1) Stoke do it to themselves (and that’s what really hurts)
For some reason, this feels worse than a defeat. Had we lost this game, there were at least ready-made excuses and it wouldn’t have been a massive surprise. We were missing our goalkeeper, half of our first-choice defence and our starting right winger, with another 2-3 players patched up and hastily reassembled like humpty dumpty just to be able to put a team out. Besides, this is the kind of game we lose at home – we’re a counter-attacking side and we just can’t break teams like this down. It’s poor but it’s no surprise.
Except we did break them down. We scored twice. We created chances. We scored the first goal we thought was so crucial. And we still didn’t win. That’s the sting in the tail, and there can be no excuses. We ballsed this right up.
Swansea played well and fully deserved their draw, but make no mistake about it, Stoke only have themselves to blame for not taking all three points. Once we got ourselves into a commanding position, there was a widespread dereliction of duty in every department. And we rightly paid the price for that. No starters, no mains. Merely an entire trolley of just desserts.
The team that Mark Hughes selected looked sensible enough. Moving Ibrahim Afellay out wide and bringing back Bojan was the obvious call and the right one. He had a goalkeeping dilemma but his decision to play Jakob Haugaard was also, I believe, correct – just as Jack Butland was blooded around this time last year, it pays to get your young goalkeeper top flight experience when the opportunity presents itself.
Stoke started the game well enough. Swansea were determined to disrupt our flow by fair means or, more often, by foul. They did well to put pressure on us in midfield and high up the pitch, while the ever-feckless Martin Atkinson, a man who hands out cards like confetti to Stoke players but is a lot more reticent to do likewise for our opponents, allowed them to rough us up with impunity. How Ashley Williams was still on the pitch after an hour is a mystery – he’d lunged in on Stoke players twice in the opening 10 minutes before finally getting a booking for a nasty one on Joselu – while Wayne Routledge was a spiky, persistently fouling presence as well.
Still, in the first half Stoke did manage to play some good stuff. It took just 13 minutes to open the scoring, with good work from Bojan teeing up Marko Arnautovic, who got into the box by the left-hand touchline, dazzled Rangel and stuck a cross right on birthday boy Afellay’s head, the Dutchman finishing the move he’d started. Easy.
In a moment of foreshadowing, we then immediately threatened to let the lead slip as The Swans briefly laid siege to our goal. Three times in succession we were slow to get out to Swansea players on the edge of the box, but Bardsley and then Wollscheid eventually dealt with the danger.
There was some delightful interplay at times between our front four but the final ball just wasn’t there. Even when we did get it right, we didn’t take our chances; Afellay swung in a great ball but Joselu could only guide his header into Fabianski’s arms. The same player was then just offside when Afellay played another neat ball into the near post, though the Spaniard somehow missed the target anyway. A brilliant, jinking run from Bojan teed up Afellay, but the Dutch international could only fire wildly wide.
Swansea were finding plenty of space down our left but were mostly reduced to long shots that sailed over. It was clear though, that we’d need at least another goal.
That arrived eight minutes after the restart, when Bojan again got on the ball and drove forward, dropping a shoulder, getting into the box and squeezing a shot past Fabianski’s grasp and into the bottom corner. The wee man was back, Stoke were in control, all was right with the world.
Yet there were still 34 minutes to play, and the Swans looked more and more dangerous.
The entry of pacey winger Jefferson Montero added thrust to the away side’s play, and while our defence initially did the necessary to scramble the ball away, the momentum was very much with Swansea, and every opportunity we had to wrest it back was lazily squandered.
The first Swansea goal had been on the cards for a while – they had far too much space in the final third and we continued to present them with the ball. Now Pieters was left for dead by Routledge, who crossed to Gylfi Sigurdsson, the ex-Spurs man allowed the time to turn on the edge of the box, and rattle a shot that took Haugaard completely by surprise and zipped into the net.
Now panic set in. What had started as an almost-arrogant casualness in our play now turned to horrified, nervy, carelessness. We gave the ball away. We made the wrong decisions at both ends of the pitch. We left gaps for the likes of Montero and Routledge to exploit. Hughes threw on Mame Diouf out wide to double up on Montero, replacing the exhausted Bojan, but it made no difference. It was only a matter of time before the equaliser came, and when it did, it was again a mess of our own making. Wollscheid dispossessed Sigurdsson brilliantly but then carelessly gave the ball away as he strode out of defence. The Swans worked the ball to Montero, then eventually to Paloschi, who was also afforded turning space by Geoff Cameron with the same results, the substitute’s effort deflecting beyond the luckless Haugaard’s outstretched glove.
