The script seem to have been written weeks ago, I have been banging on about the same issues and concerns but have been shouted down by various people as moaning when we were on an almost record breaking ubeaten run. A lot of those issues came to a head on Sunday as we we were utterly woeful and bereft of any clue on how to get back into a game that was effectively lost after ten minutes.
For weeks I have been warning about the perils of accomodating Woodgate, of playing Crouch with a poor midfield behind him, about the form of the wingers and the poor play of Wilson. All these factors culminated in one of the most frustrating performances I’ve seen in a while, but the painful thing is, you could see it coming a mile off. People will point to the high number of clean sheets, to Pulis’ comments on the benefit of having an old head in the middle, it’s rubbish, we are sitting so deep it’s stupid, we have next to nothing going forward from the back so when we concede it’s more or less game over, and some of the stats on our back line are alarming.
In the five games leading up to this nightmare, we had seen 99 attempts on our goal, that is nearly 20 a game, that’s not good defending, that is poor finishing, luck and a complete inability to get the team up the pitch and retain some sort of possession.
I’m not going to go over it again, so I’ll just copy and paste some of my comments since the start of the season about the defensive position which I believe is the source of 90% of our problems.
"This for me was one of Marc’s worst games for us and the hope that we had found a capable full back is all but gone after a nervous performance where he was bereft of any positional sense, tackling or passing ability. Pace has always been a concern but his apparent strength in these other areas helped compensate for that, but against Chelsea we saw the Wilson we tried in midfield as he shied away from tackles and took an age to pick a pass, I like to think the club worked on his awareness in the Summer, I’m sure they’ve got one of those ‘Whac a Mole’ games at Alton Towers which would surely help?" (After the Chelsea game)
"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" (After the Norwich game)
"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" (After the Norwich game)
"I’m really disappointed that our player of the season remains out on the right and after Saturday it appears he is now our fourth choice centre back which is frankly ludicrous. Yes, we kept another clean sheet, but since Huth’s return to the full back position we have only won games in this competition by one goal. Whilst the Berlin Wall’s presence at the back gives us an obvious defensive advantage, it also nullifies our attacking intent down the right as well as adversely affecting the overall balance of the side. I just hope Pulis hasn’t made a mistake by leaving Woody out of the Europa League squad as bringing Huth back into the middle would mean he would only have domestic cup competition to look forward to and I don’t think player or manager will be happy with him not seeing much action if he is fit" (After the Liverpool game)
"I’m fully aware of Wilko’s limitations but as I’ve said before, his agility and eagerness to support Pennant gives the latter player more confidence when he goes forward and as a result the whole team pushes up the pitch nicely. With this territorial advantage comes chances and goals, last season we saw the same thing and after Christmas when Pulis changed it we started scoring more freely and the team as a whole looked much better for the inclusion of a more natural right back" (After the Liverpool game)
So those were the warnings, these are the comments for the players on the day;
Begovic – Arguably one of his worst games for us, was culpable for two if not three of the goals conceded with poor command of his area and questionable positioning. He’s still learning but this was a bad one, I hope he bounces back against Man Utd next week if he gets selected.
Huth – Had an awful game, clearly unhappy and frustrated at right back, he struggled against the pace of the Sunderland forwards and offered makeshift winger Walters very little support offensively. If you look at the statistics below you can see the evidence of his contribution/distribution, not only from Sunday’s game but also last season’s performance in the same match, also from right back. This tactic of pushing him out of the middle is really harming the whole team and the sooner Pulis recognises that, the better, it wasn’t long after the same fixture last year that he did exactly that, let’s hope he doesn’t wait until November this season before he sees sense.
