1) Wins and clean sheets and Joe Allens oh my!
It’s been coming. Slowly but surely. But the pressure was on. Failure to win this, the first in a series of eminently winnable games between now and the festive season, would have set the tone for a genuine, no-questions-asked relegation battle. That we have negotiated the hurdle suggests we might be able to aim slightly higher after all.
Despite the howling and gnashing of teeth over the perceived negativity of his team selection, Mark Hughes clearly craves stability as he looks to get us out of the quicksand, and his decision to only make one (enforced) change, even against modest opposition, was sensible. We’re not in a position to take anything for granted at the moment.
Indeed, the importance of the contest appeared to bewitch us in the early stages, with the visitors making the better start. Even after Joe Allen had given us the lead, his header capping a fine move involving Arnautovic and Shaqiri, the first half was uncomfortably even. Sunderland had their moments on the break through Khazri and van Aanholt in wide areas, and there were still times when crosses into our box could scarcely have caused more panic had the ball exploded into a shower of spiders in mid-air. At one point, the captain was required to make a first-rate block from Jermain Defoe after Khazri pulled the ball back to the diminutive striker.
At the other end, our intentions were good, but our final ball too often wasn’t, and we again failed to muster much in the way of genuine chances. Our best opportunities were fashioned by unlikely creator Wilfried Bony, with one smart ball almost picking out Arnie in the box and another seeing Geoff Cameron go through on goal only to be denied by the excellent Jordan Pickford.
An emerging subplot this season however is our marked improvement from set pieces, and this, indirectly, is what dealt the killer blow in first half injury time. Shaqiri’s delivery was met by Ryan Shawcross, who saw his header blocked and cleared away to the edge of the area, only for Allen, with superb technique, to get over the ball and drill it back first time through a crowd of players to double the advantage. His incredible scoring run continues.
That was pretty much that. Stoke were much, much better in the second half and were on the front foot from the outset, and the fact that they somehow didn’t add more goals to their tally was perhaps the only blight on the afternoon, Pickford keeping out Bony, Allen’s follow-up being blocked and sub Charlie Adam thumping the bar late on. We controlled the half almost completely, and in the process finally, for possibly the first time this calendar year, started to look more like ourselves, the ‘good version’ of a Mark Hughes side. It was like waking up from a nine-month nightmare.
Of course, even in the good times, Mark Hughes loves one or two gibberingly insane substitutions, which we again got here, but they couldn’t spoil the mood. The celebrations are as much about relief – this was a ‘must win’ game that was won, and comfortably so – but the eye-catching development is not a first win of the season, not the first time we’ve managed two goals in a league game since the final day of last season, but that utterly spotless, gleaming, see-your-face-in-it, eat-your-dinner-off-it clean sheet.
Even viewed in the context of it coming against a desperately poor side, they still had a dangerous centre forward who always scores against us, and we have let some dreadful sides score against us over the past few months – Aston Villa, Swansea, Allardyce’s Sunderland, Hull’s reserves…this was the real monkey to get off our backs.
Now we have to keep it going. We as fans need to accept it might not be pretty or swaggering, and we still, for a fair old while, might see a lot more of Whelan and Cameron than Bojan (though Ramadan Sobhi’s continued absence continues to baffle). It could be a bumpy road and we’ll likely have to grind a few more wins out. Indeed, the memory of our fragile defending this season suggests things could yet get bumpier and grindier than R Kelly’s greatest hits. But we’re off the mark.
2) BMI, Baby!
There was no shortage of contenders for the man of the match gong. Allen’s conversion from ‘Welsh Xavi’ to ‘Welsh Lampard’ continued unabated. Ryan Shawcross was excellent and close to being back to his best. Arnie displayed his growing maturity and embracing of the ‘talisman’ label, being the man to drive us forward and at the heart of most of our best attacking play (even if his silly yellow card displayed a bit of immaturity still lurking beneath the surface).
