as well have been an ominous thunderclap.
But the storm never really came. There was an early Bournemouth flurry inspired by their subs, but Butland made a great, Schmeichel-ish ‘starfish’ save to deny King, rushing out with limbs outstretched to bat away the Norwegian’s close-range shot.
Glen Johnson landed awkwardly on his knee during the chaos, and that left us another defender down, our right back reportedly facing a lengthy spell out of action with ligament damage. With a back four now consisting of Diouf-Wollscheid-Teixeira-Pieters, Howe’s men would surely fancy their chances. Instead we struck with a sucker punch.
Stoke’s second goal was the perfect counter-attack. Imbula picked the ball up just outside his own box and found Shaqiri, who ran the ball out of danger to Whelan, who played a lovely, searching pass that evaded the Bournemouth left back and found Walters in space on the Stoke right. The 19 advanced, turned Cook as he cut inside towards the box, and squared for Afellay, steaming in, to power one in from the edge of the box, the ‘holy goalie’ again given not so much as a prayer. Every step of the goal had been brilliantly executed, and with only 10 men on the pitch as well!
Yet things would get even better two minutes later when Shaqiri, finally inclined to actually run at his full back, pulled off his classic elastico trick and surged to the byline to put an immaculate cross on Joselu’s head. It was virtually the striker’s first touch since coming on, and his movement to lose two defenders and precision to direct his header where nobody could reach it was great centre forward play. It was all over now, surely – Cherry Pie, anyone?
Not quite. This third goal woke up The Cherries, who immediately grabbed a goal back. Our defending had been solid for most of the game, but some hesitancy saw us fail to get close to Daniels on the Bournemouth left, and his low cross along the 18-yard line was not dealt with by our centre backs, allowing Ritchie to crack a sweetly-struck 20-yarder of his own into the net. And now the onslaught finally began.
Our old nemesis King was starting to find pockets of space, getting in behind our centre backs and unselfishly playing dangerous crosses across the box that were not exploited. Ritchie looked favourite to get his foot to one such tantalising ball, but he failed to connect just as a goal looked inevitable. Next, Stanislas failed to control King’s delivery at the far post. Several times the ball was loose in the six yard box, but ironically, for a team that has continued to focus its considerable spending on its forward line at the expense of other areas, there was no predator to pounce.
It was an anxious time, and the contest turned increasingly niggly, with four yellow cards dished out in the last five minutes to frustrated Cherries men, but we withstood the pressure, and by full time we’d held out pretty comfortably.
Our first league double of 2015-16 was just the tonic our season needed, and we head into our warm-weather break feeling a lot more positive. On paper our next two games, at home to sides in the relegation mix, fall into the ‘should win’ category. However, these are exactly the kind of fixture that have proven our Achilles’ heel over the last two seasons. Hopefully we return, batteries charged, to lay more ghosts to rest.
2) Imbula is already the centrepiece
It’s obviously very early days, but first impressions are that Gianelli Imbula was made for the Premier League and Stoke City. In his two showings to date, he has looked like the complete midfielder, one who brings a bit of everything to the table. In the Everton shambles, he set a season-best for passes completed in a single Stoke game this season. In that game and this one, he made more successful dribbles than anyone on the pitch.
Still, a goal this soon into his Potters career seemed unlikely, given he only had seven in his 200-game career to date before Saturday. That it was such a belter, a technically wonderful volley from nowhere, is all the more bemusing. He is another new signing, like Joselu, who sees the value of shooting early, and God knows we need more of them given the infuriating dithering in the final third that has plagued us.
The Stoke team already looks to be built around him. All our good play went through him. We looked to him to move us forward. We looked to him to calm things down. That thrust, that directness that has been sorely missing slowly returned to our make-up. He did all the things we used to expect of Nzonzi except harder, better, faster, stronger. He was everything you want from a record signing.
After delivering the first goal, he began the move that led to the second, and that counter-attacking verve that has fallen by the wayside, which Nzonzi was so important to, was restored gloriously at the Pulse Stadium thanks to Imbula. He is one player who couldn’t be accused of being reluctant to take players on, running at them, bludgeoning through them, at one point requiring a squadron of Cherries men to stop him, like velociraptors on the Indominus Rex at the end of Jurassic World.
We’ve been told that the defensive side of his game isn’t the strongest, but that too was better than last week, indecision on the goal notwithstanding. He was always available in his own half when we needed an option to alleviate the pressure, and was no stranger to a good, old-fashioned, cynical, tactical foul to prevent the break away – it’s not pretty, it’s not especially edifying, it’s exactly what you want your defensive midfielders to be doing.
Imbula has let it be known how much he values the faith Mark Hughes has shown in him and that it’s nice to feel wanted again after his Portuguese nightmare. And though a player in his position wasn’t necessarily thought to be a priority by many fans, this one included, it’s already, at £18.3m with a 15% selling-on clause, looking like an absolute masterstroke.
Encore une fois, monsieur.
3) ‘Back to basics’ pays dividends
As slogans go, ‘back to basics’ hasn’t historically proven the most inspiring;
Yet that was reportedly precisely the medicine Mark Hughes was prescribing in the wake of the Everton fiasco, and it appears to have gone down a treat. The manager galvanised his players, and they resembled a team once again. All the things missing from last Saturday’s hammering – shape, ideas, motivation – were back.
Everyone, from the starting XI to the subs, knew what their job was and everyone was focused on performing it to the letter. The defenders defended. The midfield protected the defence but also looked forward and started counters when they were able. The forward players did a lot of selfless work for the team.
We actually created chances and we took them – and as this blog has maintained all along, the more chances you create, the more you’ll score.
