Man of the Match...
Since the game on Sunday I’ve gone backward and forwards on this one, should I be angry or should I be happy? – it’s really difficult to even begin to rationalise, such is the life of a football fan, so I thought I’d talk you through my thinking;
Not only was this a newly promoted side’s first home match, it was in front of the second highest crowd seen at the revamped Carrow Road. We’ve seen the effect momentum and a good home crowd can have, in fact, some of the comments post match from our own supporters remind me of the ones we used to hear from the likes of Villa, Man City and Arsenal in our first season, said with the same arrogance that we ourselves despised back then. There are no easy games in this league and the newly promoted side often kicks off with a bang, Burnley beating Manchester United springs to mind, Blackpool getting four on their first game, even our first game against Villa all saw herculean efforts from the new kid in town, so we have to factor that in.
We also have to factor in that not only do we have an incredibly depleted squad but those who we can get on the pitch are running on empty after a short pre season and European involvement, the players hadn’t even been home between our exploits in Switzerland and this match! The fact that we kept going until our equaliser in the 94th minute is testament to the never say die attitude and incredible work ethic of this squad and that simply has to be applauded.
Whilst we have a threadbare squad, we possess the ability to play a lot better than we did. We started off very well and once Pennant came off, the decision to bring Matty over to the right killed our attacking impetus, it didn’t help that the whole team at that point decided to sit back on the toes of the keeper either. We’ve seen that Whitehead can put a decent ball in with his right foot and isn’t exactly a slouch, and also that Pugh is better in the middle than out wide so to set up as we did was all the more baffling as it put us at an immediate disadvantage.
We saw a Norwich player get harshly sent off and rightly picked the pace up chasing the equaliser, we even witnesses some excellent balls along the floor, players collecting the ball and either running the line or carrying it forward and infield. What frustrates me is we clearly have the talent and confidence to do this but we only ever see it when we are chasing a game, before this we were on the back foot, not because they were better than us, it was because we sat back and were completely static, expecting Etherington (on his worse side) to beat the defence alone before crossing to the one player in the box.
Yes, Norwich were defending deep partly because they had only ten men, but mainly because we pushed up as a whole and started to pass and move around them, it’s defending from the front in its purest form, attack in this case was the best defence that we had all afternoon. I’ve spoken to recently departed players who have echoed this sentiment, that the players are confident in their ability to be more attacking but the Manager won’t let them, when you see that we got more than 50% possession for the first time since our top flight return, you have to wonder if they have a point?
I guess any frustration I have is, that whilst I would have taken a draw before kick off, we had the ability and confidence on the day to take all three, it is so often the case that we could do so much better yet choose to start the game defensively hoping to nick a goal then end up changing to what we should have started with when we go behind.
Anyway, I’m still no clearer after that so here are a couple more points for discussion;
We saw a return to what is starting to look like our first choice defensive four of Huth, Shawcross, Woodgate and Wilson. Regular readers will know I have been only slightly critical of Woodgate, in as much as I don’t think he is as strong as Huth in the air and the way we defend demands a certain physicality and aerial presence. I noticed that Woody doesn’t possess the best leap but generally got by well without it, on Sunday however, it really seemed to catch him out and he had a torrid afternoon against two average strikers. When you watch compilations of Woody’s best moments, it will show him scoring a header or reading a tackle in a two against two/one where his team were caught on the break. This rarely happens at Stoke because we are so deep and as such his defensive game is being tested and as far as our shape goes, I prefer Huth in the middle. Luckily Pulis recognised this and brought Woody off as he was teetering dangerously close to a second booking, bringing Huth back into the middle and getting Shotton on. What a breath of fresh air he was too, looking very composed on the ball, linking well down the right with Matty and put in an absolute peach of a driven pass having overlapped and got to the by-line.
A breath of fresh air...
I’d like to see Ryan given more of a chance, again I know we were playing ten men at the time, but he looked a natural with the ball at his feet and in this side, not treating the ball like a bomb is a welcome bonus. Add to this the long throw he has in his locker and the case for his inclusion starts to take shape. The problem we now have, and it’s a problem many predicted, is that whilst we have a great player in Woody, we are moving things around too much to accommodate him and it is to our detriment, and whilst Woody may improve with fitness, the fact remains we looked a different side with a bit of pace and mobility at full back. On the other side, I’m sticking with my early season position on Wilson who once again failed to impress on the left, his pace and awareness remain an issue and out of approximately 30 diagonal balls, he was successful with a handful at most.
Every man and his red and white dog can see we are desperately thin at the moment and whilst it’s reassuring to hear Pulis bang on about it in every single interview he does, I’m somewhat concerned at the fact two weeks ago it was that we needed “four or five” this now seems to be “three or four”. My guess is that with news of a new contract for the improved Whelan, it seems Pulis has ‘filled’ on of the two central midfield slots he wanted to, though for me we still desperately need wing cover, TWO central midfielders and two strikers and that’s five players before you even look at getting at least one new full back in too. It certainly looks to be an incredibly significant couple of weeks ahead, a couple of weeks that could make or break our season, I have no doubt we’ll get some players in, I’m just praying that they are players who will take us forward. We’re in a great position going into Thursday’s game, only a draw away from the group stages of the Europa League, that couple with a debt free, ambitious club should appeal to that level of player shouldn’t it? Still, I’m a Stoke fan so expect the worse as a default position, I should just be glad that Benjani has already been ‘snapped up’…
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