The accolade, however, goes to Bruno Martins Indi. The Dutchman has been a quiet revelation so far (with the exception of that ill-advised left back experiment at Crystal Palace), marrying composure on the ball with a mobility and physicality that has played a large part in our defensive revival of late. On Saturday he stepped into the spotlight. He was decisive and alive to danger before anyone else knew there was danger, particularly during the first half. Nobody recovered the ball more times, and he has brought no-nonsense, common sense defending back to our rearguard action. If a ball needs to be hacked into row z, then hacked into row z it shall be. His anticipation meant he was continually the one well placed to head away second balls in dangerous areas as well.
That was just one facet of his play however, the poverty of the opposition allowing him to step forward and demonstrate that he can play a bit as well (the first calls from fans for him to play in midfield, as befalls any defender comfortable with the ball at his feet, surely can’t be far away). Numerous attacks started with him bringing the ball out from the back, and he played some sumptuous passes, one being the lofted ball into the channels for Arnie shortly before the opening goal, another being a delightful first-time pass into Bony.
Tough, strong, quick and good on the ball, Martins Indi is the central defender Hughes has been looking for since his arrived three-and-a-half years ago. If this form continues our very first order of business the second the January window opens should be making his loan deal permanent – he’ll only fly under the radar for so long.
3) Full backs are the next piece of the jigsaw
At long last, it feels as if we’re finally developing a style of play. We’re solid in the middle, we’re sitting deeper and hoping to counter quickly, and we look to our wide men for the creativity. Nobody said it was complex, but it’s a start.
That being the case, our full backs are going to become more and more important in terms of helping out Arnautovic and Shaqiri and bringing greater fluidity to our play. Particularly at home, against less than ambitious sides, attack-minded full backs become crucial. If the first half is anything to go by, we need to do better in this department.
Glen Johnson, crocked again, was a huge miss, despite a perfectly satisfactory performance from Phil Bardsley at right back on Saturday. The former (and future?) England man’s pace and use of the ball make us look so much more fluid going forward, and there were occasions when Bony and Shaqiri had the ball in the right hand channel that were screaming for the full back to go bombing on to the byline, which is Johnson’s whole M.O.
Equally, the lost at sea performance of Javier Manquillo at right back gave Erik Pieters swathes of space to run into, but he kept losing his nerve, choosing instead to cut inside and pass the ball backwards. Maybe as our confidence grows this will change.
Pieters’ sense of adventure did improve after the break, and he did tee up our best chance of the half for Bony, but more often than not only his delivery let him down. Bardsley’s exit due to injury, meanwhile, could give Hughes a real headache for next weekend, so important has Geoff Cameron become in the middle. Stoke’s lone sticky patch of the half came when he briefly replaced Bardsley at right back, the midfield losing its shape almost immediately. Is the supremely left-footed Marc Muniesa really an option there? Is Mame Diouf going to dust off his Cafu routine? Hopefully Bardsley makes it back in time for the trip to the KCOM.
Looking further ahead however, Johnson, excellent though he’s been, is injury prone and out of contract in the summer, while Pieters has to recapture some consistency and strengthen his attacking credentials. It’s likely that a pair of young, attacking full backs need to be pretty close to the top of our shopping list.
4) The fat lady is warming up for Sunderland
The caveat to our improved showing and desperately needed first win is that oh Holy God were Sunderland terrible. It was no surprise, either. Their form was terrible (worse, even, than ours); their teamsheet looked terrible. Their bench, featuring such luminaries as Pienaar and Anichebe, couldn’t have screamed ‘2009’ more if Lady Gaga and the cast of Glee had been named among the substitutes. Even by their standards, they looked a shambles.
Sunderland have somehow become the Premier League’s answer to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Players and managers come and go, fresh horrors replace faded ones, but the same darkness lurks within. You, are the caretaker Mr Moyes, you have always been the caretaker.
Their latest gaffer has been making doom-laden pronouncements pretty much since taking over, and even before his arrival, Sam Allardyce was getting frustrated with the club’s lack of transfer activity.
