1) Home games have become something to dread
Unbeaten in four. Opponents have taken one point from their last available seven. Their star striker hasn’t scored for 11 games. Did anyone not see this coming?
Just as, under the old regime, away days could be fairly safely written off as little more than an expensive day’s drinking, games at the Brit have become painful experiences that simply do not cater to this team’s strengths.
There was little faulting the side Mark Hughes picked, with the return of the captain an added bonus.
The early exchanges were pretty even-steven, and Stoke put together one or two decent moves, with Giannelli Imbula shooting just over.
Then, with their first meaningful attack of the afternoon, Southampton took the lead, and the contest promptly fell into a depressingly familiar pattern.
The warning siren had been sounded loud and clear when Shane Long was given the freedom of the Stoke right to cross for Graziano Pelle to flick a header that Jack Butland pushed over the bar. No heed was paid, however, and from the resulting corner Pelle stole a march to beat three different Stoke players to the ball, this time crashing his header squarely and truly into the net. It was embarrassingly easy.
From then on, we got the usual staid, turgid, ponderous approach play from Stoke, as Saints flooded the midfield to stop Imbula in his tracks and also crowded out the wide men and Mame Diouf. We took too long to move the ball forward. We had players standing still on the wing when they should have been running. We had myriad crosses into the box to one lonely striker. You know, the usual.
The visitors went close again when a great ball from Martina at right back sent Long away, and he effortlessly got goal side of Erik Pieters before Butland won their one-on-one with a strong stop from the Irishman’s angled drive.
It soon got worse. On the half-hour mark, a looping cross from the Southampton left evaded everyone, including Pelle and Geoff Cameron at the far post. Pelle gave chase however, outmuscled the US international, swapped passes with Tadic and then curled a smart shot under the outstretched arm of Butland (who will feel he should’ve done better). Very neat stuff from the visitors, a(nother) defensive horror show from us, and it was game over.
We didn’t force so much as a corner of our own during the opening 45 minutes. Southampton meanwhile, should’ve wrapped things up comfortably. On half time Long repeated his earlier trick but squared for Tadic, who inexplicably took an age to pull the trigger from around 10 yards out and was halted by a brilliant last-ditch stop from Cameron. Had he struck it first time, it would surely have been three.
We sucked our teeth in anticipation of the trauma awaiting us in the second half, but to our surprise, Stoke actually started like they meant business. As Saints took their foot off the pedal, we hopped on it, with Imbula, enduring by some distance his worst half in a Stoke shirt before the interval, now coming to the fore, and the hosts camping out in the opposition half.
At the heart of our best creative moves was Ibrahim Afellay, and it was he who produced Stoke’s goal, first feeding Bojan (a first half sub for the injured Shaqiri), whose jinking run and tricks beat Targett down the Stoke right before his low cross was cut out, then receiving the ball again on the left from Imbula and putting in a low, teasing ball that Arnautovic stabbed home from close range at the near post. It was the most fluid, clever move we put together all game.
Now it looked like the draw was on. Arnautovic rolled Martina only for Forster to palm away his rasping shot. Cameron’s low cross bobbled along the turf for Diouf in roughly the same spot it had for Tadic earlier, put he too dallied and his eventual shot was deflected over.
With no breakthrough imminent, Hughes threw on Peter Crouch for Whelan. It was an undeniably positive move, but its repercussions actually stymied our attacking to the effect that we didn’t create another meaningful chance all afternoon. It effectively asked Imbula to run our entire midfield and left us with no ideas beyond knocking it long in Crouch’s direction, a tactic heartily enjoyed by Virgil van Dijk, who headed away pretty much every single ball.
At the other end, Tadic was felled in the box by Butland, but Beelzebub was forced to crack out the de-icer as Lee Mason actually cocked something up in our favour and refused to point to the spot. Tadic’s replacement, James Ward-Prowse, rattled the bar with a fine free kick shortly afterwards.
Our threat neutered, there was just time for Sadio Mane to go unnecessarily charging into Pieters and earn himself a straight red card, before the curtain fell on another bleak afternoon at home.
