1) A curious improvement
Ordinarily, a draw at home to the side in 17th place – coming as a result of a penalty conceded in the 92nd minute – would be a weekend ruiner. Disappointing though this draw undeniably is, however, especially in light of Stoke’s dominance and the chances they created, this was a fixture where the performance mattered more than the result. Some weeks, it’s just nice not to lose 4-0.
After roughly a month of anaemic, weak-willed, and just plain weak showings, we needed a sign that our recent plight is merely a symptom of an end-of-season switch-off, rather than the onset of terminal velocity. We got that.
It was not a brilliant performance by any stretch of the imagination, and the fact that it required us to go very much back to basics to find that performance perhaps raises as many questions as answers, but ultimately, there was improvement in all areas and that has to be a positive.
We forged more than enough opportunities to win comfortably, our defending (albeit against less than threatening opposition) was generally a lot less chaotic (until injury time at least), and players who’d been struggling for form – Bardsley, Shawcross, Whelan, Imbula – were back on their game.
So too was the manager. His starting XI was surprising and the inclusion of Peter Crouch in particular puzzling, but he was proven 100% correct. He took steps to get a reaction from his team and he got one.
Despite this being a much bigger game for the visitors it was Stoke who started more positively, and a fine chipped pass from Shaqiri almost put Arnautovic through in the early stages. We were faster, stronger, and Sunderland seemed unprepared for our return to a more direct style. Crouch was winning everything pumped in his direction, with Arnie and Imbula (again pushed up into a more advanced role) feeding off his knock-downs. Arnie and Crouch could and possibly should have had two apiece in the first half alone; one Crouch header was tipped away by Mannone after fellow returnee Charlie Adam had crossed from the left; a fine Phil Bardsley cross from the right was similarly headed just wide by the big man. Arnie meanwhile, was struggling with a muscle injury and clearly not fit, but still exerted a strong creative influence, perplexing Billy Jones before flashing a shot just wide, and then skying a golden opportunity after another Crouch flick-on set Imbula away to tee him up.
Sunderland had their moments and finished the half the stronger side, but they just didn’t create anything of note. Their biggest chance of the first half came when Patrick Van Aanholt raced forward but tamely trickled a shot into Jakob Haugaard’s hands when Khazri was better placed – to the naked apoplexy of his manager. They also had a reasonable penalty claim rejected when Geoff Cameron appeared to handle Yedlin’s cross.
The stage was still very much set for second half catastrophe, but instead we seized the initiative and opened the scoring. Again, Adam and Crouch were at the heart of things, the chunky Dundonian lofting another excellent cross into the area for Crouch, who ‘outmuscled’ Kaboul (with both hands on the defender’s back) to direct a header towards Arnie, the Austrian judging the bounce better than Kone before picking his spot and drilling home. Allardyce insisted Crouch had fouled his defender, but this is Peter Crouch we’re talking about, big friendly giant and all-round good egg. Do you really think he’d turn to the dark arts to gain an advantage over an opponent?
Either way, the goal was no more than Stoke deserved, but it also woke the mackems up. For the first time in the contest they looked dangerous, as Defoe hooked one shot just over after careless play from Shaqiri, and had another deflected just wide when it looked for all the world like it was going in. The entrance of Duncan Watmore added extra nuisance factor.
For our part, our subs again had a negative effect on our forward play, but they couldn’t entirely be helped. Arnie signalled to the bench that he couldn’t carry on and was replaced by a less than fit-looking Jon Walters, while the ineffectual Shaqiri’s removal was pretty unavoidable too, given how often he was losing the ball.
Still we created chances. Adam put a free kick just over. Glenn Whelan, of all people, sidefooted a shot inches wide from outside the box. Adam’s substitution removed the last vestige of creativity from the side, but there was time for one last golden opportunity, when a break led to Crouch and Walters combining to put Imbula through on goal. Our record signing, however, checked back, hesitated and finally screwed his shot the wrong side of the post. It felt at the time as if we’d live to regret that miss, and we really, really would.
60 seconds later, M’Vila played in Defoe, and the veteran striker felt Cameron’s hand on him and made sure to maximise the effect. It was soft, but it was clumsy. Craig Pawson pointed to the spot, and Defoe duly slammed home the penalty to rapture in the away end. A point isn’t, in the cold light of day, a great result for the Black Cats, but it was one more than they deserved.
Still, there were positives in our display. The decision to go direct and bring back Crouch and Adam reminded us that Hughes can be flexible. The approach yielded a number of chances and was far removed from the turgid purgatory that home games have become. It might not be sophisticated, but as anyone who’s eaten a Ferrero Rocher knows, sophisticated can be overrated.
