1) A tale of two transfer windows
What separates football from other sports is emotion. No other sport sweeps you away, or gets woven so deeply into the fabric of who you are. It’s difficult to imagine, say, dressage, or any of the Olympic sports we’re always being told by middle class newspapers are so much more refined and well-behaved, engendering such a spectrum of feeling. Football can make you love, it can make you joyous, it can make you seethe, it can make you hate.
The overwhelming emotion this game produced, more than any other of the Hughes era so far, was abject, black dog misery.
This was the day the excuses ran out. No blaming the referee. No illustrious opposition to hide behind. In a winnable fixture against a peer, Stoke were humiliated. This was a team that didn’t just look dead, but had picked up a shovel and was actively trying to bury itself. How has it come to this?
Perhaps the answers can be found by comparing the teams’ transfer windows.
Crystal Palace were the kings of the summer window. They were one of the few teams to suffer a more prolonged, pronounced slump than us in the second half of last season, and they acted decisively to strengthen pretty much every area. Goalkeeper not convincing? In comes a French international between the sticks. Centre back duo creaking a bit? In comes a £10m centre back. Star winger sold? Here’s another one, effortlessly replacing him for half the price. Strikers not scoring? Recruit not one, but two proven Premier League goalscorers.
Stoke’s problem areas were scarcely less noticeable, but haven’t been addressed with anything like the same conviction. We were positively aching for immediate competition for the flanks; we’ve signed a teenager the manager apparently sees as one for the future. An upgrade/heir to Glenn Whelan has been needed for at least two seasons; we spent £13m on a player to play the same position as our £18m record signing, and left Whelan’s position untouched. The central defensive and striking positions have at least a quality sticking plaster over them for now, but the striker search seemed to suggest we have no idea how we want to play – you’d struggle to think of three more different strikers than the trio we pursued, Berahino, van Persie and Bony. Muddled planning has translated into muddled football.
The Eagles played like a team who knew exactly what they were all about. They had pace in abundance in the final third, their wide men constantly switching to torment our full backs. They had steel and control in the middle, while their centre backs, never tested at their end, posed a regular threat in our box.
Stoke’s problems continued to mount. The back four, chopped and changed once again, showed itself incapable of even the most basic marking at set pieces. The captain looked a sad shadow of himself. Glenn Whelan more so. Our new striker spent the game playing Robinson Crusoe, marooned, isolated, wearing the expression of a man who wondered what evil spirit he’d displeased to be stuck with this shower.
The heart of our side has been slowly ageing, weakening, decaying, and rather than nourishing it, we’ve stuffed ourselves in the vein of Stoke fan Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me – more big names, more Champions League winners, more profile-raisers. Eye-catching, juicy, delicious in small doses, damaging if you rely on them at the expense of everything else.
The result is a team in cardiac arrest.
2) Can’t defend, won’t defend
Plenty of fans were aghast at yet more changes being rendered to the back four. I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t one of them, too blinded by the return of one full back and demotion of another to question the wisdom of further destabilising a defence in perpetual turmoil.
In fairness, Glen Johnson’s return at right back was most welcome and he was one of two Stoke players to emerge with anything resembling credit. Dropping Erik Pieters, meanwhile, seemed like a no-brainer after a run of apocalyptically bad form.
Yet the changes made no difference whatsoever to our rotten defending.
Bruno Martins Indi, switched to left back just a week after his debut, made soothsayers of those Dutch pundits who’d advised against doing so. Despite having played there extensively in his career, he looked every inch a Huthian, uncomfortable centre-back-playing-full-back rather than a natural full back. Caught high up the pitch inside the opening 30 seconds as Andros Townsend robbed him and surged down the wing into the space behind him, it wouldn’t get much better for the Dutch international.
Geoff Cameron, a lucky boy to be starting at all after his abortively bad showing against Spurs, was restored to the centre to resume a partnership with the captain that in fairness had looked ok at Everton. It went a lot less well at Selhurst, Cameron looking weak and bewildered against the flurry of movement and rapid exchanges of the Palace forwards. His low point came with his customary set piece nap time, not bothering to track Scott Dann until it was too late. A mediocre player in a poor vein of form, the American needs to follow Pieters out of the team.
The elephant in the room, however, is Ryan Shawcross, who currently looks as far away from his old self as he has ever been. Pain constantly etched across his face, his immobility is such that he can barely jump or run, and even his once-impeccable defensive instincts are suffering; for the second week in a row he could be seen ball watching when crosses came into the box, oblivious of his surroundings. It’s hard to watch.
The problems run deeper than individual defenders however. What Jon Walters was thinking for the first goal is a mystery Maigret, Morse, Sherlock and Batman working together couldn’t solve.
The number 19 seeming to crash like an old PC just at the moment he needed to head the ball routinely to safety. Shay Given, after those heroics at Goodison and a mixed game last weekend, looked every single one of his 40 years, rooted to his line for every set piece and seemingly incapable of stopping any shot that went more than an inch either side of him. The dropping of Gianelli Imbula failed to fortify the midfield, with Whelan again swept past like one of the easier zombies in a Resident Evil game, and Joe Allen doing a headless chicken routine, in the words of Jeff Beck everywhere and nowhere baby.
