1) Gutsy second half masks familiar concerns
In any context, this was a good result. Not just because newly promoted sides on their own patch are a notoriously tricky first opponent, but because we traditionally have a shocker on the opening day, because the last Stoke player to score an opening day goal was Michael Kightly, and because our last points at Middlesbrough were taken eight days before Princess Diana died…
What was particularly pleasing about the performance was that a Stoke side given to folding like Woolworth’s at the end of last season reacted to conceding the first goal by rolling up their sleeves, pressing forward and showing the gumption to take something from the game. While we were utterly wretched in the first half, we more or less totally dominated the second, and though it still wasn’t exactly 1950s Magnificent Magyars stuff, we were comfortably worth a point. 2015-16 saw us lose on 14 of the 17 occasions we yielded the opener, so this looks like progress.
That first half cannot be glossed over though, as virtually every last one of the problems we experienced last season was present and correct again. We knew the first goal would likely be crucial, given Aitor Karanka’s side are known for being incredibly well-drilled and tend to shut up shop after nudging ahead, yet we gifted them the most basic of openers within just 10 minutes; a real three stages of hell job in which every one of the back four managed to stake a claim to some blame. Alvaro Negredo is unlikely to score an easier goal for his £100,000 a week.
I was convinced at that point it was game over and that we wouldn’t be troubling the scoresheet, and the remainder of the half did little to dissuade that feeling. Middlesbrough, as expected, promptly got bodies behind the ball and were happy for us to keep possession until the final third, whereupon a swarm of red shirts set upon us to win it back. It was a strategy we fell for time and time again.
The ponderous, guileless, dead-behind-the-eyes zombie football we played against stubborn sides last season was back as we passed the ball from side to side in slow motion, unable to go past players, ‘invention’ and ‘penetration’ being not so much foreign countries as different continents entirely. We were trying but all we could muster in the main were off-target potshots – though somewhat improbably our best chance of the half came from a corner, when a scramble from Shaqiri’s inswinger saw Gaston Ramirez head off the line.
Our defence wasn’t faring much better, with a seam of ill-discipline and disorganisation running through it during the first 45 minutes. Our full backs were continually rinsed by Boro’s wide players, while the smarts of playmaker Ramirez pulled us all over the place, the clever Uruguayan wriggling free of Shawcross to hit the post. But for that and a couple of timely miskicks in the box, We could conceivably have been three or four down as we wheezed into the interval in pretty bad nick.
The second half, however, saw us determined to at least ask some questions. Though aided by the home side’s eagerness to back off and protect their slender lead, we were able to more or less constantly push forward and get our flair players into the game. Now Arnautovic was able to run at Nsue, the hitherto disappointing Shaqiri was able to gain more of a foothold, and Gianelli Imbula – Stoke’s man of the match – strode forward with purpose. We still weren’t really creating anything, but all it took was one moment of quality to restore parity.
There was a degree of fortune involved. I’m really not a fan of this ‘play advantage and then bring the play back for a free kick’ thing certain refs do, which feels like having your cake and eating it, but this time it was Stoke who profited from Kevin Friend’s uncharacteristic charity. Up stepped Shaqiri to bend in a brilliant low free kick that arced away from Valdes at the last to nestle in the net via the post.
Encouragingly we then pushed for the victory, though again we struggled to fashion anything in the way of genuine chances. Middlesbrough had barely had a sniff in the second period, but they, too, belatedly woke up, with Adomah and Downing both going close in a frenetic end to the contest. It was Stoke who finished the stronger though, the final whistle blown with us camped out in the home side’s box.
For all the valid concerns about aspects of the performance, this feels like a point to build on. Bring on Pep. I guess.
2) Diouf is roundly ignored
Despite an up-and-down pre-season, I thought it was the right move to start Mame Biram Diouf up front, as his pace and aerial threat were valuable weapons against Karanka’s side. It was sad then, to see him depart after 68 minutes, shaking his head in frustration, having had little influence on proceedings.
His annoyance was understandable.
Diouf’s movement throughout the afternoon was excellent. He managed to regularly position himself on the blind side of the last defender, ready to be put clean through with the right service. Yet on each occasion he was completely ignored by our ‘golden triangle’ of creative stars behind him, all of whom put personal glory first rather than choosing to play him in.