To compound everything they are in the midst of an awful injury crisis, and Cattermole and Kone would surely have been missed on Saturday, even if Adnan Januzaj’s ankle knack appears to have been something of a blessing. Van Aanholt, suspect though he is defensively, offered a threat down their left before he went off and will be a big loss if out for any length of time.
Moyes, however, is part of the problem. His signings look distinctly underwhelming. £8m Papi Djilobodji appears to have had one of his better games since arriving from Chelsea, but still contrived to pass us the ball under no pressure whatsoever and then play Arnie onside for the opening goal. Paddy McNair looks a whole lot of nothing. Manquillo was utterly horrendous, tortured by Arnautovic before he switched to left back. £13.5m record signing Didier Ndong completed 30 fewer passes than Glenn Whelan, and won one solitary tackle.
Tactically, he doesn’t appear to know what he’s doing either. If Hughes has tinkered this season with personnel and formations, Moyes is the Grand Vizier of the artform, using 22 different starting players in the seven games before this one and trying out 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-4-1-1 and 4-1-4-1.
Yet when he switched to a wing back system for the final 20 minutes of their draw against West Brom, they produced arguably their best football of the season, finding a way to maximise van Aanholt’s attacking qualities and allow the likes of Wahib Khazri (again one of their better performers on Saturday) to exert more influence on proceedings. Had he stuck with that 3-5-2, they may well have caused us some problems. Instead it was jettisoned in favour of the more orthodox 4-1-4-1 which left Defoe badly isolated, marginalised Khazri until he was moved inside far too late, and brought in Jack ‘the curse’ Rodwell, whose presence in the starting line up has yet to result in a league win for The Black Cats in 31 starts.
Against Stoke, Sunderland, decked out in a colour that can only be described as ‘Ribena’, were a team that quickly ran out of confidence, ideas and inspiration, their second half showing being particularly weak-willed and insipid. Crude analysis though it might be, Stoke simply wanted it more – we chased back to win back balls we’d lost, Sunderland players gave it away and shrugged.
Will they again gamble on relying on a new manager bounce to carry them over the line? Will they hold their nose, ignore the flak and tempt back Dudley’s favourite pint-of-wine enthusiast to save them again? Or would relegation, at this point, be a sweet release, a chance for some blood letting and purging, a reboot to get out of this endless malaise?
5) Second half Stoke is the Stoke we want to see
The first half, despite the two well-taken goals we scored, for long stretches looked an awful lot like a poor game between two poor sides. If we’d been better than the visitors, it hadn’t been by much. All of the usual problems were there: nerves at the back; a lack of movement and guile when it came to breaking them down in the final third; wastefulness on the ball. Sunderland’s forays forward were enough to cause jitters and Defoe would surely have scored were it not for Shawcross’ superb block.
However, the second goal came at the fabled ‘perfect time to score’, right before half time, and for once the old cliche proved right on the money. It settled us right down, demoralised Moyes’ side, and we emerged for the second half well in the mood to kill the game off.
For the first time in a long time, Stoke looked like a good side during that second period. There was some speed, some fluiditiy, and we created chances. Shaqiri and Arnie worked well together, the Austrian tearing down the left, Shaqiri buzzing around making intelligent runs into space. Wilfried Bony, too, showed evidence of his past life as one of the league’s best strikers, his hold up play being excellent, his own movement being much better, and only a strong stop from Pickford denying him his first goal for the club (even if he did take too long to pull the trigger).
The fear was that we’d be made to pay for our wastefulness, but we were more than solid enough to cope with the mackems’ meagre threat, even after the customary bizarre substitutions temporarily destabilised us. Lee Grant’s only required contribution of note was another pleasingly decisive rush to head clear a ball over the top.
Obviously, even in this very winnable run of fixtures, we will play far better teams than Sunderland that will offer a better indication of whether or not we are ‘back’, as it were. But if we can play as we did in that final 45 minutes more often, maybe, just maybe, everything will be alright.