Played three, won two, lost one. Considering the loss was against a Liverpool side that today beat last season’s champions, I don’t think Mark Hughes will be losing sleep over those three points lost. Especially when we have gained six after crucial wins from Crystal Palace and West Ham United.
In the five years Stoke City have been a Premier League Football Club, we have not been adventurous away from home, notable for sending a reserve team to play at the Mestalla in our most prestigious Europa League game in 2012 against Valencia. This lack adventure by our previous manager was also compounded by heavy losses on the road in our first four seasons in the top division, including a 4-0 loss to Sunderland, two 5-0 losses, one each to Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United, plus a 8-0 loss to Chelsea that will haunt Asmir Begovic still when thinking of his Stoke City debut. It is fair to say that those supporters who I admire the most, the away supporters, have had a fair share of bad games to endure across the last five years. Whilst this is not an article aimed at criticizing Tony Pulis’s record at Stoke City, the change of style that Mark Hughes has implemented since taking over at the Britannia Stadium was clear to see in this dominant away performance.
Where we have failed in the first two games, we shone against the Hammers, dropping Peter Crouch for Kenwyne Jones being a decisive factor. Whilst he did not get on the score-sheet, his presence up front allowed the side to impose themselves onto West Ham, compared to Crouch whose preferred method of playing involves bringing the ball down and spraying it around. Jones compared to Crouch is harder to bully on the field, hard for experienced defenders such as James Collins to shake off the ball, yet he still has a good knack for moving the ball into open space at the right time to offer players an opportunity to score. This shows in the improved number of shots we took during the game, based on the two games we have played at West Ham since they gained promotion. Last season, we had 12 shots compared to the 15 we had in yesterday’s encounter. Crucially though, we restricted West Ham yesterday to 9 shots, none of them on target. Considering last season ‘The Hammers’ had 16 shots and 11 of them were on target, I believe Stoke’s defensive unit deserve credit for keeping West Ham so quiet.
What Kenwyne excels at as well, although it is disputed by some supporters, is his ability to hold onto the ball and win the ball back. Crouch lacks mobility on the ground, looking isolated up front and does little to involve himself in play when the ball is not in his team’s possession. Jones on the other hand chases the ball – crucially, more frequently than Crouch does – to the extent that at one point in yesterday’s game he chased a ball back to the full back position and won a throw-in for Stoke. Little things such as this helped Stoke to dominate the game, explaining our advantage in possession (54 percent) compared to last season (46 percent).
As a team we improved when the two substitutions were made. Glenn Whelan impressed in midweek against Walsall and was unlucky to be dropped for the game, but his presence calmed the team down when West Ham were just starting to try and put a bit of pressure on the Stoke defence.
At the same time, Jermaine Pennant came on, and the two of them were involved in the goal. Whelan, fouled by Mohamed Diame, won the free kick from with Pennant dispatched with aplomb, curling it over the wall and into the top right corner. Arguably one of the best free kicks you will see this season with the short distance from the point of kick and the goal line.
The only change I would have liked Mark Hughes to make would have been to bring Oussama Assaidi on for his league debut after playing 45 minutes against Walsall. Like a few Stoke supporters, I am still iffy about what Assaidi can offer the team, but what is undeniable is that he has tricky footwork that can beat a man, and he has raw pace. If he can shoot and score is a question left to another day, but at the end of the game, a goal up against a team pushing for an equaliser, I would have liked Assaidi come on just to pressure Guy Demel and/or Joey O’Brien for the remaining minutes of the game. After a two week break from league football, perhaps we will have a new chance to see what Assaidi has to offer against Manchester City.
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