On the surface of the game, any neutral football supporter, peering at the results and seeing a 0-0 scoreline between Stoke City and Manchester City, would assume a dominant performance from the title challengers, and Stoke to be hanging on for dear life. Whilst it was not to this extreme for either team, Stoke City certainly put in a performance that merited praise from pundits across the country. Manchester City had made several changes from their last league game against Hull, most likely with their midweek game against Viktoria Plzen. Joleon Lescott, Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Edin Dzeko were all dropped from the team in favour of Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, James Milner, Stevan Jovetic, Samir Nasri and Alvaro Negredo. On paper, it could be considered that City replaced great players with great players. However, the sheer number of changes seemed to disrupt the Citizens as despite keeping nearly 58 per cent possession in the game, there were few penetrating passes for Stoke’s defence to deal with. Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth, despite the latter being knocked unconscious towards the end of the game, marshalled the defence manfully, tackling when required, yet doing the simple things the right way as well. Early in the first half, Shawcross, one-on-one with Negredo had the choice to close his man down, or to stand off him and invite a shot. He chose the latter, knowing his goalkeeper would be able to save any shot from that distance, and positioned his body correctly so that it would fail to cause Begovic any trouble. In the second half, with the ball at his feet and Manchester City forwards closing him down, he managed to play the ball out and the resulting forward moves created a chance for Stoke. Huth on the other side of the pitch proved why he is considered an unstoppable force, throwing himself into a clearing header moments after recovering consciousness after two or three minutes out cold on the pitch. This defensive solidity allowed Stoke to threaten more than their Manchester counterparts, the Potter’s troubles coming from a lack of clinical finishing. Jon Walters was culpable of missing the best chance of the game, although Kenwyne Jones and Steven Nzonzi may look away from any television set when showing highlights of the chances they had to grab a goal in the game.
The introduction of Marko Arnautovic, as well as Stephen Ireland, promised much in the remaining 20 minutes of the game, yet an injury to Kenwyne Jones seemed to force Mark Hughes’s hand when perhaps he had other ideas in mind regarding his final substitution. Arnautovic showed glimpses of his ability, being confident enough on his debut to take a free kick (sending it into row Z though) and forcing a good save from a surging cross into the box which deflected goal-wards off Matija Nastasic. He could have even stole the game for Stoke in the final touch of the game with a late effort that rippled the top of the net and had supporters of the Potters dreaming of a famous Britannia Stadium victory. Stephen Ireland had less impact in the game than what I had hoped for, but he did show how he is willing to prove his critics wrong, running into tackles and showing a good work ethic when trying to recover possession, even if his creative output was ultimately limited. I feel that for now, the bench is the best place for Ireland to start his Stoke City career, but in the months ahead, I believe he will prove to be a valuable starting player, once his fitness and form have improved. He linked up well with Kenwyne Jones, and later Peter Crouch, performing the role of a number 10 efficiently, if not effectively.
After four games, it is worthwhile to look at how Stoke have set up at this early stage in the season. The shape that the team takes is fairly similar to that was employed by Tony Pulis, with a man in the hole supporting a lone striker. However, Mark Hughes has adapted his tactics to suit this system, employing Jon Walters to play this role, despite being positioned on the right of the three man forward line. Walters has a free role when attacking, getting as close as possible to Jones or Crouch to react to their flick ons, whilst Geoff Cameron is given license to bomb forward and offer himself on the right wing. When this happens, this is where Marc Wilson’s role in the team becomes evident, offering cover for any attacking full-backs, shifting to auxiliary right or left back if the space is left bare when the opposition counter attack. This change in tactic allows Stoke to carry as many players forward as possible when attacking, whilst not risking defensive solidity at the back. Ireland’s introduction yesterday though showed that whilst we have a plan A, we also have a plan B, with Ireland taking over Walters’s free role in the hole, and allowing the team more solidity by not breaking shape when attacking. With next Sunday’s game with Arsenal in mind, I would not be surprised to see this plan B being utilised at some point during the ninety minutes, with Arsenal’s threat on the counterattack greater with the introduction of Mesut Ozil.
The Blog FC – Promoting the next wave of football journalism.