This was most noticeable in the first half, when Bojan, accelerating away from Marten de Roon as the Dutchman pulled up, had the chance to slip the ball over to our centre forward but instead snatched wildly at his shot from 30-yards and put it miles wide. Arnautovic was next to repeat the trick, using his strength to get into the box but similarly eschewing the easy pass in favour of a haywire lob over the bar. Shaqiri completed the set early in the second half, with another rubbish shot when a square ball to Diouf made more sense. The Senegalese star threw up his hands in irritation.
None of our golden triangle had an entirely convincing afternoon in general. Shaqiri scored and his second half performance was much improved but he spent the first half looking as lightweight and ineffectual as at any time since joining the club. Bojan, after a stellar pre-season, was largely anonymous. Arnie only really spluttered into life in the last half hour, brilliantly winning lost causes and powering into the box, but his own finishing was desperately wayward, even literally hitting the corner flag at one point.
In a tight game of few chances, BMX’s overlooking of Diouf looks selfish and foolish – with the right service we might have won the game.
The egos of flair players are a huge part of their powers, but they can’t be allowed to overshadow the needs of the team. Given how much he’s likely to cost, we can only hope that Saido Berahino, if and when he arrives, is not shown the same discourtesy.
3) Cautious optimism over set pieces
Of course, the upside of possessing a triumvirate of creative genii is that even when they’re not at full-tilt, they still have the capability to turn a game with a moment of magic. That’s what Shaqiri did in the 67th minute.
It was a free kick that cleaved close to perfection. It was struck strong, sweet and smart, and did exactly what it was intended to do, sweeping over the wall then immediately curving down well beyond Valdes’ grasp and into the far corner off the post. Beautiful.
I realise this is not the majority view, and maybe it was a trick of the light or the bottle of Malbec that sits beside me as I write this, but I see signs of promise in our set pieces.
No, really, I do. Certainly not as a result of their execution, Shaqiri goal aside (I haven’t completely malfunctioned), but because – a week after it was publicly suggested we don’t work on dead ball situations – there was evidence that we appear to have a plan after all.
Not only did set plays produce our goal and our other notable chance (the corner scramble headed off the line by Ramirez), but we experimented with our corner taking. We attempted a couple of short ones (which worked about as well as 99% of short corners in recorded history have done) but more often and more interestingly we looked to crowd the goalkeeper on the line and fizz in an inswinger at pace.
The delivery, from Bojan and Shaqiri, could kindly be described as ‘hit and miss’, with a couple hitting the side netting and a couple more even going out of play entirely (embarrassingly). Speed of delivery is something that’s been lacking in recent years though, with most corners travelling at the pace of a pitch at an OAP softball game. That we’re trying to rectify that is positive, and with practice it’s a strategy that could yield a significant bounty. More importantly, it suggests we have finally decided to pay attention to a major weakness of the Hughes era.
Previously, while poor delivery was a major source of our set piece ineptitude, it was also the case that there was no plan once the ball did hit the mixer, with our players statuesque. There was none of the frantic, windmilling cauldron of chaos there used to be back when we pretty much only ever scored from set pieces.
A happy medium still looks miles away, but it’s nice to be optimistic that an important source of goals will not be overlooked anymore.
4) Marc Wilson is a stupid boy, but his words ring uncomfortably true
As expected, Marc Wilson’s Twitter rant has signed his death warrant as a Stoke player – indeed, it’s starting to look like that was his intention, rather than the Toblerone-smeared meltdown of a man ready to drive to Aghagallon in his bare feet.
Either way, it’s difficult to have sympathy for Wilson – whatever his motivation, slating the management publicly is rarely a good look, and he was hardly Franco Baresi even in the shape-obsessed days of the previous regime.
That’s not to say though, that his comments about a lack of defensive work on the training pitch, and a lack of cohesion off the ball, are invalid. None of us know just how accurate such a proclamation is, but there has been more than enough evidence for the prosecution over the past 12 months or so. The basics at the back have eluded us too often in 2016. No Premier League team has conceded more this calendar year.
