1) Hughes blows his mini-redemption
Let’s start with a basic statement of the obvious. This is a draw that feels like a defeat. Stoke were the better side for the majority of the contest, they were positive and on the front foot throughout, and they looked more like themselves. ‘Back to basics’ was the mantra and the team was selected with that very much in mind – two holding midfielders, even given the likelihood that the opponents weren’t going to be gung ho coming forward, was a reaction to the flood of goals conceded recently. By and large, we did the simple stuff well.
Individual performances had improved as well, with the back line and midfield looking generally more solid, while our play in the final third was neat and pretty at times. The exchanges between the front three saw us actually look to move the ball more quickly to try and break down a stubborn defence, and our goal, featuring fine work from the game’s two best players and our talisman, was very well-worked. It was our most vibrant performance for months.
Had we held out for a 1-0 win, I think the majority of fans would feel encouraged at a tentative step forward.
But we didn’t.
Not only did we give away another embarrassing set piece goal in which we totally neglected some of the fundamentals, but you can only avoid those caveats for so long. Solidity was indeed the name of the game, but that’s really no excuse for only managing two shots on target at home to a team who made it abundantly clear they were happy for us to come at them. Tony Pulis has been a pain in the backside whenever we’ve played one of his sides over the past three years, but on his big day, he was surprisingly accommodating – his team were bang average and appeared not even to want to cause us any problems.
Yet somehow, on occasion, they still did. Balls put into our box caused panic, while Nacer Chadli, generally well shackled for most of the afternoon, nevertheless wriggled free on a couple of occasions to cut the ball back into space in the box, only for no West Brom shirt to be available to stick it away. Still, again, baby steps – shattered confidence doesn’t regenerate overnight, and sometimes your defence needs a lucky break or two.
It’s easy to again point the finger at lady luck and spin a sob story about how nothing bounces for you when you’re bottom of the league, but in truth the manager has to look at his own decisions when trying to figure out how we tossed two points of a comfortable three into the drink.
Once again, his substitutions were unfathomable. In particular, the decision to replace Wilfried Bony with Peter Crouch with a full half-hour left was just brain-shakingly hard to make sense of. Though the goal came shortly afterwards, it was an anamoly – Stoke’s attacking play was rendered far less effective by the change. With West Brom on the ropes and knocking on the door, it interrupted our flow and made us far more predictable.
At the other end, the decision to change goalkeepers has to be questioned, as yet more alterations to the back line yielding fatal communication breakdowns that served to allow the Baggies an undeserved share of the spoils in injury time.
Hughes has earned himself a stay of execution due to the improved performance, but the problem for him is that every opportunity for respite from the regular poundings, every softball thrown his way, be it a Baggies side with no attacking intent or a heavily diluted Hull side in the League Cup, is being fumbled. Greater challenges await on the other side of Manchester United and the international break, and Sparky might find he hasn’t bought himself as much time as he’d have liked.
2) Have we finally stumbled on our midfield three?
Having tried four different central midfield combinations in our opening six games, the manager might just have found one with the right balance. Mike Pejic called it; his suggestion of Geoff Cameron and Glenn Whelan as holding midfielders with Joe Allen given license to roam in a 4-3-3 worked pretty well. Cameron, who’d been in miserable form at the back, looked much tidier in midfield. He was impressively disciplined, kept things ticking over nicely on the ball, won plenty in the air and helped snuff Chadli largely out of the game. He has shown impressive character to bounce back from his recent nightmarish run.
Glenn Whelan, finding his load shared, was also much better, making some crucial blocks and defending very well, even if his use of the ball might have been better at times. Joe Allen, for his part, was excellent, the purpose that was lacking from his bull in a china shop act restored as he snapped at the heels of opposing midfielders, winning more tackles than any other player, recovering the ball more times and appearing late in the box, Lampard-style, to bundle in his first goal for the club.
Surely, this is the best use of him.
Solid in the middle, with flair out wide and the full backs joining in the attack, the balance extended throughout the side.
Some fine-tuning will be needed to offer more consistent support to the centre forward, and again there are caveats; it will be interesting/terrifying to see what happens when our new, apparently sturdy midfield meets a team that actually fancies crossing the halfway line with something approaching regularity. There are also awkward questions about what to do with Bojan and Imbula. But those are questions for another day.
While we recover our senses from being repeatedly thrashed and pick up the pieces of our season, we need to plug the leaks, first and foremost. The best form of defence, is in fact, defence – the team that concedes the most goals is always relegated.
When we’re feeling less fragile, by all means let’s look at other options, but for now, with stability ached for, I think we have something to work with.
3) West Brom had a much better idea of how to use their centre forward
He might be over 6ft, but in many ways, Salmon Rondon is not your typical Tony Pulis record signing. A Venezuelan signed from the Russian league after making his name in La Liga, his reputation before his arrival owed as much to his skill as his power. For sure, he’s capable of doing more than he’s been allowed to so far at The Hawthorns. Yet he is still emerging as one of the best lone strikers in the league.