We’re at the stage now where defeats like this don’t make you angry, just disappointed. In 16 of 18 home games in all competitions this season, the first team to score has gone on to win. Yet we still make the stupid mistakes that allow teams to open the scoring, and we still have no inkling how to break defensive teams down. As soon as Pelle headed that first goal, the crowd might as well have got their fanzines (you do buy the fanzines, right?) out and read them cover to cover, as the result was set in stone there and then. It’s been like this since the start of the Hughes era and that godawful defeat to Norwich, and we’re further away than ever from the problems being resolved.
We’re a good team, but we’re on the cusp of being the best Stoke side potentially ever, and our home form and mystifying inability to even look like doing anything about it is holding us back.
It’s a damn shame.
2) Koeman comprehensively outmanoeuvres Hughes
Two old foes from Rotterdam ’91 clashed again, and this time the Dutchman got the better of the Welshman. Despite being hamstrung by suspensions to key players Wanyama and Fonte, Koeman had done his homework on Stoke; the in-form Shaqiri was shackled, and Imbula wasn’t allowed to settle and dictate proceedings until it was far too late.
Having abandoned the back three Southampton had been using, Koeman utilised a more conventional 4-2-3-1, with Long and Tadic either side of Steven Davis, and Pelle leading the line. However, their counter-attacking was led by their full backs, Martina and Targett, and their forward forays and clever, raking passes into the channels seemed to totally confuse Stoke, with none of our defenders seemed to have a scooby who to mark.
Long had a similar impact in the erstwhile ‘Odemwingie role’ of a striker deployed wide right, continually using his pace against our high line to get in behind us in dangerous areas, his busy antagonism never giving Pieters nor Wollscheid a moment’s peace.
Pelle meanwhile, smartly went up against Cameron in open play, and the American was no match for his brawn. The way Pelle monstered him for the second goal, creating something from nothing, was superb centre forward play, first using his strength to win a ball he was second favourite for, then losing him altogether via some nice pass and move.
Stoke, once again, made no provisions for the opposition. We did what we always do in this kind of game and were obliging hosts, always waiting, in the midst of our own breaks, for their players to recover and get back behind the ball, rarely deviating from the ‘cross-it-in-to-one-marked-player’ routine.
When we did seize the initiative, we ended up surrendering it, courtesy of the panic sub that saw Crouch sent on in Whelan’s stead; thus removing the foundations that allowed us to attack and reverting to the kind of hit and hope that we’d allowed ourselves to believe had been consigned to history. Whelan had been the one to recycle the ball from deep, allowing Imbula to go forward, finding the full backs and players like Afellay, who were trying to make things happen. The change meant Imbula’s freedom was restricted as he now had to take on all of the Irishman’s defensive duties.
We had two strikers, two wingers and Bojan on the pitch, and our only means of supply was aerial bombardment. Van Dijk, who made twice as many clearances and won more aerial duels than anyone else on the pitch, couldn’t believe his luck.
This blog is a big fan of Mark Hughes, but this season, more than his previous two here, has raised some searching tactical questions of him that are really not close to being answered.
3) The centre forward needs some help
Following Mame Biram Diouf’s return to form at Chelsea last weekend, there was real hope he’d get a run in the side and prove himself the answer to our goalscoring woes. Unfortunately, all Saturday did was suggest that it doesn’t really matter who’s up front when chances are at such a premium.
Diouf had a quiet game and didn’t really do a lot, but again, he suffered from a lack of service. It’s hard to find space against a packed, deep defence at the best of times, and though his movement wasn’t always brilliant, he was hardly alone in that, and when he did run, our midfielders held onto the ball until the moment had passed.
He did miss another great chance that he really should’ve done better with, and his critics have been quick to talk of ‘fine margins’ at this level and how a better striker would make the most of the scraps he’s given.
But that just doesn’t wash. Are we seriously saying that a team with Bojan, Arnautovic, Shaqiri and Afellay at its disposal shouldn’t expect to create chances at home? Pull the other one.
Something needs to change. My question is this: Is it time to start playing two strikers at home?
The Saints might not technically have done this, with Long playing wide, but he operated very much as a striker, finding that central space and tormenting the defence with his speed.
When we beat Newcastle a couple of weeks back, it took a switch to 4-4-2 to unlock them, with Crouch and Diouf combining well to open up the Geordies and the latter providing the matchwinning assist. There’s a strong argument that Diouf, Crouch and Joselu have throughout their careers been better suited to a strike partnership. Having two strikers would double the worry for opposing defences, allowing for more movement, more chaos – stuff that’s been lacking entirely from too many of our home games this season.