Shawcross – This actually wasn’t too bad a game from Ryan, though it was clear to see that he was hampered from having Huth to his right and an entirely ineffective player to his left in…
Woodgate – I’m not sure how long Woody can live off his reputation as every time I have seen him in the Premier League this season he has been suspect. I’ve written before about his aerial ability but the way he was just sidestepped for their third goal on Sunday was far too easy. He needs to be dropped and soon. Both him and Upson, the latter has impressed much more, need to battle it out as cover for Huth/Shawcross, playing in the other competitions. You get the impression that Pulis is in no hurry to realise the obvious as it would mean dropping the player many in the game have touted as the signing of the season. He really isn’t.
Wilson – Awful game from Wilson though not too far from the rest of his performances this season. He isn’t a left back and was one of the reasons we struggled down that side as Matty was always having to chase back to cover with Marc stranded up field following one of his many failed passes. Many have suggested playing him in midfield again but based on what I have seen of him there, he is even more of a liability in the middle, whether he will improve any time soon is to be seen, it’s obvious he has the talent, for me it’s his awareness and decision making that is the problem. Please rush back Higgy!
Walters – Poor Jon was clearly hung out to dry on the right, he can do a good job there but with no support from Huth and up against the pace of Richardson, he was always going to struggle and not be in a position to support the front line. He did do well to win a fair few throws, though none of these made any impact at all
Whitehead – Always seems to struggle at his old ground, he didn’t use the ball well and was given the run around by the impressive Vaughan who was pulling the strings in the middle for the opposition. I thought he played quite badly but his statistics weren’t as bad as my memory suggested, which only accentuates the fact that the Sunderland midfield on the day was far superior to our own.
Delap – This was a bad game from Delap. He is growing worryingly inconsistent, having played well in a couple of games this season, in the other half he looks so tired, leggy and dare I say lazy. Some of his tackles have been so late they could easily have been made by an unfit Boothen ender in a replica kit. Whilst historically his throws are a good way of getting up the pitch and creating chances, we got nothing from them yet again as the weapon that used to cause so much havoc fails to have a fraction of the impact of old.
Etherington – It doesn’t help that Matty is off form, seemingly electing to not take his man on these days, it makes things even worse when he has to spend the whole match mopping up after Wilson. Yet another struggling with the support of an out of position player behind him.
Jerome – Following an exciting full debut in Europe, this was a quieter affair for Cameron. You get he feeling his inclusion was to try and counter the lack of pace up there in Crouch and Walters, though he struggled to get into the game. His pace will help us this season, but like Crouch, we need to learn how to utilise his talents better.
Crouch – As soon as I saw we had gone with Crouch, I looked at the midfield of Delap, Whitehead and only one winger and expected the worse. As most could have predicted, he was entirely isolated, feeding off countless, painful to watch hoofs aimed to his head. He showed a great touch on the occasions he managed to get a ball into his chest/feet but if he is going to be a success he desperately needs support.
Palacios – Wilson came on to get another 20 minutes under his belt and the midfield improved ten fold as he set about breaking up play and using the ball well. We have seen a good range of passing from Palacios, he seems to have a good awareness about him, the kind his namesake Marc could do with learning, as he not only found the forwards on the deck but also passed into the space in front of the player to move the team forward. I’d love to see him start against Man Utd, most probably after 20-30 mins or so action tonight against Spurs.
Pennant – I’m not sure why Pennant didn’t start, an injury or maybe to keep Walters’ work rate in the team, but his omission put even more pressure on the under fire Etherington and we’ve already discussed the impact Walters didn’t have in his place. As always, he looked tidy on the ball and composed, allowing us to retain possession that much better.
Jones – I said as soon as Crouch signed that I hoped KJ wouldn’t be sacrificed just as he found a bit of form and he was. What I’ve been surprised to see is the reaction to that from Jones, whenever he comes on he is like a man possessed, attacking with the pace and power Pulis loves. In his time on the pitch he hustled and bustled for the ball, leaping like a salmon, snapping at the heels of midfielders, I’m sad to say he did everything we wanted Crouch to do in the preceding hour. I appreciate the two are different players and dare I say his energy and work rate made me think, just for a second, that maybe, just maybe, we could give him a chance in the withdrawn role behind Crouch? There I said it.
