1) Serious grounds for concern
As English football’s unlikeliest of champions prepared for a bonkers party in the East Midlands, the only dilly dinging and indeed donging in Potteries football is coming from the alarm bells that are well and truly clanging now.
Crystal Palace have long been a bogey side for Stoke, and Selhurst Park a graveyard. It’s a curious quirk that The Eagles are the first team in 43 games to beat us after we’ve scored first – and they were the last side to do it as well. Equally galling is the fact that they have won just three of their last 20 league games, and we account for two-thirds of those wins.
We have much bigger problems that weird statistics however. The team’s second half display was once again feckless, witless and weak, our reaction when the going got tough, as is becoming increasingly characteristic, to fold like the proverbial house of cards.
It all started so well. Fielding an unchanged side after an improved showing at home to Sunderland last week, at half time we’d put together a near-perfect away performance. Having survived an early flurry that almost saw a Cabaye free kick cannon in off Xherdan Shaqiri, we settled, defending better and smarter. We were fluid in attack, and we’d created some nice chances as well as opening the scoring. Our goal was very well crafted, with Gianelli Imbula, playing his best football for some time in that advanced midfield role, getting forward and feeding Arnautovic, who played a brilliant reverse pass into the onrushing Adam, in the right hand side of the penalty area, to finish low into the bottom corner for his first goal of the season – on his ‘wrong’ foot as well!
It felt like we’d only get stronger. The hosts had been generally lamentable, offering little threat, and these types of game has been nectar to us this season – we’d lost just two of nine away games at bottom-half sides up to this point.
However, Palace struck two minutes into the second half and everything changed. Clean sheets are just things that happen to other teams, though the skill with which Yannick Bolasie wove his way through our defence would have caused any back line problems, from the back eight we had a few years ago to Helenio Herrera’s 1960s Inter Catenaccio men. The Democratic Republic of Congo international twisted and turned, selling Shawcross a dummy, almost goading Cameron into giving away yet another penalty, before slipping the ball to the dangerous Howard Gayle, who stuck the ball in the net with a minimum of fuss.
A regroup was required but Stoke again opted to do their impression of Private Hudson from Aliens, essentially running around shrieking “game over man”.
Completely unprepared for the hosts’ own recovery, as if we didn’t realise teams were allowed to do that, we lost our shape (again) completely, leaving gaps at the back while falling back into the same ponderous creative coma we see in home games, shuffling the ball from side to side, getting nowhere, losing it and having to scramble back. Playing with renewed purpose, Palace twice went close, first when Puncheon shot just over, then when Souare’s fine cross was headed against the post by Connor Wickham, who’d totally lost Pieters at the back stick.
Naturally, our substitutions only made things worse. Off came Shaqiri, who’d been hit and miss but still had the potential to make something happen, and Adam, who was playing well, for Walters and Ireland, each a significant downgrade on the man he’d replaced.
Then came the inevitable, a veritable greatest hits package of our defensive brainfarts of the last month. Our high line caught out by a simple long ball, Gayle’s pace was too much for Ryan Shawcross, just as Kelechi Iheanacho’s had been a fortnight before, and the captain was again unable to quell the caveman inside him, blatantly and brainlessly yanking down the striker some 30 yards for goal. Next, we were treated to the latest instalment of Jakob Haugaard’s fruitless battle to save any shot that heads in his general direction, his positioning on the resulting free kick giving Gayle far too much of the goal to aim at. The ex-Peterborough man duly obliged with a fine curling effort into the inviting net.
With no pace and no ideas, it seemed highly unlikely Stoke would find a way back, but they came surprisingly close when Ireland’s clever threaded pass put Arnie in the clear. Wayne Hennessey rashly rushed out of his goal, the Austrian darted round him…but fired over with the empty net yawning.
And so five defeats from our last eight. Make no mistake about it, this is relegation form. The blog talked two weeks ago about how bad momentum can carry over and we currently bear all the hallmarks of a side that doesn’t know how to pull out of a tailspin. You do just wonder at the moment exactly where things are heading.
