Same old, same old...
This was never a game any Stoke fan expected to win, that’s not to say that we don’t have the personnel who could take advantage of a depleted and nervy Arsenal back line, more that we know by now how Pulis sets up away from home. Once again we were left to rue our inability to bring in additional players in the transfer window as we were without Pennant so had just the one winger, an out of form Etherington with a woeful Wilson behind him who had a hand in at least two of the goals conceded.
Our lack of options to cover the wings meant that Pulis tried something different, which I thought was a positive sign, but what looked like a 4-3-3 for the first 5 minutes, quickly turned into a 4-5-1 that sat on the edge of their area for the remaining 85 minutes. I guess we should be happy at the fact that the manager changed the system to accommodate the players available, the fact he had to do so because he didn’t bring in any wing cover is another story though.
On to Crouch, to start him as a lone striker full stop is a bad decision, to start him as lone striker away from home is even worse, to start him as a lone striker with one winger on the pitch with a midfield containing Delap and Whitehead behind him away from home at Arsenal? Suicidal.
Alone and off form...
Any Stoke fan could have told you that we would be under the cosh, that the winger(s) would be stuck in our defensive third trying to combat the pace of Arsenal so the only out ball would always be the long punt which, if you actually want to get up the pitch, needs to be fought for and won. Peter Crouch is not the man to fight for long balls, we needed someone strong, physical and pacey or that ball will come straight back five seconds later and that’s exactly what happened. The fact we had two fit options, both of whom would have been a much better option in those respects, sat on the bench was very frustrating, especially when you saw the impact of their introduction with 20 minutes remaining.
People point to the fact that we were drawing up until the point Van Persie came on, yes we were but we had seen so little of the ball it was embarrassing and with our inability to keep possession and the fact we had chased shadows all game, it was inevitable that legs and minds would be shattered by the time the Dutchman came on. Whilst the in form Arsenal man proved a telling presence, I’m not sure he alone was the catalyst for us finally succumbing to the mounting pressure of the last 70 minutes, despite what the manager might tell us.
Once Jones came on (and Jerome – a very welcome double substitution) we looked much more of a threat up front, we had someone to chase defenders down with pace and power, to jump and attack headers and the strength and ability to move towards goal with the ball at their feet. As a result of all this, we moved forward as a team, it served to remind me just how much we miss Fuller being available away from home and how far we have gone to accommodate the ‘name’ of Crouch.
The problem we have now is that Pulis won’t drop Crouch in the Premier League, despite him often being the wrong choice for a particular game, and he is also unlikely to drop Walters, which in his case is justified. So we’re left with a problem, we have no pace up front, especially in the absence of wingers who are injured or off colour. We’ve basically spent £10m to give ourselves a headache when we have a much more effective ‘Stoke’ like player on the bench who was last season’s top scorer and also headed the scoring charts before being dropped for the aging Crouch this season.
On a slightly positive note, despite starting Crouch when he shouldn’t have done, Pulis realised he was struggling and sought to bring on Jerome and Jones to replace him and the struggling Etherington at the point where we were still drawing which should be applauded. Though that applause may well have been drowned out by the groans for him bringing on Diao not long beforehand.
Phantom of the Emirates...
I’ll close on an even more positive note – Palacios, Higginbotham and Fuller should all return soon which will improve us immeasurably, especially in the ball retention stakes. So onto an exciting couple of home games where squad confidence will be recharged in the home comforts of the Britannia, the real test however, will be the ‘winnable’ away game at Bolton a week on Sunday, if there ever is such a thing...
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