I hope all this hasn’t come across too badly, I just get frustrated at the team being set up so badly when the right players playing in the right positions took us all the way to a Cup Final with more than a few big results along the way. Accommodating Woodgate to me is at the root of the bulk of our problems and as such, the situation at right back needs sorting. We’ve also seen the lack of a new winger in the transfer window come back to bite us as injuries and lack of form hit the sole incumbents in these positions.
I might be putting a heap of pressure on Palacios’ shoulders but I think he will be crucial to our success going forward, and with someone like Whelan alongside him, in between BOTH wingers, we might actually be able to move up that pitch and support Crouch, giving him half a chance to shine, and if we can incorporate a hungry and willing Jones into the mix too, then all the better.
Vis Unita Fortior
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give ya heed a shake man!!!! your 1st defeat of the season after a tough away trip in EUROPE!!!!
look how far you have come in such a short time!! you are going to have bad results from time to time man!!!!
Editor Comment - If this was a bad day at the office then fair enough rob but I've been warning this would happen as we rode our luck for weeks. Things need to change and I'd be a poor observer if I ignored them off the back of a few good results.
Posted by Jim Thornton on 09/21/2011
Good piece, wouldn't disagree with any of it and fervently agree with most.
Unfortunately, however, whilst everything said we should have gone to Sunderland and taken them apart, I had a horrible feeling yesterday would be the day a few pigeons came home to roost as we'd really ridden our luck defensively this season and it couldn't last. Which it certainly didn't, given the scrappy nature of the first 3 goals.
I agree with your post after the Norwich game re Woody. I thought he looked uncertain in the first half at West Brom, and that transmitted itself to Ryan too. I wouldn't mind seeing him at full back though, with Huth returning to his rightful place in the middle, with Upson as the other full back releasing Wilson as another midfield option.
Finally, think TP's going to take some time to adjust to having a squad big enough to allow rotation for the first time in his career so might be a few more yesterdays before he works out his best combos.
Keep up the good work!
Editor Comment - Hi Jim, thanks for that. I think you're right, though it remains to be seen whether Pulis agrees with us...
Posted by rob on 09/22/2011
How do you come to the conclusion you should take sunderland apart????
Granted you have some very good players but Sunderland have a squad packed full of quality internationals. They have had a bad start and you have to remember quite a few in the Stoke squad are players deemed not good enough to be in the Sunderland squad Whitehead Delap Higgenbottom Jones like i said in my original post Stoke have come a long way in a short space of time but the arrogance of just expecting to take Sunderland apart.
Tony Pulis is doing a fantastic job but you are no Man U or Chelsea!!!
Editor Comment - Not once did I say we should have taken Sunderland apart?! Please also remember that those players not good enough for Sunderland have taken Stoke above you in 2 out of the last 3 seasons, to a Cup Final and into Europe :)
Posted by rob on 09/22/2011
sorry you didnt say that it was james!!!! just my original post i was saying how well stoke have done and you are a team on the up just for james to say you should take teams like sunderland apart is mad!!! there are no easy 3 points in the premier league and if you go into a game thinking you SHOULD take them apart you will fall flat on your backside!!! I want to see teams like stoke do well and the likes of Wigan bugger off!!!!
Posted by rob on 09/22/2011
also 2 out of the last 3 mmmm try probably 2 out of the last 20!!!!!
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James Whittaker is a football writer and ardent Stoke fan. Having moved to Leeds as a youngster his father refused to take him to his local Championship winning side and instead insisted he chose the Third Division team of his forefathers, Stoke City. Since then there has been no looking back and having been brought up on a diet of Dave Rowson, Kyle Lightbourne and John Gayle, is now embracing the dizzy heights of the top flight for the first time in his life. Fiercely loyal, though always welcoming sensible chat and debate, you can find him on Twitter @ESPN_Stoke