Saturday provided yet more evidence.
At The Riverside Stoke’s defence was ragged from the outset, vulnerable to pace, confused and easily lost by the movement of Boro’s front four, reduced to clumsy fouls. Crosses into the box induced panic, while the back post was continually left unguarded. Ryan Shawcross’s over-enthusiastic marshalling of Negredo, in which he went through the back of him on three separate occasions, left him booked and walking the proverbial tightrope from the 22nd minute.
Our incompetence at the back was summed up by their goal. First, we had two players slow out to stop Adomah swinging a cross over. Then Ramirez, as an effete fancy dan number 10 not exactly death-from-above, effortlessly beat Erik Pieters to head back across goal, before a complete communication breakdown between the centre backs allowed Negredo to steal in and head home.
It wasn’t just our defenders who struggled on the back foot. Glenn Whelan was generally fine on the ball but off it he is no longer the bulwark he once was. At one point in the first half he froze under a high ball as if he’d been asked to perform stand up at the London Palladium, and Ramirez very nearly punished him for it as he gratefully charged past him, his shot clipping the post.
To their credit, both centre backs improved considerably after the break. Philipp Wollscheid was the pick of our defenders, making a number of timely interceptions, smartly sitting deep where possible to tidy things up, his reading of the game, as is normally the case, very strong. Ryan, meanwhile, made crime pay for himself, his unsubtle roughing up of Negredo (touted in the Teesside press as having upper body strength to rival an Olympic weight lifter in the build-up), meaning nary a peep was heard from their centre forward for the rest of the game.
The full backs though, Jesus Christ. They were unremittingly terrible. This blog has been a supporter of Phil Bardsley as generally able back-up to Glen Johnson, but this was a greatest hits medley of his shortcomings. True, he had little support from Shaqiri in keeping the marauding George Friend in check, but he was repeatedly embarrassed by Boro’s right-sided players, his use of the ball was poor and he was typically rash in the tackle.
He was Cafu, however, compared to Erik Pieters, who had arguably his worst game for the club. The steepness of his decline is fast approaching a full-on switch to red alert status.
Pieters looked lost, unprepared, and was routinely humiliated. He made a few decent tackles, but even they were often to get himself out of the mess he’d gotten himself into. With no awareness whatsoever of who he was supposed to be marking or where attacking players or even he was when balls came into the box, he played, at the risk of cultural stereotyping, as if his pre-match meal consisted of half a dozen space cakes and the first side of Dark Side of the Moon. A popular player and good servant, he has nevertheless endured a rotten 2016 and, though it pains me to say, is starting to look ripe for replacement.
An all-round improvement at the back is needed if Marc Wilson is to be proven wrong.
5) A few question marks over preparation
Perhaps this is harsh after a battling point away from home, but one or two things about our preparations for the season have just seemed a bit ‘off’ for one reason and another.
It’s mostly the fact that so many of last season’s problems look to have carried over intact to the new campaign – that much was evident against Hamburg last Saturday and was apparent again at Middlesbrough. That being the case, you wonder if it was a good idea to tit about for so long with 3-5-2 in pre-season? I’m all for tactical flexibility, but when your Plan A has some serious flaws in it, shouldn’t ironing those out be your first priority before you look at Plan B?
The general untidiness of a lot of our play maybe speaks to that, as does the apparent confusion and panic that manifested early on. We did not look like a happy camp. Bojan and Shawcross had a mutual moaning session at each other. Diouf cut an increasingly unhappy figure. These things happen at all clubs of course, but there were a few little slanging matches that perhaps suggested not everyone was entirely sure who was doing what.
The Euros haven’t helped our preparation of course, and it might be a little while before we can field the XI we want to and get all those involved in France up to speed.
Are these just the usual pre-season glitches, or is it stretching to suggest it’s connected to the perception that we blithely accept starting the season slowly? It’s worked out in the end for us thus far, but I’m still pretty uncomfortable with this air of writing off the opening couple of months.
Teams like us are (normally) ill-equipped to be consistent over the course of a season, and this time our aspirations will be made tougher by the likelihood that the empires will be very much striking back.
It’d be a nice change of pace, however, to start like a train and see how far we can go.