1) Stoke are absolutely where they deserve to be
Rewatching the ‘highlights’ of this debacle, there was a point at which Mark Hughes, exiled in dudgeon to the stands, could be seen blindly poking away at a mobile device, communication with his bench seemingly lost. Damningly, given recent performances, nobody would have noticed the difference.
There can be no excuses and Hughes himself refused to give any in the wake of another sobering afternoon in ST4. Stoke were not unlucky. For all that Anthony Taylor, starstruck perennial fluffer to the stars, gave his typical inconsistent, big-boy pandering display, he was not the cause of our fifth thrashing in our last 10 games.
Stoke are a rudderless shambles. A collection of individuals rather than a team, it seems we have no idea what we’re trying to do on the pitch, appearing less coherent than a drunk tank full of Tellytubbies.
In fairness, the first half performance wasn’t too bad. Stoke’s defending was generally better, we did for a time appear more organised, with the new central defensive partnership immediately gelling and the midfield also managing to get bodies in the way when we didn’t have the ball. We even had a couple of half-decent chances, Glenn Whelan catching a 30-yard volley incredibly sweetly in a moment that would have brought forth the apocalypse had Ben Davies not headed it over for a corner, and Ryan Shawcross heading on target from the resultant set piece.
From about the 20th minute on however, our goal threat was virtually zero, and our ongoing vulnerability in wide areas ultimately proved our undoing. After failing to heed a number of warning signs, nobody stopped Eriksen’s cross, nobody tracked Son Heung-Min, and we were 1-0 down. It was all boringly familiar.
The second half was a painful slide into oblivion.Spurs’ second was a very well-worked counter attacking goal swept high into the net by Son (though questions will rightly be asked about Shay Given’s role), but after that, as we did in this fixture in April, we simply gave up. The defence dissolved, the midfield was everywhere but where it was supposed to be, the flanks were ghost towns.
We lacked purpose, we lacked discipline, and we lacked the appetite to compete. We left hideous amounts of space in the final third, lost virtually every 50/50 contest, and just stood around watching when balls came into the box. Tottenham weren’t a patch on the electric team that pulverised us in the spring but they went away with the same number of goals because we let them. They are just the latest side to be given a much-needed fillip by our budding philanthropists in red and white. Dele Alli was allowed to get his season up and running. Harry Kane, who’s spent the last three months moping around, mouth eternally pointing downwards like a sad Jim Henson creation, was the latest to be gifted the end of a goal drought, to add to the lengthy list from last term. It was four and it could have been six or seven but for Given, who atoned for being suspect on the second and third goals by pulling off a couple of cracking reaction saves to prevent further damage.
Ironic cheers greeted sub Charlie Adam’s 75th minute pea roller into Lloris’ arms, our second shot on target of the contest and our seventh of the season to date. Diego Costa has managed more on his own.
How has it come to this? How has a group of players that, on paper, would have a large number of Premier League clubs casting envious glances degenerated into such an unbalanced, sloppy mess? Has there been a weirder tailspin?
The manager and his team have to take the rap for this. At times it has appeared that Mark Hughes has been blind to our problems at the back and blind to our problems creating chances, and his latest change of formation has made things worse, if anything. At a time when the rising teams in the league are opening opponents up with lightning-quick exchanges and switches, we are men out of time, clinging to this moribund, glacial possession play.
It is notoriously difficult to pull yourself out of a pronounced slump in the Premier League, and teams that can’t defend and can’t score get relegated. Mark Hughes’ excellent work in his first three seasons at the club has more than earned him the right to try and get us out of this mess. But the hourglass has turned over on his time at the club. For the first time as Stoke City manager, he is under serious pressure.
2) Hughes must find a place for creativity
A curious reaction of the management team to the lack of goals in the side in recent weeks has been to remove more layers of creativity from it. This reached new heights on Saturday when, having finally brought in a top-class centre forward, Hughes selected a grand total of one creative player to make the bullets for him. Small wonder Marko Arnautovic, the player in question, cut such a frustrated figure.
