1) Heavy weather against the worst team in the league
As a current resident of the nation’s second city, I was thoroughly looking forward to SCFC hammering another nail into Aston Villa’s already suitably secure coffin. Though three points were claimed however, this was hardly an enjoyable romp, and the overwhelming emotion at the final whistle was one of relief, rather than joy.
Stoke’s home discomforts continued as they huffed and puffed against an embarrassingly poor Villa side. Those perennial traits of our home form this season – the ponderous, predictable build-up play, the one-pass-too-many in the final third, the carelessness and gaps at the back, were out in force for all but a 20-minute spell at the start of the second half. For all our dominance, genuine chances were hard to come by, and most of the highlights happened outside of the match itself, such as the warm farewell Andy Wilkinson received, or the false fire alarm at half time that gave us the brief glimmer of a sweet release from this dour affair.
Villa sat deep and for the most part seemed content just not to concede throughout the first half. Though they rarely committed enough bodies to look like hurting us on the counter, they did a decent job of frustrating us. Arnautovic and Imbula combined impressively at times, but Shaqiri was struggling, and Walters was anonymous up front. Our most dangerous forays forward tended to come courtesy of Ibrahim Afellay, whose teasing low cross forced Mark Bunn to make an acrobatic, clawing save from his own defender, Jonas Okore, after four minutes, before Afellay was flattened in full flow by Leandro Bacuna, Shaqiri curling the resulting free kick not far wide. We forced plenty of corners, but every last one seemed to designed to redefine the word ‘wretched’.
Mark Hughes was apparently equally unimpressed with our efforts, as the team emerged for the second half with the kind of renewed enthusiasm that a bleaching from an enraged Welshman tends to inspire. Now we started to find space in dangerous areas and get in behind the Villa defence, with a transformed Shaqiri now playing a series of killer passes. First, his smart, twisting ball over the top picked out the strong run of Phil Bardsley, making only his second league start of the season, and the right back was clumsily bundled over by Ashley Westwood for as clear a penalty as you’ll see. Marko Arnautovic isn’t short of confidence from 12 yards, and he duly blasted the ball high into the net to give us a lead we deserved in spite of our notable shortcomings.
We didn’t have to wait long for a second, and when it arrived five minutes later it was bizarre. A smooth passing move saw Arnie dart into a central position from his standard left wing station, which was eventually filled by Shaqiri. Once the ball was worked to the little Swiss, he curved in another immaculate centre, to which Bunn in the Villa goal reacted like a Loony Tunes character, flinging himself wildly across goal, falling over and becoming trapped in his own net. Arnie got his head to the ball and still had time to easily shrug off proud motorist Joelon Lescott (who wore a mask of astonishment at the sight of someone putting in what looked suspiciously like ‘effort’ on a football pitch) and chest the ball into the net.
At that point it appeared the floodgates might open and Villa heads might drop as they had against Liverpool two weeks ago. Instead, Stoke downed tools for the afternoon. They sat off the visitors, the influential Afellay was removed, and we appeared to nod off. Suddenly Villa, spearheaded by the unlikely form of Scott Sinclair, began to threaten. Mr Helen Flanagan slithered through our defence a couple of times but couldn’t finish; however, with 11 minutes to go he fed Cissokho, who found far too much space on the Villa left with Bardsley awol, and his cross, feebly flicked at by a retreating Geoff Cameron, bounced up off Rudy Gestede’s hand and across to an unmarked Bacuna on the right, who tucked a shot through Pieters’ legs and into the far corner. We went mad at the handball but the truth was we should have cut out the danger long before then.
“How s**t must you be, we’ve scored a goal” chorused the travelling support. They had a point.
To our horror it seemed as if their team might get one too, as we struggled to shake ourselves out of our slumber. Our passing was sloppy. Team mates embroiled themselves in slanging matches with each other. Both teams had chances. Thankfully you can rely on this Villa side to do their best to help you out, and Bunn was again called into action to keep out some more friendly fire from Okore (curiously determined to get himself an own goal), this time via a diving header under pressure from Bojan. At the other end, a dangerous ball into the box wasn’t dealt with and Gestede flashed a poor header wide when a better striker might have done some damage.