The fear now was that we’d go on to lose, as The Swans smelled blood. Yet we did rouse ourselves to create a couple more chances. Arnie whipped a free kick into the side netting. Joselu bustled through in stoppage time but Fabianski was again equal to his shot. That was the last meaningful action of the contest.
This was a hugely frustrating result and performance. At 2-0, we completely switched off, and then didn’t know how to switch on again. It’s also annoying to find that the problems at home run deeper than not being able to break teams down. There’s an attitude problem too, concentration issues that have surfaced before and finally bit us on the backside.
It was a grotesque lack of professionalism, and if Mark Hughes lashed out in all directions but the right one in his post-match interview, you would hope that in private he is giving his players both barrels.
2) Toxic complacency has not been stamped out
This was a result born of complacency. Yes, the entrance of Montero made a big difference, but the warning signs were there before he was sent on. After we scored our second, we simply switched off in every department.
The front four were suddenly less inclined to make the kind of runs they had been making. The midfield became increasingly casual and sloppy. Once Afellay moved inside following Diouf’s arrival, he became a liability, hesitant and unusually wasteful. Giannelli Imbula meanwhile, had been sussed early on by The Swans and just never got going. For the first time since he came to the club he wasn’t in the top five best dribblers on the pitch, and his off the ball work was non-existent.
With Glenn Whelan palpably unfit, all this meant there was little protection for the back line, and though they initially dealt well enough with Swansea’s resurgence, you could see there was trouble brewing. They were finding too much space, and we were standing off them.
Both Swansea goals had been telegraphed for some time. It’s careless enough to concede once by getting too tight to a forward and giving him the opportunity to turn and shoot on goal. To do it twice in the space of 10 minutes is criminal. Glenn Whelan was the guilty party for the first, Geoff Cameron for the second – two experienced pros who should know better.
Poor old Jakob Haugaard was the fall guy.
. You could possibly suggest he might have done better with the first but the deflection on the second took the ball away from him.
Once again, the manager’s subs didn’t help matters. If bringing on Diouf to help out Bardsley with Montero’s threat was understandable, the choice of Ireland to replace the struggling Whelan was mystifying. It had been a physical game and the Irishman’s floaty but fragile tendencies were not what the occasion called for. The obvious move was to put Marc Muniesa on and move Cameron into Whelan’s position, or at a push to utilise Charlie Adam’s robust stylings to add an outlet who could give as good as he got. Having neglected Ireland when he was in form earlier in the season however, Hughes now seems determined to use him as a go-to sub whatever the weather, while Adam, so vital this time last year, appears to be way down the list.
How Joselu managed to play the full 90 minutes when he’d long ceased to be of any use is another head-scratcher too.
The big worry stemming from the game though, was that the complacency evident here wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Though we haven’t cost ourselves points through spurning a lead since surrendering a two-goal advantage to Leicester in September, there have been numerous instances whereby we have been leading comfortably only to allow opponents an elementary consolation and set up a nervy finale. We did it at Watford last week, a convincing, dominant display turning into a panicky last 5 minutes after we allowed Troy Deeney a free header; we did it at home to Aston Villa, grimly holding on against one of the worst teams in Premier League history, breezing into a two-goal lead and then switching off and letting them run at us. Home wins against Bournemouth and Norwich this season saw us lose the lead soon after taking it and sent us back to the drawing board; having got ourselves level at West Brom, our lax defending of a set piece condemned us to another defeat against The Baggies.
Our players are human beings and not robots of course, and they will make mistakes, as do all teams. But too often we give away silly goals through concentration problems, be it via cruise control when we’re leading or taking our eye off things in games where the opposition is content to let us try and break them down. Two clean sheets since Boxing Day isn’t really good enough.
It is up to the management to take the steps to stamp this sleepiness out. Europe will remain a pipe dream until we sort out our home form in particular.
3) Joselu blows the audition
Joselu’s fine performance and well-taken goal at Watford meant he deservedly kept his place leading the line here. With the striking role continuing to be passed round like the proverbial hot potato, this was his chance to make the shirt his own.
He didn’t take it.
It wasn’t so much the chances he missed that were the problem, though he probably should’ve done better with his first half header that was directed straight at Fabianski and his close range side-footed effort that was, nevertheless, offside anyway. The issue was that the industry on show at Vicarage Road, where he covered more ground than any other Stoke player and made the most tackles of any player on the pitch, was conspicuous by its absence here. He didn’t chase down or pressurise defenders, his lay-offs became lazier and sloppier. His was a wishy-washy, lifeless display when we needed a bullish centre forward to take charge and lead from the front.
It was a similar story in November, when his fine performance away at Swansea earned him a start at home to Watford, only for him to all but vanish before our eyes in an embarrassing 0-2 defeat. It might be a harsh accusation, but does he rest on his laurels after a good performance?
