1) The Crouch gamble was understandable, but didn’t pay off
Different striker, same outcome. Mark Hughes tried something different at Everton in handing Peter Crouch only his fifth league start since August 2015. Yet the underlying problems remain – Stoke simply do not create enough chances for whoever they’re fielding up front. One solitary shot on target at Goodison, and just five altogether from our three league fixtures to date, tells its own sad story.
It was understandable that Hughes should look to reward Crouch for his midweek hat trick at Stevenage, and widely expected – the manager did likewise early in his Stoke career following a rare Kenwyne Jones treble in the same competition against Walsall. The opposition might have been modest, but for the purposes of morale, peripheral squad members need to be shown there is room for upward mobility. Besides, Everton had demonstrated a vulnerability to high balls and set pieces that the big man might just exploit.
In the event, Crouch’s best work came in his own box, as he made several important clearances, saving a certain goal when he acrobatically hooked away Williams’ goalbound header.
As an attacking option however, it didn’t really work. In a throwback to the ‘old days’, Crouch frequently cut a lonely figure on his own up front, with little support from the attacking players or midfield runners. He has shown that he works best with a busy number 10 buzzing round him, a van der Vaart or a Bojan, but Stoke’s 4-3-3 removed that type of player from the equation, and a slow striker does little for Stoke’s counter-attacking ambitions. The Toffees, meanwhile, were ready for the aerial threat, doubling up on him to ensure he was negated.
After 64 minutes he came off shaking his head, and though you sympathised with a player who likely feels his chance has come and gone, in truth he hadn’t done enough to suggest he was the answer.
Any striker would have struggled however, as Stoke were again blunt, continually making the wrong decisions in the final third, struggling to find space and low on imagination.
That’s also a charge that can be levelled at the manager, who ignored Bojan, Sobhi and Charlie Adam to decide that Jon Walters was the sub best placed to make an impact. Perhaps if he’d tucked away the one gilt-edged chance we did create, instead of being caught napping when Marko Arnautovic teed him up, we’d have been hailing the change as a masterstroke. In the event, his inertia just provided more evidence to support the growing suspicion that his best days are well behind him.
Bojan and Sobhi were eventually introduced, too late to have any meaningful influence on the contest. From an attacking perspective, Arnie’s best performance of the fledgling campaign was the lone bright spot. Despite being troubled by the forward surges of young Mason Holgate, the Austrian was comfortably Stoke’s biggest threat, producing their only real opportunities of the afternoon when Stekelenburg forced his shot onto the bar, before fashioning that chance for Walters. Stoke need their star player more than ever.
With no answer in sight to our goalscoring problem, Hughes and his team have a huge week ahead of them in the transfer market. For much of the year, it hasn’t been clear what the plan is. The Welshman needs to find one. Fast.
2) Shawcross has done his England credentials no harm at all
With the new England manager present at Goodison, there had been talk that carrots would be dangled to more ‘traditional’ defenders, more interested in clearances and tackles than Cruyff turns in their own box. Sam Allardyce, even though he departed with around 20 minutes remaining on Merseyside, was likely impressed with what he saw, with a number of good displays from English defenders.
Everton will feel their back line wasn’t overly tested but nevertheless, this was just their third clean sheet in the league since their 3-0 humping of us at the Brit in February. Phil Jagielka appeared rejuvenated with Ashley Williams alongside him, making comfortably the most clearances of anyone. If his ship has sailed at 34, Holgate looked like he could be an international mainstay for years with an astonishingly mature performance for a 19-year-old. Despite his first couple of hours as a Premier League player coming as a centre back, he looked a natural fit at right back, keeping pace with Arnie, shepherding the ball to safety and a constant threat going forward. The Toffees have gone back to Barnsley and appear to have replaced John Stones effortlessly for just £2m.
The suggestion of an England recall for Shawcross appeared oddly timed, given our captain’s shaky start to the season, but if he is in Allardyce’s plans, this performance will have strengthened his hand considerably. Though it’s premature to declare that he’s ‘back’, this was much more like the Shawcross of old. Here was the leader and organiser, well-positioned, making well-timed challenges, winning 100% of his aerial duels and second behind Jagielka in clearances made. Even when someone did get the better of him he made sure to atone – coming off second best to Romelu Lukaku in the box, he was on hand to clear off the line when the big striker’s shot beat Shay Given.
Stoke’s overall defending was much improved. Geoff Cameron came in for the mysteriously absent Philipp Wollscheid and did well, bringing some much-needed mobility to the back line and making the most tackles, including one gorgeous, Bobby Moore-esque challenge on Lukaku before emerging with the ball and imperiously striding up the pitch. Erik Pieters had his best game for months, getting forward a couple of times to link with Arnie and helping out the centre backs whenever Lukaku or Barkley strayed into his territory.
With at least one defender expected to arrive this week, and another possibly following Marc Wilson out the door, depending on how genuine Wollscheid’s ‘ear infection’ turns out to be, it feels as if long-overdue action is finally being taken on the defence.