Negatives? Well, Shaqiri disappointed again, failing to display much beyond the odd nice pass here and there. His pace isn’t what we were told it was, his bag of tricks still appears decidedly shallow, and his work rate at times is lamentable. On days like this, you really do wonder if it’s going to work out for him at all here. The subs, again, were problematic. There wasn’t much choice when it came to replacing the wingers, but Adam’s removal for Marc Muniesa was negative and meant we had no creativity left on the park. If Adam really couldn’t last the distance, surely Bojan would have provided a outlet to pick out the runs of Diouf and Walters?
A word too, on the referee. Some officials come into games with a clear agenda. Others let their ego get the better of them, preening away for the cameras. Pawson was just completely incompetent, managing to enrage both sets of fans with his bumbling ineptitude and inconsistency. Both sides have cause to be aggrieved at the goals they conceded; he got at least one penalty decision wrong; his booking of Adam after letting N’Doye get away with two of the most cynical fouls you’ll see moments earlier beggared belief. He had a bad day all round.
Still, once again Stoke only have themselves to blame. When visitors score first at the Brit they tend to win. When Stoke score first at the Brit, lump on the draw.
Nevertheless, the performance was decent, fringe players staked a claim, and the rot has been stopped. That’ll do.
2) Killer instinct eludes Potters
It seems an odd thing to say about a team well and truly in the relegation mire, but I expected a lot more from Sunderland. After their last two games, a thrashing of Norwich in a six pointer and a creditable draw with Arsenal, I thought they’d come and make life very uncomfortable for us, given our own problems in recent weeks.
However, the visitors were desperately poor, and despite their manager’s laughable protestations that they should have won, they were unbelievably fortunate to emerge with a point. They should have been dead and buried long before the penalty.
There was little to fear from their attacking play and, bar a couple of decent snapshots from Defoe in the second half and a powder puff effort from van Aanholt in the first half, it’s difficult to recall them causing us any serious mither. More surprising was how open they were at the back; they organised themselves into the standard Big Sam two banks of four, but Hughes got the drop on Allardyce with his changes to the starting line up, and Adam’s delivery and Crouch’s presence caused them constant problems. The space the target man created benefited Arnautovic in particular, and we forged four or five really good opportunities that we really should have taken.
Arnie took his goal well, but he was the chief offender when it came to profligacy. If he can’t be blamed for his first half chance that went just past the post, an opening he created for something from nothing with a drop of his shoulder and burst of acceleration, his miss when Imbula played him in just afterwards was a shocker. There’s a touch what scientists are calling ‘The Jerome Equation’ about his finishing at times – the formula whereby the more time a striker is given to shoot, the less likely he is to score.
He’s also still too unselfish for his own good at times as well – at 1-0, he again got into the box only to try and square for Shaqiri when he’d surely have scored if he’d just leathered it. Still, considering his lack of fitness, his influence was exceptional.
Crouch, as discussed, had two fine headed chances, Adam and Whelan went close from range, and, as this weekend’s Oatcake Fanzine noted this weekend, we are still cursed by players slipping over at key moments. What’s going on there?
The big regret of the afternoon though, was Imbula’s miss near the end. It was simply a case of the wrong man at the right time. If that falls to a forward, we surely go 2-0 up and put the game to bed. But nobody seemed less confident about Imbula scoring than the man himself. Put clean through on goal, he seemed to slow right down, wait for defenders to catch him up, checked and then put a disappointing shot wide. It was probably the finish you’d expect from a man with just eight career goals in 212 professional appearances.
We’re no stranger to cocking up much meatier leads than a single goal, so it was no massive surprise that we did so again moments later. However, galling and costly though our wastefulness was, the fact that we created so many decent chances is in itself encouraging. Keep doing that and the goals will come. They’ll have to, as well, as we can’t keep a clean sheet to save our lives.
3) Stoke go direct – and not before time
The inclusion of Peter Crouch saw us adopt a more direct approach, and Haugaard to Crouch was the game’s most common passing combination.
It was the right call at both ends of the pitch.
With Sunderland going for two banks of four, having a focal point helped us and, as discussed, Crouch’s presence played a big part in us creating more chances than normal and in the goal we scored.
The big complaint about our home displays this season has been that we’re too slow in our build-up play and unable to break through stubborn defences. Crouch’s flick-on and knock-downs were an antidote to this, as they moved the ball on more quickly and created space. One flick from a throw took three Sunderland defenders out of the game and gave Imbula and ocean of room to drive forward and release Arnie. Going long saw us get behind the Sunderland back line with surprisingly regularity.
Defensively too, it was a sensible decision to go back to basics. With a fragile defence, changed once again from the previous encounter, and a rookie keeper in goal, now was not the time to patiently play it out from the back. It was a time to get rid and not muck about, which by and large is what we did.
It’s also fair to say that this wasn’t a case of one-dimensional hoofing. We actually had more possession, and the top 11 passing combos involved Stoke players.
We were also direct in more ways than one. Arnie, Imbula and Adam all looked to go past players and get forward, leading the way in the take-on stats.