With the marauding Danny Rose’s injury denying him a return to face his adoring public in Staffordshire, we should have been able to focus more on our own attacking efforts down that wing, given the presence of the less attack-minded Ben Davies in Rose’s stead. Indeed, we clearly targeted Davies as the weak link in the Tottenham back line. However, instead of giving Ramadan Sobhi a full debut and looking to stretch the away side, the manager plumped for Jon Walters as a second target man and had us hitting long diagonals in his direction all afternoon. The number 19 lost more of his battles with Davies than he won, and the percentages game was a complete failure. Walters, excellent servant though he has been, is not exactly a creative firebrand, and moreover gives every impression of looking completely spent at this level.
We’ll look at the midfield in more detail later, but the issues in the final third were exacerbated by the loss of a number 10, which left Bony completely isolated. The reintroduction of Bojan to play off the Ivorian seems an absolute no-brainer at this point – indeed, to not do so almost looks like an act of self-sabotage.
If we must persist with this godforsaken 4-1-4-1, then we are going to have to stock up on Irn Bru and issue a deep-fried SOS to Charlie Adam.
At least he is prepared to try things and has some vision and imagination, as well as the desire to drive forward and rouse crowd and team mates alike. Moreover, he is actually prepared to shoot once in a while, and God knows we need someone actually willing to pull the trigger. The Dundonian can be an intensely irritating player on his bad days, when the things he tries don’t come off or he indulges his lusty thirst for wanton violence. But we’re desperate here, we need some ‘oomph’ in the side, and in that context the yays far outweigh the nays where Charles is concerned.
It’s an odd quirk of our season that we have come full circle with regard to set pieces. Having possessed over the last three years all the danger and relevance of an episode of Rainbow, they suddenly provide our only route to goal, a flashback to the Pulis death rattle of 2012-13. While our search for a goal from open play proved fruitless, Ryan Shawcross had two golden opportunities from corners, having a close range header saved in the first half and shooting agonisingly wide with the score at 0-1 in the second. It’s as if there has to be a trade off, and we can’t threaten from one method without jettisoning another.
The returns of Shaqiri and even Glen Johnson will hopefully make a difference going forward, but more than anything, we need Mark Hughes to be Mark Hughes and go back to the things that made him such a breath of fresh air in his first couple of seasons. That means, ideally, 4-2-3-1, a clearly defined counter-attacking plan and round pegs in round holes. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel – just go back to the original blueprints.
3) The midfield drift has weakened the side at both ends of the pitch
To the bitter disappointment of many, we retained the 4-1-4-1 formation that has looked so useless in the last couple of games, with the manager continuing to insist on shoehorning both Imbula and Allen into midfield ahead of a holding midfielder in Glenn Whelan.
In spite of the fact that this clearly isn’t working, and that at least two-thirds of the trio are in abject form, Hughes cannot bring himself to leave out either of the two most expensive signings in the club’s history. Nor does he have faith in the duo to function without a chaperone behind them to do the dirty work.
As discussed, this has had the effect of further neutering the team’s attacking threat, sacrificing the number 10 role for a triumvirate of scrappers and water carriers. However, it has not made us more solid either – quite the opposite.
Not only is Imbula still showing little aptitude for the defensive side of the game or work off the ball, but the decline of Whelan has continued unabated. The failure to sign a genuine replacement/heir has meant persisting with a struggling, waning Whelan. For around a year now, the Irishman has been less and less effective as a defensive screen, hampered by a lack of mobility that’s seen him chasing shadows. Saturday was a case in point – he never got near Alli all game, looking for all the world like he needed either a scooter to get around or to be tucked up with a blanket and a copy of Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley.
With Whelan struggling and Imbula taking more days off than his namesake Ferris, Joe Allen has found himself essentially doing the work of three men.
He was the lone member of the midfield trio to emerge with any credit, creating more chances than any Stoke player, making more attacking third passes, putting in more crosses and only two players winning more tackles. He looked to get us moving up the pitch and constantly raced out to help Pieters when he was under pressure down our left. The improved delivery at corners is also down to him.