Happily, we managed to get the ball up the pitch for the remainder of injury time and take the three points, and we had overall been the better side. That’s nevertheless pretty faint praise. On the positive side, this is the kind of game we have royally cocked up throughout the last two seasons and that didn’t happen here. On the other hand, there was scant indication in the performance that our home form is on the road to recovery. Wednesday night might answer some of the questions that this showing failed to.
2) Stoke almost forced to count the cost of complacency
The most impressive spell of the game from the hosts’ perspective was the immediate flurry at the start of the second half that produced our two goals. During that period we figured out how to break down a surprisingly stubborn Villa defence – by actually running at them, by moving the ball quickly, and via more incisive passing and better movement in the final third. The Villans had been steadfast but those two quickfire goals would surely shatter their resolve.
Nope. Stoke’s foot came off the gas almost as soon as Arnie had barrelled in that second off his solar plexus, and team and manager were complicit in this. Bojan and Joselu were thrown on very much in the spirit of ‘go on, fill your boots boys’, as if coasting to the win and racking up a few more en route was a mere formality and defensive duties and running around were for squares and losers.
Concentration lapsed, and suddenly a side as thoroughly rotten as Aston Villa had us on the ropes. Afellay had been at the heart of everything; Bojan, his replacement, wasn’t at the races. Walters had been utterly average but full, as you would expect, of his trademark endeavour, hustle and bustle. Joselu brought none of that to the party and proved far less mobile. The ball stopped sticking up front.
The Villa goal was a shambles on our part. Cissokho was given far too much space and Bardsley, even when he got back, made no effort to stop the cross. Cameron was running back to goal but even so his attempted flicked clearance was lame and powder puff. Our left side was entirely absent to allow Bacuna – the worst player on the pitch up to that point – a sight of goal. It was an embarrassing passage of play and the revival of Remi Garde’s boys appeared to catch Stoke completely unawares. Hence the rows and recriminations. Bojan’s aversion to tracking back and helping out was put under rather fierce scrutiny from both his captain and Erik Pieters in the wake of the goal. Philipp Wollscheid’s grating habit of blaming anyone but the man in the mirror for his own mistakes saw him misplace two attempted passes to Mame Diouf and then barrack the Senegalese for it, leading to a shoving match at the final whistle.
I don’t think there’s any question that complacency has played a part in some of our poor home results over the past two seasons, such as Burnley, Sunderland and Villa last term and Watford and Palace this time round. It’s a plus that overall we have the quality within our ranks now to play badly and still see off the bottom feeders for the most part – half of our wins at the Brit this season have come against Bournemouth, Norwich and Villa in underwhelming displays – but it’s still a worrying trait that needs stamping out pronto. Newcastle, Swansea and Sunderland all come to ST4 before the end of the season. We can’t assume the points are in the bag until the job is done.
3) The best and worst of Xherdan Shaqiri
This week’s Oatcake fanzine carried an article suggesting, in the kindest possible way, that Xherdan Shaqiri’s start at the club had been, for a player of his reputation, slightly undercooked. In the cold light of day, it’s hard to disagree.
Shaqiri is a very skillful footballer indeed, but we’ve only very occasionally glimpsed his capacity to truly tear a team to shreds, as he did Manchester City in early December or Everton at the end of that same month. Shaqiri the world class superstar, the ‘Alpine Messi’, is yet to consistently show at the Britannia Stadium just how he earned that nickname.
There are mitigating circumstances. It can take a lot of overseas players, and little, creative types especially, of time to acclimatise to the physicality, speed and intensity of English football. That reputation has also seen him the subject of close attention from defenders, with many managers ensuring there are two or three players snapping at his ankles the second he gets the ball.