It’d raise questions of course – neither Imbula, nor Afellay, nor Whelan deserve to be dropped, and it’d be difficult to re-integrate Bojan into that kind of set-up – to an extent it’s just thinking out loud. But Plan A is not working, and whichever poor sod is stuck up front needs more support than he’s getting.
4) An unhappy return for the captain
I didn’t quite allow myself to believe Ryan Shawcross would be back for the game, so it was still a happy surprise for me when he was named in the starting XI. And in the early exchanges he appeared not to have missed a beat, pulling Wollscheid out of the fire and pointing and bellowing inside three minutes. It was as if he’d never been away.
That relief at his return was tempered a bit by the defence’s descent into chaos thereafter, with the constant chopping and changing done to the back line clearly not doing it any favours.
It was a weird situation in that each member of the back four (apart possibly from Erik Pieters, who is injured and sorely in need of a rest) had outstanding moments – Ryan and Wollscheid each saved the other at times, timed challenges well, got some important blocks in, while Geoff Cameron stopped a certain third goal with a last-gasp challenge on Tadic – yet we could easily have conceded four or five goals. Collectively the defence was a shambles. Pelle, Tadic and Long gave them hell all game.
The goals offer strong evidence of their shortcomings. Wollscheid, an assured presence for much of the game, was nowhere near his man, Pelle at the corner, and his attempt to stop him resembled someone frantically trying to protect themselves from a wasp…
Ryan, at times, was reminiscent of his imperious best, but looked rusty at others, and was rolled far too easily by Tadic for the second and sucked out of position more than once when Southampton broke.
Cameron, despite making the most tackles, was poor and his performance almost made one yearn for the return of Phil Bardsley, let alone Glen Johnson.
His positioning was at its worst, his concentration was lax, and he had a role in both Saints goals. He was AWOL when Long crossed for Butland to head over in the move that forced the first fateful corner; and he shouldn’t have allowed Pelle an easy ride for the second, losing out to him and then allowing him to turn when he should have shepherded to safety. After some strong showings in central defence and midfield this season, the 30-year-old served a reminder that he is not a right back.
At the very least, it’s good to have our talisman back, though the twinge he felt in his back towards the end was worrying and raised questions as to whether he’d been rushed back. There was no need to, so you would assume that isn’t the case; either way, a settled, stable back four will be important if we are to finish with a flourish.
5) Mason shows how tough refs have it
Whisper it, but we’ve had a bit of luck with decisions in recent weeks. The Chelsea game could’ve seen us concede a penalty and be reduced to 10 men before our equaliser came along, but for the generosity of Mark Clattenburg. Saturday could have been a battering but for some favours from the unlikely, bulbous form of ol’ pumpkinhead himself, Lee Mason.
Mason opted not to point to the spot when Tadic raced into the box and was clipped by Butland. Not long afterwards he produced a straight red when Mane launched himself into Pieters. Both decisions, having seen multiple slow motion replays, appear incorrect.
That was chastening, as watching the game live at the stadium, the crowd was in unanimous belief that Tadic had dived, the Serb being booed vociferously from that point on, while I’d have bet my house on Mane’s challenge being tantamount to GBH. Yet the replays instead showed Butland taking out Tadic, his reaction suggesting he thought he was in trouble, while Mane, though arguably reckless and unnecessary, was still making a genuine attempt to head the ball when he was dismissed. The card will in all probability be rescinded.
It’s become clichéd to highlight it, but referees really only do get one view of an incident in real time before having to make a judgement call, yet they get pelters from those who have the luxury of technology not afforded to officials.
Of course, the referees’ governing body, PGMOL, does its members no favours by not permitting them to explain their decisions to the cameras, a senseless omerta that only serves to strengthen unsubstantiated, baseless suggestions of corruption and entirely well-founded claims of incompetence. What are they afraid of?
Either way, perhaps it takes your own team getting away with a few to appreciate the lot of the referee more and cut them some slack. Advances are being made to help the man with the whistle – first we had football’s answer to hawkeye, and video assistance is, at long last, on the way– but maybe a bit more patience wouldn’t go amiss, and this blog will try hard to lay off refs in future.
At least until the next time we get Andre Marriner.