2) First half positives crumble to dust
What makes this defeat so frustrating is that we’d actually looked during the first half as if we might be getting back on track. The opening 45 minutes were similar to our away wins at the likes of Villa, Swansea, Bournemouth and Watford, defensively sound and dangerous on the break. We actually looked like a team with a gameplan. Their pace worried us at first, with two Stoke players booked in the opening 20 minutes, but we defended well, with both centre backs calmly repelling the danger with their strength and positioning, while we got bodies behind the ball in numbers when we didn’t have possession.
We were also using the ball much better. This was the Imbula we wanted to see, as the ex-Porto man hared around closing down high up the pitch, motored forward with the ball when he picked it up in deeper positions, and even passed the ball more quickly than he has been doing.
Arnautovic meanwhile, was terrorising their back line, pulling them in all directions as he popped up everywhere, at the centre of our best moves. He capitalised on one bad backpass to get into the box and centre, just unable to pick out Crouch. The two then combined beautifully, the big man proving the touch is always the last thing to go with a delightful nutmeg before feeding the number 10, whose first time ball put Shaqiri through. Hennessey made a good save with his legs to deny the £12m man. Then came the goal, with fine work again from Imbula, Arnie’s sweet sixth assist of the season and a rousing finish from Adam, enjoying his return to the side. There really was no sign at half time that a collapse was imminent.
But you get no points for winning at half time, and the collapse was swift and brutal again. Heads dropped when Palace equalised. We lost our shape, we lost our nerve, we lost our will. Toothless and openly parading our soft underbelly, we couldn’t handle the game’s change of pace. Not for the first time, having switched off, we couldn’t switch on again.
That’s been happening for a while now, and the warning signs stretch back to even before the rot really set it. If it happens once or twice it’s fair enough to blame the players; more than that and it becomes a management issue.
3) Another exposure of January’s failings
This is a team physically and mentally dead on its feet, the injury plague claiming new victims even deep into the season’s final month. However, the lack of fresh legs is another testament to the fact that, for all the money spent this season, and the eight senior players signed, there remain holes in the squad that existed last summer and even going back to the January before that.
Glenn Whelan, for instance, has looked unfit and out of sorts since about December. This was again demonstrated at Selhurst. Booked two minutes into the game when Gayle’s pace got the better of him, he found himself walking a tightrope that meant he had to think twice about committing to challenges for the rest of the contest. No chance of taking one for the team and taking Bolasie out when he was binding his spell on us early in the second half – doing so meant he’d walk. He’s needed a rest – and an extended one – for months. But whether or not you agree with this blog’s repeated assertion that there simply isn’t another midfielder in the first team squad capable of playing the role, it seems pretty clear that Hughes doesn’t trust anyone else to do it either. So why hasn’t this role been a priority? It was arguably a bigger one in January than the role Imbula was signed at such cost to play, yet we weren’t seriously linked with any holding midfielders.
Our lack of wide options was spotlighted once again too, when Shaqiri was brought off for a half-fit Jon Walters. The number 19 is yet to have any discernible impact on the game in either of his cameos since returning from a knee injury, and the suspicion is that he, like Ryan Shawcross, has been rushed back. Alternatives out wide have been needed since Oussama Assaidi’s ill-fated return was curtailed in January 2015. Yet there’s still no natural pace or width in attacking wide positions beyond Arnautovic. Our front three has been much trumpeted, but too often the Austrian has been the Atlas of our forward efforts, shouldering both our creative and goal threat alone.
Even if a second season of injury crises could not have been foreseen, we could all see the gaps in the squad that have still not been addressed. That points to a less than satisfactory management of our resources, and that sort of thing doesn’t go unnoticed round here by the people who pay for everything.
4) Haugaard hasn’t even hatched yet
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
It’s fair to say it is not a good time to be Jakob Haugaard. The young man from Sundby has endured not so much a baptism of fire as one of toxic waste.