It’s also been a long time since Shaqiri played regular football, having been a bit-part player at Bayern then Inter since 2012. Perhaps as a consequence of that, he’s had problems with his troublesome hamstrings and didn’t enjoy much of a pre-season.
However, there also appears to be a bit of a mental block in some areas with Shaqiri, and the first half summed up all of the most disappointing traits he’s displayed so far. He was reluctant to take his man on. His delivery was atrocious, particularly from corners, which were invariably weak, low and easily dealt with. He had no interest in helping out Bardsley, with Cissokho, their left back, either left completely free or marked by Glenn Whelan, who dropped in to do Shaqiri’s job for him.
I don’t know if words were exchanged at half time, be they motivational or of a somewhat harsher, bluer nature, but the Shaqiri who came out for the second half was a different player. He was busier, he now ran at Cissokho, he found space, and his range of passing was just gorgeous. He essentially produced both goals, with his clever ball into Bardsley’s path to win the penalty and his brilliant cross to the far post that seemed to have some kind of hallucinogenic power on Bunn and allowed Arnie to pounce. He also played a couple of delightful through balls that Arnie and Walter respectively couldn’t capitalise on. Nobody on the pitch created more chances.
This was much more like the Shaqiri we’d seen strutting his stuff in the Champions League for Basel and World Cup for Switzerland. Has the penny dropped? Maybe, or maybe it’ll be next season when we finally see the best of him.
Either way, consistency is needed if Shaqiri is to prove himself worthy of the hype.
4) Afellay is winning the battle with Bojan
One of the more interesting questions on the messageboard of late (not to revolve around the phrase ‘brown wings’ or the extent to which Danny Pugh inspires you) has been who should take the attacking midfield berth, with Bojan and Ibrahim Afellay being the primary contenders and even Stephen Ireland staking an unlikely claim earlier in the year.
On paper it’s a contest you’d expect Bojan to win, as the poster boy of Mark Hughes’ ‘new Stoke’. However, the wee man is struggling for form at the moment. That’s an accusation that could also have been levelled at Afellay, who’d tailed off slightly after really coming into his own over the festive period. However, the former PSV and Barca star has rediscovered his mojo after a fine showing and great goal at Bournemouth a fortnight ago, and has nudged himself ahead of Senor Krkic, whose own slump continues.
The Villa game threw their contrasting fortunes into sharp focus. Afellay was Stoke’s pivotal performer in midfield. Virtually all of our play went through him, he completed the most dribbles of any player on the park and he was the man really trying to make things happen. His wicked low cross almost bewitched Okore into an own goal and he was the game’s most fouled player as the visitors sought to halt his runs by any means necessary. An intelligent, athletic, technical marvel, he was back to his best. He protected the ball and used it sensibly as well as looking to create.
It’s a little perplexing then, that he should be the man removed after 70 minutes. He didn’t, to me at least, look to have overly exerted himself and wasn’t injured, nor did he look exactly thrilled at the manager’s decision to give him a rest.
So on came Bojan, and our performance came screeching to a standstill. We became worryingly anaemic, lost the ball more often, and found ourselves increasingly under pressure. Bojan found himself knocked off the ball or isolated in attack, his lack of aptitude or attitude for defensive work contributing to our decline and leading, after the goal, to a reading of the riot act from messrs Whelan and Pieters.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Afellay and Bojan, not just because the former has considerably more experience, but because they are very different players. Bojan is a classic number 10. He plays behind a central striker (or as the nominal central striker in the false 9 set-up) in an advanced role, more of a creative forward than a midfielder. Afellay operates deeper. He does not play the same role that Bojan plays. He’s closer to the other midfielders, and he has more of a defensive job and a brief to drive us forward. It is not a purely creative undertaking. He shields the ball, he picks it up from deep, and he surges forward. That role, at present, with a makeshift and ever-changing back four, is currently required more than Bojan’s exciting, twinkle-toed stylings higher up the pitch.