It’s the team defending that really causes concern though. Why are we still so appalling at defending dead balls? Why do opposing midfielders get so much space irrespective of who plays? Why can’t we stop a simple cross? These are the basics, yet we get our pants pulled down every single week.
Asked again about Marc Wilson’s infamous tweets, the manager’s response was that Wilson didn’t realise when he was actually doing defensive work. Presumably it was calculated to make Wilson look foolish. Instead it only seemed to strengthen his case. If the defensive work is too subtle for them Sparky, give them some they DO know they’re doing. Or someone else will.
3) Bojan disappoints
Another exciting piece of team news was the long-awaited restoration of Bojan to the starting XI, where it was hoped he could be the man to make the bullets for Wilfried Bony. That Stoke only managed to touch the ball once in the Palace box during the first half should tell you exactly how well that went.
With Bony just a volleyball with a face painted on it away from being Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Bojan, who’d come into the team for Imbula, bizarrely seemed to spend most of the game trying to play his position. He’d pick the ball up on the edge of the box and look to drive forward, one lazy pass in a dangerous area (that he shouldn’t have been in anyway) almost setting Palace away down our right. The deeper he dropped, the less influence he exerted.
I hate to say it, as he’s one of my favourite players, but there’s starting to be the whiff of the luxury player about Bojan. When people talk about the players who won’t be up for a scrap, he always seems to be the first one to come to mind. The more you kick him, the more of him disappears.
He did improve a bit in the second half, his biggest contribution, oddly, being a headed clearance off the line before having our first meaningful shot. So of course, Hughes took him off. It was that kind of day.
After the clamour for the Bony/Bojan pairing to answer our prayers, its early stutter is bad news. As with the back four though, perhaps time and understanding are required. If they’re not the answer, what is?
4) Arnautovic deserved his goal
Our first goal from open play was so good it almost felt sarcastic, a venomous, clean as a whistle strike from Marko Arnautovic 20 yards out that no keeper would have saved. It was the least his performance deserved.
It might not have been technically the best performance, but he cared so much more than any of our other players. He busted a lung to get forward, he busted a lung to get back, he looked to make things happen, he looked to atone for other’s mistakes.
He’ll be disappointed that it was a mistake of his own – a silly free kick conceded chasing back – that led to the first goal, but at least it’s more evidence of the work rate some fans, mind bogglingly, insist he doesn’t have.
Having come a long way from the days when he had “the mind of a child”, on Sunday he had the heart of a warrior. It’s a shame more didn’t.
5) Time is almost up for Mark Hughes
After a defeat like this, a lot of things are going to be said and calls made in the heat of the moment. Nothing erases memories like a crisis, and some are already trying to rebrand the whole Hughes era as a complete disaster, rather than featuring the club’s three highest league finishes in the past 40 years. Reinvigorating the dour, dispirited team he inherited with a bit of flair and pace, he delivered some great days, we’ve seen some great results, scored some great goals.
But when it’s over it’s over.
The mess we are currently in is his doing. As outlined in the opening conclusion, certain problems have been underlying all along, and rather than fix them, they’ve been allowed to fester, with new problems developing alongside them. The defence was being held together by Ryan Shawcross and Jack Butland; we seemed to think that was a situation that could go on forever. The ponderous play evident on occasion against teams who came to the Brit to sit deep is now the norm week in, week out. Our dismal end to last season should have sounded warning sirens about the need to organise the team and hammer out the flaws at both ends of the pitch. Instead we dicked around in pre-season with a 3-5-2 we had no intention of using and spent the summer pursuing players who didn’t fit how we play.
Tiny blights dismissed during the bountiful harvests are now affecting the whole crop. The seven fat cows have been devoured by the seven lean and ugly cows.
Where’s the evidence that Hughes can turn it around? So far, there isn’t any. This crisis seems to have caught him completely unawares. The team has been playing like this since the Capital One Cup semi-final heartbreak, and no different combination of players, no change of systems has altered the fundamental, fatal problems of an inability to create chances while gifting opponents goal after goal.
Tactically, he’s been found wanting for a while. Last season this blog repeatedly highlighted instances where we seemed ill-prepared against teams with a well-known gameplan and played right into their hands, from Klopp’s Liverpool to Pulis’ West Brom. Pardew’s Palace were the latest example on Sunday. We knew pace from the flanks was the key to their attacking play but their wingers switched at will, and we had no answer to them.
In the early seasons there was canny tactical flexibility. Now there’s panic, throwing stuff at the wall every week and seeing what sticks. Hughes at his best had balance in the side, players playing in their best positions, the right amounts of steel and flair. Like his predecessor, he’s taken a team on the cusp of big things and inexplicably dismantled it.
Hughes has allowed the reaper to creep up on his blind side. Now he’s turned around to find him screaming in his face. There is a death rattle about Stoke City at the moment. The bell will almost certainly toll for Hughes. It might well toll for our Premier League status.