1) A harsh scoreline, but a harsher glare on Stoke’s deficiencies
First of all, this was not a 4-1 game. Unlike Manchester City’s liquefying of Steaua Bucharest in midweek, this was a competitive encounter, with Stoke in contention for a point until the 86th minute. There were periods where we looked decent: before the opening goal we’d looked just as likely as Pep Guardiola’s men to break the deadlock; after falling two goals behind we pushed on and were denied a clear penalty; and after the break we gave ourselves a chance with some positive play that saw us grab a goal back.
Ultimately however, Stoke only have themselves to blame for what is, however you slice it, our fourth four-goal beating in our last eight games.
Perhaps we can take a perverse kind of satisfaction in knowing that we weren’t so much beaten by the great Guardiola as by ourselves. Too often, we were guilty of Winnie The Pooh football, a team of very little brain, making a series of unfathomably poor decisions in all departments.
That started with the manager’s team selection. There was no problem with the 4-3-3 he selected to match that of the visitors, nor, on paper at least, with the personnel chosen to fill it. Eyes were rubbed in disbelief, however, when it became clear that it was Bojan, as opposed to Mame Diouf, who was deputising for the injured Xherdan Shaqiri on the right wing.
Diouf of course, has shown frequently that he is not a winger, but with the threat of Kolarov in need of checking, his pace and work rate were the best available assets. The stage was set for Bojan, in a central role, to take vengeance on his former Barcelona boss for freezing him out at the Nou Camp. Instead, in a role he conclusively proved unsuited to within his first hour of football as a Stoke City player in 2014, he was totally marginalised and unable to influence the game. He showed some nice touches, played a few clever passes, but was left on the periphery when we needed him centre stage. It’s hard to see the manager’s thinking on this one.
At both ends, we overplayed and got caught out, choosing the wrong pass with almost supernatural regularity. The defence too often failed to do the basics. In the final third the killer ball was almost always lacking, and our predatory instincts were dull on the rare exceptions it wasn’t. It’s damning that a largely awful Sunderland side created far more chances against the same opposition away last week than we did at home – even our best spells failed to produce meaningful openings, as was the case at The Riverside last week.
John Stones was a popular choice for man of the match in the media, but he really wasn’t put to the test, nor was the dodgy Willy Caballero. Nicolas Otamendi, whose blood was twisted, plaited and knotted by our front three in December, swanned around with barely a care in the world.
Too many of our big players were miles below their best. Marko Arnautovic appears to have left his touch in France. Bar a moment of exceptional skill where he took four players out of the game with one Flatley-esque flourish of footwork, he was a big part of the problem, the ball bouncing off his shins whenever anyone found him in space. The captain is struggling. Giannelli Imbula was so bad he needs his own conclusion all to himself.
What’s frustrating is that there were spokes of promise shooting through the fog of ineptitude, in the form of an excellent home debut and the first signs that we are willing to be more direct as we seek a route to goal. Some of our play was incisive at times, and we looked to ping the ball behind their full backs to find our attacking trio in space, a canny tactic that would have proven more effective with just a smidgen of composure.
The truth remains though that Citeh didn’t have to turn it on to beat us – they played some tidy stuff and Nolito scored two fine counter-attacking goals towards the end to put some gloss on the scoreline, but the damage was primarily self-inflicted.
It’s far too early to be worried, but it’s easy to have the kneejerk feeling that management are blind to some of our biggest failings. We’ll know more on 1st September. The next week and a bit could define our season – and beyond.
2) A defensive shake-up is long overdue
There’s no shame in conceding goals to a Pep Guardiola side – that’s going to happen to most teams. What is galling is the manner in which we conceded. There was no Messi-esque slaloming through our defence; few Xavi-style defence splitting passes; no Thomas Muller-alike phantom appearing from nowhere. Nope. The goals that did the damage were humdrum, a stupid penalty and a header from a set play.