The decision to swap one for the other, as discussed, smacked of having the cigars out, but Afellay’s slightly grittier, controlling style of play was much missed as our opponents sought to salvage something.
Bojan’s time will come again for sure and you can rest assured we’ll all be eulogising about him, serenading him and writing dirty limericks in his honour before too long. But for now, he’ll have to wait. With the captain and three other defenders out, and a clean sheet seemingly beyond us, it’s a case of all hands on deck.
There simply isn’t room in the side for a free role at the moment.
5) The ghost of Aston Villa presents a cautionary tale
You have to give it to Villa fans – they’re usually good for a laugh. Admittedly, that hasn’t always been intentional and has often come with a helpful dollop of dramatic irony (their chorus of ‘We’ll Meet Again when 2-0 up against us in 2009 before our fondly remembered late comeback) or good, old-fashioned delusion (chanting “empty seats m’lord at Stoke’s visiting fans when there were twice as many vacancies among the home crowd; singing “how do you watch that every week” during a game we were dominating just a week after we’d blown Bolton away at Wembley), but a giggle’s a giggle.
To be fair to them, they were on much better form on Saturday, far more so than what passes for their team these days. They were in full-on ‘relegation celebration’ mode, noisy all the way through, and have heartily embraced the gallows humour, ironically cheering completed passes by the end. Even that was more than their players deserved.
Lack of commitment has been a theme throughout Villa’s season, from the well-documented player-fan conference at Wycombe, to Joleon Lescott’s post-Liverpool apology and Remi Garde’s disarming honesty of recent weeks. There were signs in the early going that they were at least going to give it a go at the Brit, successfully frustrating us during the first half, roughing us up a bit in the process. They were largely reduced to wild, wide potshots, with little support for the creature that’s eaten Gabriel Agbonlahor when he waddled forward on the counter, but they were a world better than they’d been in their 6-0 drubbing two Sundays prior.
Even then though, the malaise was there. When 5ft6 Xherdan Shaqiri is winning aerial duels, you know something’s wrong. When a central defender with 26 England caps all but rolls out the red carpet for a player to knock the ball into an empty net, you know something’s wrong.
That one of the biggest clubs in the country, a multiple-time winner of all three domestic trophies and former European champions, hailing from the country’s second-largest city, should find themselves in this state sounds a sobering warning about how quickly things can go sour when an owner tires of his plaything.
For a long time, Randy Lerner was seen as the model benevolent foreign owner. He talked the talk. He splashed the cash. He even got the club badge tattooed on his ankle. But disillusionment set in after Martin O’Neill (who always seems to get off lightly when people talk of the architects of Villa’s decline) wasted a tonne of cash on one season wonders like Marlon Harewood, Nigel Reo-Coker and Nicky Shorey and the rot gradually set in.
Following O’Neil’s shock departure on the eve of the 2010-11 season came a slew of bizarre managerial appointments. Gereard Houllier was given the thankless task of managed decline despite his health problems being well-documented; Eschewing the available Mark Hughes for Alex McCleish, who’d just got their city rivals relegated playing football Tony Pulis would describe as ‘a bit negative’, defied belief. Giving work to the charlatan that is Tim Sherwood and then again ignoring the obvious candidate (David Moyes this time) in favour of the inexperienced Garde have finished the demolition job. In the midst of all this, assets have been sold and the money well and truly wasted. Young (£20m) Downing (£20m) Milner (£22m) Benteke (£32m) all raised wads of cash and what do they have to show for it? Leandro Bacuna and Rudy Gestede.
You suspect it’ll be a long time before we see them back in the Premier League, and even if they find a buyer, the Championship is fertile ground for conmen and know-nothing egotists, as Portsmouth, Leeds, and Nottingham Forest, among others, have learned to their cost.
It’s a real shame for a club boasting one of the biggest and most vocal groups of supporters in the land. And if it could happen to them, it could happen to anybody.