West Brom’s threat could kindly be described as ‘occasional’, but Rondon looked not so much sharp as positively serrated in the area. He plays the willing workhorse well, excellent in the air, working hard, dominating defenders. But in the box he comes alive, spinning in a nanosecond when the ball drops, finding space and injecting venom into his efforts on goal, whether they come from his feet or his head. He fired a number of warning shots across our bows, until we unforgivably forgot about him in injury time and he punished us ruthlessly.
Limited though the plan may be, Pulis knows exactly how to play to Rondon’s main strengths. Their exhaustively rehearsed, whipsmart-delivered set piece play has him as the centrepiece. His dominance as a lone striker has made it easier for TP to make the decidedly un-TP move of using Nacer Chadli as a number 10; winning the knock downs and lethal with a loose ball in the danger zone, the South American is essentially playing both of the striker roles in your classic Pulis system.
Wilfried Bony’s start to life at Stoke has been far less happy. The Ivorian has already been forced to fend off aspersions about his commitment to the cause, reports hopefully the invention of lazy journalism rather than having any grain of truth to them or him being the sacrificial lamb of any dressing room weasels.
Based on his on-field efforts, such talk is unfair. True, he still looks some way from optimum fitness, but his quality has been clear already, and he is improving little by little every week. This was his best game for the club so far. He was busy, impressed with his back to goal, linked well with the wide players despite being left largely isolated by the midfield, and made some good runs. The problem was that he just didn’t get the service. The final ball wasn’t there.
I still can’t come close to comprehending why Crouch was sent on with a full half hour left to play. Even if Bony was injured or knackered, it surely made more sense to introduce the pace of Mame Biram Diouf, with the West Brom back line firmly on the back foot. Hughes’s comments that he always intended for Crouch to be involved suggest a disappointing inflexibility, and, the goal apart, Stoke were slow, predictable and much easier to deal with after his entrance; we barely threatened for the rest of the afternoon.
Perhaps the most frustrating moment of the afternoon was when Shaqiri played an angelic through ball to the feet of Peter Crouch, only for the big man to quickly be swamped by defenders as the moment passed. You can’t help but think that Bony, though not exactly Usain Bolt, would have been set away with that kind of pass. Just as West Brom play to Rondon’s strengths, so Stoke must learn to keep the faith with their new striker and play to Bony’s.
4) Shaqiri looks reborn
When the chips are down, Xherdan Shaqiri is not the first player you’d think of to get down among the muck and bullets.
Perhaps that’s doing a disservice to the Swiss star however. His return to the starting line-up for the first time since the opening day was the driving factor in the team starting to finally look more like its old self. Though Arnie showed the requisite muscle to go toe to toe with Tone’s soldiers, and Glen Johnson’s own attacking instincts played their part, Shaqiri was Stoke’s menace-in-chief, creating twice as many chances as any other player on the pitch, making the most attacking third passes and finishing second in terms of take-ons.
He also played a pivotal role in Stoke’s goal, swinging over a pacey ball before Arnie’s power took two defenders out of commission, one of them, the suddenly talkative Johnny Evans, only succeeding in knocking the ball into Joe Allen’s path for the Welshman to bundle home. Simple yet beautiful. More of this, please.
Most surprising however, was Shaqiri’s work rate and surprising appetite for tracking back. He matched James McClean in the physical battle and could constantly be seen chasing back to help Johnson. Was he wounded by Evans’ words too, or are we just finally seeing the best of him?
In just 178 minutes on the pitch, Shaqiri has been heavily involved in 50% of Stoke’s league goals, and they are yet to win a point without him. That says as much about our start to the season as it does the man himself; but it also underlines his importance. Given the circumstances, this isn’t just the Xherdan Shaqiri we want to see, but the one we’re going to need to see every week.
5) Grant struggles on his belated Premier League bow
It’s been an undeniably rotten fortnight for Shay Given; with eight goals conceded in two weeks it was inevitable his position would come under scrutiny. It was nevertheless a surprise to see Lee Grant come in for a Premier League debut at the age of 33. It had been assumed that Grant was nothing more than the nuclear option. His primary function was to put another barrier between Jakob Haugaard and the pitch. It probably should have stayed that way.
Grant has plenty of experience, but none at the top level, and it showed. He appeared nervous from the outset; he wasn’t vocal, he didn’t command his area, which contributed to the panic in our area on the rare occasions when crosses came in, and he shanked a routine early clearance into the stands.
The second half didn’t get much better, after he rather feebly punched away a tame Chadli effort. He did respond with an athletic stop from a McClean header, but that crowning moment was flushed come injury time. A decisive goalkeeper should have dealt with the ball before Bruno Martins Indi even had a decision to make. Grant’s hesitance and the communication breakdown between the two led to the concession of a needless corner, and Grant didn’t exactly convince when coming for the resulting ball, duly dispatched by Rondon.
It was a shame, because the overall defensive performance, albeit not exactly rigorously put to the test, was much improved. There were more signs that the Shawcross/Martins Indi is a good fit, the former making the most clearances and looking strong in the air, the latter making more passes than any other player. The importance of Johnson’s return can hardly be overstated, but Erik Pieters was miles better as well, particularly going forward, where he had at least one reasonable penalty appeal waved away.
Rooney and Ibrahimovic will tell us just how much confidence has been restored to the back four.
As for the goalkeeper; how’s your ankle, Jack?