There was a real zip to our play and for the first time in a while you could see we actually had a plan. We pressed Bournemouth high up the pitch, something we don’t do often enough; but it was particularly smart to do it given the personnel, as it’s by far the best way to utilise Diouf and Walters. Indeed, Walters, used in a central striking role, looked better than any of his rivals for the spot have recently. His movement again impressed, his strength and ability to shrug off defenders with his back to goal almost yielded an absolute screamer, and his work in making Afellay’s goal, displaying power, persistence and a decent dollop of skill, was excellent.
We played to our strengths and did what we knew how to do well. Perhaps sensing that our fruitless dalliances with a possession game needed a rest, instead we let Bournemouth do the ball work and got back to the ruthless counter-attacking that has been synonymous with out best displays under this manager. Here, the old guard meshed with the new very well, and the second goal embodied that mixture – Imbula found Whelan, Whelan’s peach of a ball found Walters, and he teed up Afellay for that wonderfully precise sidefooter from distance.
It’s true that this is the kind of game that particularly suits this team and this system – away from home against a team leaving loads of gaps at the back – but we haven’t been having a lot of joy even in those kind of games of late. These were our first away points of 2016. Keep playing like this and there will be plenty more to come.
4) The defence redeems itself
Last week I gave our beleaguered back line a fair old shoeing after the plethora of gifts we showered on Everton. At Bournemouth, they deserve credit for a much more solid, organised display.
Even after it was somehow decimated further, the defence displayed the kind of alertness and urgency we’d not seen since Anfield almost a month ago. Defenders got there first to head away set pieces, to hack away loose balls in the area, to stop crosses, and to turn defence into attack. Yes, there were some hairy moments a better team might have punished, but compared to the Keystone Cops act we saw in three prior three goal batterings, this was Helenio Herrera stuff by comparison.
Our underperforming players were back ‘on it’ at the Pulse. Erik Pieters was spiky and combative, winning the most tackles (and committing the most fouls). Philipp Wollscheid was able to sit deeper and returned to being an intelligent reader of the game, making the most clearances and getting any part of his body in the way that he could. Glenn Whelan looked fresher, recovering the ball more times than anyone, making more interceptions and second only to Wollscheid in the number of clearances made.
The team as a whole was well drilled and much more willing to work for each other. You expect Walters to run himself into the ground for the cause, but Shaqiri could be seen chasing back to make tackles and get involved in some scrapping around his own box, and sub Joselu shielded the ball well and won the most aerial duels despite only being on the pitch for the final half-hour.
It was very much ‘by any means’ necessary at times and there was a lot of what might be called ‘old Stoke’ in some of our more cynical fouls, but when you’ve shipped nine goals in your last three games you don’t have the luxury of the Queensberry Rules.
A special mention for Dionatan Teixeira, who did a fine job at the heart of defence with a gritty, disciplined showing that involved some expertly timed tackles and a willingness to stick his head where the boots were flying. It was a difficult situation for a player with so little top level experience (and one who has, perhaps unfairly, become a bit of a punchline) to be parachuted into, and he dealt with it manfully. Way to go Tex.
It was disappointing not to keep a clean sheet, with some hesitance first from Whelan, Imbula and Diouf, who couldn’t decide between them who should close down Daniels, and then the centre backs, neither of whom were decisive enough to react to his low cross, but Ritchie’s finish was a classy one, and whereas we might have crumbled at that first chink of light showing through our armour, especially in the absence of our captain, we instead showed the character to withstand the home side’s assault and see the game out.
Bournemouth are not Leicester, Manchester United or Everton, but bad defending can be like woodworm, insidious, crawling and sprawling and infecting every part of the team, and it was important to restore some confidence in our rearguard on the south coast.
5) 100% record intact for Stoke’s emergency right back
The most deflating aspect of the team sheet was the presence of Mame Biram Diouf again shoehorned onto the wing, where he is traditionally neither use nor ornament.
Nobody seemed more miserable amount this turn of events than the man himself, who’d picked himself up a yellow card within the first 10 minutes for persistent fouling, his frustration bubbling over from the outset. You feared for him.
There was even an argument it might be worth removing him at half time, given he was walking a tightrope and our lead was a slender one. Then came Johnson’s injury, and the realisation there was no alternative but to drop him back once again into the right back spot…
As tirelessly and admirably as Diouf had performed as an unlikely right back in the League Cup victory over Chelsea, there was still some trepidation as to whether he could pull it off again, especially given Bournemouth’s second-half injection of tricky forward players and that booking he carried.
Yet the Senegal star was excellent again in the role. Bizarrely, being moved further away from the action appeared to give him renewed purpose and focus, with less of the open resentment he displays when shoved out wide. He’s used at full back, you suspect, primarily because of his pace, energy and work rate, but he also displays an unexpected understanding of the defensive side of the position, making sure he tries to stop the cross, or getting the right side of crosses from the other wing to get himself between ball and attacker and see out the danger – something the likes of Cameron, Hoefkens and even an actual right back like Bardsley all struggled with during their Stoke careers.
He gave everything he had, and embodied the efforts of our team on the day.
Diouf is such a strange player. There are days when he’s unstoppable, and chases every lost cause, days when he’s infuriating, can’t trap a bag of cement and chases nothing. Just a week after he set his claim for a regular place in his best position back with a listless, brainless display against Everton, he pops back up in the unlikeliest of positions to remind everyone of some of his best qualities.
I’m not mental enough to advocate any sort of long-term switch to the position, but it’s weirdly comforting to know he can ably deputise as a full back in times of crisis and only adds more to his status as one of the most likeable characters in the squad.
Now get back to doing it at the other end, Dioufy.