If he was given the benefit of the doubt against Swansea, there was no hiding place at Anfield, the football equivalent of waking up from a nightmare to find you really do have an exam and you really are naked. Palace would be another day to forget for the big goalkeeper.
Haugaard had looked unconvincing even before his role in their winner. Again he appeared hesitant when balls came into the box, and at one point an innocuous pea-roller ball across the byline was dropped, then dived on like a hand grenade. The panic was palpable.
The goal, sadly, was another one for the list of long-distance shots he just doesn’t get anywhere near. His positioning was so poor that he might as well have been holding a sign up to Gayle with a big arrow on it reading ‘aim here’, so far to his right was he prior to the kick being taken. These are the basics we’re talking about here.
It’s not surprising that fans are unhappy about his performances, even if hailing him the worst Stoke goalkeeper in 153 years is, I might humbly suggest, a bit premature.
There’s no denying that he doesn’t look like a Premier League number 1 at this stage, that‘s for sure.
Yet that’s precisely the point and why I feel so sorry for Haugaard. He wasn’t supposed to be a number 1, not yet at least. He was a low-cost gamble, signed to be third choice. This is only his second full season as a professional, for Christ’s sake. He doesn’t just lack top level experience, he lacks experience full stop. In an ideal world he’d have been brought on slowly, playing in the under-21s, going out on loan, learning about the English game. That’s the trajectory our last few successful goalkeepers embarked on early in their careers, and it was the making of them.
Our injury curse, however, means he’s found himself between the sticks, the least-prepared individual since Ethelred the Unready (who was, ironically, dethroned by the Danish). In some ways he’s been the victim of his own success. After strong performances pre-season in Singapore and steady enough games in the FA Cup, none of us saw this disaster coming, and it appears the manager didn’t either.
He is 24, which is still very much goalkeeping infancy, so with any luck we can now go back to the original plan. Take him out of the firing line, send him away further down the pyramid for a while, let him get some seasoning.
In spite of this most inauspicious of starts, there’s still time for Jakob Haugaard to become a good goalkeeper. Hopefully the last few weeks haven’t torn his confidence beyond repair.
5) Hughes must take responsibility for late-season collapse
‘To be perfectly honest’, post-match interviews following defeats have often shown us the less edifying side of the manager, the Welshman at times being all too quick to point the finger at referees or other factors rather than looking closer to home for the roots of our problems. He’s not the first gaffer to do that. He won’t be the last. However, if he genuinely believes this was a defeat borne of Kevin Friend’s incompetence, it’s a cause for concern.
Hughes has to look at his own failings after another painful reverse. It is his job to keep his charges focused and to stop them collapsing. The speed at which strategy goes out the window when things aren’t going our way, the manner in which we lose our shape and discipline and run out of ideas going forward, again begs questions of what we work on all week. At present, Stoke are the opposite of a well-drilled unit.
The teams who’ve enjoyed success this season have worked to a well-defined gameplan, be it Leicester’s counter-attacking 4-4-2, the relentless pressing of Spurs and Liverpool, or even Palace’s own counter-attacking stylings, which have not worked in the league but may yet land them the FA Cup.
The teams who have struggled despite talent in abundance have been marked by the distinct lack of clarity as to what they’re trying to do. Think Newcastle. Think Everton. As the season has worn on, we have increasingly fallen into that bracket.
The subs again spelled that out. Shaqiri was, again, below his best, Adam in one of his ‘feisty’ moods. But both looked more capable of making something happen than the unfit Walters or long-forgotten Ireland. Yes, the latter did well to play in Arnie, but the overall impact on our attacking play was detrimental, and again, it wasn’t clear what Hughes’ thought process in sending them on was beyond blind panic.
It shouldn’t need spelling out every week that Hughes has done an excellent job at the club thus far, but out of nowhere, storm clouds are gathering over the Britannia, and they need to be dispersed with a minimum of fuss over the summer if things aren’t going to get extremely messy extremely quickly in 2016-17.