It wasn’t all bad on Saturday – some of his back-to-goal link play in the first half was tidy, and he won more aerial duels than anyone else. Yet as a big fan of the striker’s potential, I was very disappointed that there was no indication he was intent on seizing his opportunity.
The striking merry-go-round continues.
4) Bojan’s return lights up the darkness
There were a fair few positives to take from the first hour or so; our patched-up defence actually performed very well during that time, especially the rejuvenated Phil Bardsley and classy Philipp Wollscheid. There was some delightful interplay from our front four and full backs, and we did actually manage to move the ball quickly and create some chances.
Far and away the biggest bright spot however was the return of Bojan. He is one player who can’t be accused of not taking his chance. Encouraging cameos at Chelsea and against Southampton represented small steps forward; this was one giant leap for Bojan-kind.
Looking much more like his old self, the wee Catalan was always eager to get on the ball and enjoyed running at the Swansea back line, displayed some brilliant one-touch passing and emerged from tight spaces with the ball at his feet.
The first half saw him produce the first real glimpse of ‘the old Bojan’ since his return. Picking up the ball near the half way line, he jinked and twinkled, beating one defender, then two more in quick succession, before slipping a pass into Afellay’s path on the right side of the area, only for the Dutch international to slice a dreadful effort well wide.
As it turned out, that moment was merely a dress rehearsal for his big moment after the break; if you want a job doing right, do it yourself, and Senor Krkic elected to do just that, running at Fernandez and then screwing in a low shot from the edge of the box that crept into the far corner. Delight and relief coursed through his celebration, and the resulting pile on from pretty much every outfield Stoke player showed how pleased they were for him. The magician was back.
Most pleasing of all perhaps was that this performance came in such a physical encounter, in which Ashley Williams and friends went in with studs flying and perpetrated niggly fouls all over the park. Since his injury Bojan has at times appeared slightly timid and afraid of hurting himself again, yet here he wasn’t cowed by the fact that he was an easy target and even at one stage went lunging in himself in search of vengeance.
It’s true that he tired considerably in the second half and there’s no question that he needed to come off. However, overall he was our attacking star of the show, and his return could prove vital in our final push for a Europa League place. He was the difference in unpicking a deep defence on Saturday, with his intelligent passing and willingness to take players on. Could the answer to our creative problems have been under our noses all along?
While some of our beloved stars look set for pastures new sooner rather than later, Bojan’s return, and his shiny new contract, serve as a reminder of his status as the crown jewel of the Hughes era. Get him fit and confident and he’ll take some stopping.
5) Another manager out-thinks Hughes
There was plenty of sympathy for Alan Curtis when his interim manager gig was curtailed early at Swansea to allow Francesco Guidolin to take the reigns. Yet while Swansea under Curtis looked in danger of spinning downwards at terminal velocity, Guidolin has revitalised the Welsh club. Wily old Italians are in vogue at the moment in the Premier League. It’s not hard to see why.
Whether Guidolin himself had done his homework on us, or whether his scouts had done so on his behalf, Swansea, like Ronald Koeman’s Southampton three weeks earlier, looked well prepared for their trip to ‘the bear pit’. Gianelli Imbula had again clearly been identified as an influential player and was neutered from the off, players swarming round him and denying him space as soon as he got on the ball, while they found plenty of space down our left flank in the first half, before turning their attention to our right in the second. In the middle, Leroy Fer was excellent, doing the job they’d prevented Imbula doing for us. Routledge was a pain, popping up all over the final third with or without the ball and dragging defenders with him. I’ve seen plenty of criticism of Bafetimbi Gomis’ performance, but he too was a nuisance, hounding our back line and keeping the pressure on, something Joselu in the equivalent role singularly failed to do.
Of course, it’d be daft to go overboard in praising Guidolin’s gameplan, given his team were 2-0 down after an hour and should have been absolutely dead and buried long before then; however, when they got their chance, thanks to Stoke dozing off, he took the steps to make sure they capitalised. His changes, Montero and Paloschi, significantly strengthened his team’s efforts where Hughes’ subs weakened those of The Potters.
It’s testament to Guidolin, and to Chairman Huw Jenkins, whose instincts appear spot on once again, that a club who looked for all the world like they’d be joining Aston Villa in the Championship are now all but guaranteed another season of Premier League football.
From our manager’s perspective, this match did at least offer an insight into how we might be less predictable at home, as Bojan’s pleasing return to form helped us open up the visitors more than we usually do in this type of game. We forged enough chances to be three or four goals to the good by the time Swansea clawed one back, and while the result is disappointing, that creativity is at least encouraging.
Now work on plugging the holes at the other end, Sparky.