Individually, most of the back four had their moments. Philipp Wollscheid was, for the second straight week, the pick of Stoke’s defenders. Ryan Shawcross pinged a couple of nice balls over the top for Arnie. Phil Bardsley recovered from an early wobble to turn in an energetic, committed display. Yet it’s also true that every single one of them has an almighty rick in them at the moment that could prove costly, be it Wollscheid’s sloppy passing from the back, Bardsley’s penchant for reckless tackling, the captain’s addiction to needless fouling or literally anything Erik Pieters does.
More troubling though is how poor we are defensively as a unit. We had a collective nightmare on Saturday with too few players doing their jobs. Too often our defence was left exposed. Too often they were positionally all over the place, haltering, faltering and seemingly unsure who to mark. Runners weren’t tracked. Far be it from me to once more conjure the spectre of Marc Wilson, but his words about how we’re no longer a tight unit when we don’t have the ball could scarcely have received a more ringing endorsement.
The goals were our just desserts for our slackness. Aguero’s second goal, a header from De Bruyne’s admittedly whip-smart free kick, was a remix of the problems we’ve had defending corners, in that Glenn Whelan was tasked with being the first line of aerial defence and he just doesn’t get near it. He appears to jump beneath himself in these situations, and a striker as lethal as the Argentine needs no invitation to exploit such freedoms.
The two late goals we conceded were largely related to us pushing forward in an increasingly desperate search for a goal. Yet there’s no excuse for the dithering or for getting so tight to their forwards that it was easy for them to shrug us off and proceed to goal unchallenged. The distinct lack of mobility in the back line only exacerbates the problems and means that we’re unable to get ourselves out of the mess we get ourselves into.
Our need for at least one new defender has been apparent for months, but signing a centre back won’t necessarily make our problems go away – they run much deeper.
3) Shawcross never learns
The reaction to Stoke’s concession of a penalty for shirt-pulling in the penalty was predictable. All the old classics were trotted out, from “why is it only us?” to “refs would have to give three penalties a game to police it” and the rest, with the finger being firmly pointed at the officials. It doesn’t wash. We’re deluding ourselves.
Shirt pulling is a foul, and a foul committed in the penalty area is (almost always) a penalty. Referees SHOULD be awarding them every time they see them. If we do feel more persecuted than other sides, maybe we should ask ourselves why – we have long been the poster boys for this kind of offence, which should make us all the warier of leaving ourselves open to censure for it.
Mike Dean has no agenda beyond giving the world the gift of Mike Dean, celebrity referee, the man who, in his own mind, everyone has paid to see. He doesn’t pander to the big clubs, because he’s utterly convinced there’s no bigger star out there than him.
The worst call he made all afternoon was somehow failing to point to the spot when Kolarov flattened Joe Allen, a far clearer decision than either of the two spot kicks he actually did give. He’s simply a law unto himself, and his lust for the spotlight can manifest in some spectacularly bad decisions for both sides.
What we saw on Saturday afternoon had less to do with Dean than it did the league’s well-publicised clampdown on this kind of set-piece grappling. That much was clear when Dean awarded a penalty to Stoke for an even softer offence than Shawcross’, when Sterling’s pathetic fly swatter vs bullet train attempt to impede the captain – what Mark Lawrenson at his arch-Larry Grayson worst would term “pat-a-cake pat-a-cake baker’s man” – was nevertheless (correctly) punished by the referee.
There can be no sympathy for Ryan. He is a constant reoffender, he has been punished for this before, and yet still he persists, as obvious and unabashed as ever. It’s reached the point like it’s almost a tick, a reflex action he’s unaware of or can’t help, like Dr Strangelove’s heiling prosthetic arm, or that bloke in The Fast Show who couldn’t stop shouting “arse!”.
The captain’s overall performance can kindly be described as “rusty”. His indecision gave Silva and Iheanacho the time to tee up the crucial third goal, and the fourth saw the Nigerian wonderkid again lose him with a drop of his shoulder. It was alarming to see the defence’s chief organiser so positionally at sea, effortlessly lost with a single dummy or shimmy after either getting too tight to his man or being lured away from the danger zone. The same thing happened with regularity against quality sides last season – Man City away and Spurs at home being notable examples – and that hangover is still throbbing. It has to be cause for concern.