Yet he can’t escape question marks either. It’s now clear that my theory that he was signed to replace Whelan was well wide of the mark. He is a human powerball, bouncing to every corner of the pitch. This can be an asset but it also means there are times when he’s caught out when teams counter attack. It’s hard to envisage him having the discipline to play a holding role – it’s arguable that even asking him to do so would be a waste of his strengths.
So why was he signed? What we needed was a Whelan upgrade. We have instead signed another player for the Nzonzi role despite shattering our transfer record to sign one nine months ago. Yet rather than making a choice between the two we’re fudging it and going with both, and the result is a complete mess.
The manager must make a choice and that choice, as things stand, must be to drop Imbula, irrespective of whether Adam replaces him in the 4-1-4-1 or we restore the number 10 role.
As a player, Mark Hughes was as far away as you could get from ‘indecisive’. Whether it was going for a scissor kick or kicking David Tuttle square in the jaffers, once he’d made his mind up, he was committed 100%. Mark Hughes the manager must show that same courage. If he doesn’t, his business over the last two windows will mark the beginning of the end, just as the Crouch/Palacios deal did for his predecessor or POMO did for Richie Barker.
4) Glen Johnson can’t return soon enough
It was reported recently that Glen Johnson is nearing a comeback. We are counting the seconds until that incongruous number eight shirt takes its place once more in the back four.
Restored to right back with Phil Bardsley not fully fit, Geoff Cameron endured a fairly hellish afternoon. There was still some of ‘good Geoff’ in there (he made the most tackles of any player on the pitch), but ‘bad Geoff’ was in control for most of the game.
He set the tone after 20 minutes or so by advancing with the ball and somehow falling over it with nobody near him, and then proceeded to receive a roasting from Son. First he clumsily leant into him in the box (though a penalty would probably have been harsh), then lost him altogether as the Korean stole in to prod Spurs in front. Caught in two minds for the second goal as Son swept in his second, the space down the Stoke right, between Cameron’s flapping and Walters’ invisible man routine, was our most vulnerable area, with the left flank a close second.
With Crystal Palace up next, boasting a £30m striker who thrives off crosses, our full backs simply have to improve at stopping balls into the box. It was embarrassing on Saturday. Bardsley, who recovered from his own opening day nightmare to show considerable improvement, will surely reclaim the berth at Selhurst if fit.
It appears our right back position is cursed. Nobody appears to be able to stay fit for any period of time, and when they do, neither of Johnson’s understudies is able to perform consistently. Despite having three vastly experienced internationals with 114 caps between them competing for the role, it somehow remains a problem position.
5) An unhappy afternoon for the new boys, but both show glimpses
Wilfried Bony and Bruno Martins Indi must wonder what they’ve let themselves in for after that catastrophe, but while neither could really lay claim to the perfect debut, both demonstrated in flashes that they should prove strong additions.
Bony, clearly short of match fitness and cut adrift by our system, still looked like a class act with his back to goal, the ball sticking to him in the final third as he looked to bring others into the game. There were more signs that he and Bojan could form an understanding, with the big striker holding off defenders to lay off to the wee Catalan after his late entrance into the game, and he also showed the capacity to make chances for himself, dropping a shoulder and steaming past a defender to shoot into the side netting. Used properly, he should be exactly what we need and add an extra dimension to our attacking.
Though it’s difficult to heap too much praise on a defender following a 4-0 home reverse, Martins Indi already looks to have the toolset for the Premier League. During the first half his enthusiastic, physical display, getting stuck in and throwing himself in the way of any and all comers, lightened the load considerably on Shawcross, who also looked back to something resembling his best in that opening period. Given time, this could be a formidable partnership.
It’s just a shame that both played their part in our collapse after the break. Most alarming was Ryan, so often the cool head of the rearguard action, seemingly going to pieces, drawn wildly out of position for the second goal and guilty of some hideous ball-watching for the others. Martins Indi, too, appeared completely unaware of his surroundings when the ball came in for Kane’s goal, as a series of Stoke defenders simply left Spurs’ attackers to their own devices.
Nevertheless, there were seeds planted in the showings of both debutants for improvement at both ends of the pitch. All we need is a workable plan to get the best out of them by playing to their strengths.
Unfortunately, at present there’s little sign of that at all.