3) There’s life yet in Shay Given
There have been plenty of calls from supporters for a new back-up goalkeeper to be added to the worryingly lengthening list of ‘must haves’ before the end of the transfer window. It’s fair to say we did not see the best of Shay Given last week against Manchester City, and with Jack Butland’s ankle problem continuing to keep him away from the sticks, folk were getting twitchy.
On Saturday, Given served a reminder that a goalkeeper as distinguished as himself was worthy of more respect. For all our defensive improvement, we have the Irishman to thank for this not being a heavier defeat.
While Everton’s finishing wasn’t as clinical as it might have been, and a number of Given’s saves were of the kind you would expect a Premier League goalkeeper to make, he nevertheless made three of four belting stops to keep us in the game. He made a couple of strong saves from Kevin Mirallas, and made a brilliant one from Barkley when he’d gone clean through and looked odds-on to seal the victory.
Given showed impressive agility for a middle-aged man, especially given (no pun intended) the injury problems he’s suffered over the past 12 months. His positioning and reflexes were sharp and it’s so cruel the record books will merely show his contribution to the game as scoring the decisive own goal. He was desperately unlucky with the penalty, getting down fast and low to his left to tip Leighton Baines’ kick onto the post before it ‘did an Iwelumo’ by banjoing in off the ‘keeper’s head.
Having him at the club, even as a 40-year-old, can only be good for our young goalkeepers (including Butland), all of whom can sit at his learning tree after a lengthy career at the highest level.
He should be able to do this last season as a pretty safe pair of hands – even if the overwhelming, screaming, all-pervading feeling most of us have at the moment is “Get Well Soon Jack!”.
4) Stoke need to drop their record signing
Despite a performance that can kindly be described as ‘rotten’ against Manchester City, I gave Gianelli Imbula the benefit of the doubt going into this game. As discussed last week, he’s far better away from home, and had been man of the match at Middlesbrough.
Yet the French Belgian star was very poor again, exerting none of the influence we’ve come to expect from him on our travels. He again didn’t track runners, was guilty of overplaying, and his one-footedness cost us our best chance of the first half as he got into the box and took an eternity to pull the trigger.
Might fielding him and Allen together be part of the problem? Too often they occupied the same spaces, with confusion reigning as to who was doing what. The duo were given the runaround by Idrissa Gueye, whose performance, full of purpose, energy and tough-tackling, had everything our midfield lacked.
What’s the long-term plan for the duo? Can they play together? Or has Hughes given us his own cover version of the Crouch/Jones debacle, signing at expense a player to replace one he smashed the club’s transfer record to sign?
Either way, just as Hughes rewarded Crouch’s good form with a start, he must now be sorely tempted to stick Imbula on the bench for a few games until he can demonstrate he is prepared to address those shortcomings off the ball and on it – not just as a message to him, but to restore some balance to the side.
5) The return of Michael Oliver’s big-boy trousers
It was a weekend where there was more controversy surrounding penalties awarded for grappling in the box. Mike Dean pointed to the spot for such an offence for the third time in two weeks, while Bobby Madley failed to punish Jan Vertonghen for the same offence. Madley is the one who should be censured, bottling a clear edict to further muddy the waters. It is he, not Dean, who is the villain of the piece between the two.
And then there’s Michael Oliver.
I’ve no doubt Oliver thought he saw Phil Bardsley impede Ashley Williams at a 50th minute corner and punished him accordingly. The decision was incorrect, and it has cost us a result, but anyone can make an honest mistake, especially when they don’t have the benefit of numerous multi-angle replays.
The issue with Oliver however is that it’s hard to believe he could have been certain from his vantage point what went on. He couldn’t wait to give the penalty regardless. This was his big chance to join in the fun, to make the big call, to show again he was a bold, decisive referee not afraid to seize the initiative where the Madleys of the world freeze.
We’ve been here before with him – indeed, he was the first to penalise Shawcross for holding in that Swansea game in October 2014. He got the decision on that day right.
However, Oliver, always the big man in games like this, is quiet as a mouse when he referees matches involving the big clubs. More than once he has brazenly ignored grappling in the area involving Manchester United and City players. Oliver is the boy wonder being groomed for the big gigs, the next Webb or Clattenburg, and he damn sure isn’t going to cock that up by p*****g off anyone who matters.
That’s where the new edict falls down. Referees motivated by fear and self-interest simply don’t have the inclination – or the stomach – to apply these rules across the board. It was also interesting how he was a lot more reticent to enforce the new directives on dissent, continually ignoring instances where players from both sides berated him.
There’s also the longstanding enmity between our manager and Oliver, stretching back to Hughes’ Fulham days, when he suggested the scarce-bearded official was too young to be in charge of high profile games, and he was demoted to the Championship. Perhaps it’s way off-beam, but the number of times Oliver has used us as the club to make an example of just makes you go hmmmm…
The next time Stoke are sacrificed on the altar of this coward’s ambition, we should raise bloody murder.