For the first time, the sanctity of his starting place is open to question. After widespread acceptance that a new centre back would be partnering Shawcross, is it time to wonder if he might replace him?
4) Imbula is far less effective at home
If a week is a long time in politics, it’s an eternity in football. At Middlesbrough, Giannelli Imbula was the best player on the pitch. He was the engine as we pushed for an equaliser, his strong running with the ball the key to our counter attacking and his passing smart and tidy.
Therein lies the problem however. Though he is essential when we have a well-defined counter-attacking plan (as we tend to on the road), at home, where there is less space and the onus is on us to break teams down, he is completely negated. It’s difficult to recall many good games he’s had at what this blog will continue to call the Britannia Stadium.
Saturday was far and away his worst performance for the club. Not only did all his most irritating traits come to the boil (he lost the ball through his own unwillingness to pass it early, ran into blind alleys, didn’t track runners etc.), but his strengths weren’t in evidence either. For the first time since he came to the club, he failed to appear in the top five players in terms of take-ons. To give you an idea of his lack of influence, he attempted 13 passes all afternoon. The next lowest number attempted by a midfield player was 41 – over three times as many. That is absolutely pathetic.
At his worst, he’s that kid in the playground who thinks he’s too good to pass to anyone. All of his good work can be undone because he refuses to play the easy pass and appears to think he should have a set number of touches before he deigns to release the ball. There were several occasions when he could have set one of the front three away but overplayed, was swamped by Man City players and ceded possession, while holding onto the ball too long in his own box as he tried to dribble his way out of trouble almost resulted in another goal for the visitors.
These of course are the same criticisms that were levelled at him last season and it was hoped that they’d be worked on and eliminated by the start of the new campaign. Sadly, that is not the case. It is up to the player to sort this out but it’s also up to the management team to work on this with him and to make sure there are consequences if he can’t or won’t learn.
Giannelli Imbula will continue to be a key player for Stoke City away from home, but if he wants to be the superstar he has the potential to be, then he’s going to have to start playing for the team rather than himself. Sharpish.
5) Allen makes a strong first impression
Far and away the biggest plus point was the performance of Joe Allen on his home debut. This was the Allen of Euro 2016, full of heart, desire, energy and drive but with a touch of quality to match, and most of our best work involved him. The Welshman bounced around like a powerball, going past players (he was second in the take-ons table) and playing some killer passes. His persistence and eagerness to get forward should have earned one penalty directly; his brilliant through ball for Diouf won the corner that produced the penalty we were given. He was also strong defensively, with nobody making more tackles or interceptions.
Allen’s eye for an early forward pass and terrier-like persistence on and off the ball can bring a much-needed element of urgency to proceedings – a potential antidote to the sludgy quicksand that has been our approach play in ST4 for a while.
The big question remains though: how best to use him? Saturday’s 4-3-3 suited him very well as he was able to play that box-to-box role he embraced under Jurgen Klopp and for his country. Using that system long-term, however, means either going with a false nine or essentially getting rid, to all intents and purposes, of Bojan. Sticking with 4-2-3-1 means either using Imbula higher up the pitch (Bojan again being the fall guy), dropping Imbula altogether, or dropping Whelan.
I still think the last of these is the most likely and is what the manager had in mind when he signed Allen. Bojan signed a new four-year deal in February; Imbula is the club’s record signing. I think the powers that be would balk at £13m being spent to dislodge either of them.
Glenn however has looked knackered for a while now and has been without competition in the squad for years. Allen isn’t a like-for-like holding midfielder, but I suspect the role itself is evolving to demand a more energetic, dynamic presence capable of more than a mere screening role. Think Nemanja Matic during Chelsea’s last title-winning season. Think N’golo Kante.
Whether such a change is realistic in our set-up is another question. It’s going to be fascinating – and possibly terrifying – finding out.