Might this offer a blueprint for future home games? People have a downer on direct football but done right it can be thrilling and prolific, as Leicester have shown this season. In our best spells under Tony Pulis, we blended the usual long diagonals with explosive wing play or, before that, the maverick stylings of Ricardo Fuller, to great effect. The performances in spring 2010/11, with Etherington and Pennant out wide and the mobility of Walters and Jones (don’t laugh, it happened), produced what probably remains the best football we’ve played in the last 25 years at least.
The flip side to this as a possible solution is that it’s not a long term one, given its reliance on players who don’t really have a long-term future here and can’t produce consistently. That’s probably a question for another time though. Fine tune this approach, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to use it more often.
4) Adam makes a welcome return
After three promising-looking team sheets that resulted in spankings, it was ironic that on paper this starting XI looked a lot dodgier yet produced a much stronger performance. Again, you have to take the calibre of the opposition into account, but this was a Stoke with much more grit and spirit in it.
If the returns of Erik Pieters and Xherdan Shaqiri were widely anticipated, and Shay Given’s injury meant Jakob Haugaard’s recall was inevitable as well, the changes to the spine of the team were not. I certainly didn’t see the decision to bench Philipp Wollscheid coming, a move prompted either by concerns about Defoe’s pace or by his own poor displays in the last few games. As we’ll discuss, Geoff Cameron’s move to central defence brought its own problems, but on the whole we looked much more solid.
We’ve already talked at length about Crouch’s impact and the difference having a focal point up front had, but almost as important was the restoration of Charlie Adam to the side. There was a growing clamour for him to be involved more among supporters, and an understandable one at that. He can be hit and miss, he rarely lasts the 90 minutes and he can be a liability, but the qualities he brings are ones we’ve been sorely lacking, really, since the turn of the year – particularly at home. He played a significant role in the team’s strong finishes to the last two seasons, and with the team looking weak and barren in terms of creativity, he was a gamble well worth taking.
Adam was key to the team getting the ball forward more quickly, as he looked to drive forward and go past players. When he got into wide areas, his delivery put the rest of the side’s to shame, and having nearly created a goal for Crouch in the first half, he then picked him out perfectly in the second to produce our goal.
It was also pleasing to see him add some ballast to the middle of the park. He closed down opponents, he chased round, he made tackles and he was impressively – and surprisingly – disciplined in one of the deeper midfield roles. This was Charlie on his best behaviour.
His performance in the role, and the fact that we again moved Giannelli Imbula into the advanced midfield role, does raise some awkward questions about our record signing. After a great start to life at Stoke, he is struggling to perform aspects of the role we’ve asked him to do; he continues to hold onto the ball for too long, and the defensive side of his game is non-existent. Is playing him further forward a temporary measure to help get him up to speed? Or are we giving up on him as the new Nzonzi already?
That’s probably a question for another time, but in the interim, but when we badly needed battle, bottle and creativity, Charlie Adam answered the call. We all know the risks that come with him, but whatever your opinion of him, he does not hide. He should see out the season in the team.
5) Cameron pays the penalty yet again
Quick stat for you: nearly a third of the penalties Stoke have conceded in all competitions over the last two seasons have been conceded by Geoff Cameron. No Stoke player has conceded more.
It’s a frustrating monument to the U.S. international’s clumisness, again on show in the dying seconds on Saturday. There wasn’t a huge amount in the contact and we might feel aggrieved, but equally there was no need for Cameron to put his hands on him. You could almost see the puff of smoke into which the two points disappeared.
All defenders make mistakes of course, and the captain gave away an even dafter penalty last weekend. It’s just so frustrating in Cameron’s case because 1) he never seems to learn and 2) it besmirched an otherwise excellent performance from the pride of Attleboro, Massachusetts.
He and the rejuvenated Phil Bardsley had been the pick of Stoke’s defenders, and Hughes’ opting to restore him to the heart of defence looked like a masterstroke. Cameron’s mobility and athelticism meant he was able to cover for Shawcross’ lack of mobility and get across to help out when Bardsley went forward. He timed his challenges expertly, he was alive to danger and he was strong in the air. Cameron came second in terms of the highest number of clearances made, balls recovered and passes completed, while nobody made more interceptions.
Yet that just serves to underline that one big blemish against his name. He is a penalty magnet. He almost conceded one in the first half when he inexplicably raised his arm to make contact with the ball when a cross came in. There was literally no danger and no need to do it; it was as if it was involuntary, a weird kind of football Tourette’s.
Ryan Shawcrosses don’t grow on trees, but it’s clear that we need, at the very least, a new long term partner for the captain. The other centre backs at the club are all 90%ers; most of the time, they’ll look assured, composed and competent. But each – Wilson, Wollscheid, Cameron, even Marc Muniesa this season, has that one almighty rick in them per game or every other game that threatens to cost us. We cannot afford that.
Cameron, meanwhile, needs to stop giving away penalties, or pay one of his own – with his place in the team.