With four defenders all playing in the positions they are accustomed to, the return of Shaqiri and the introduction of a more defensive minded partner for Glenda, Mark Hughes’ team selection provided me and the Boy with some much needed optimism. Missing Butland and whilst Cameron is clearly not a long term solution, the team sent out on Saturday looks more balanced than it had since the end of last season.
All that optimism however could have vanished in a puff of blue and white smoke if Stoke hadn’t withstood the initial West Brom onslaught as the visitors tried to make the most of the panic which has festered in Stoke’s defence ever since Butland got injured. But Shawrcoss and co. managed to survive and as West Brom ran out of ideas Stoke grew into the game.
With both full backs willing to support their wingers Stoke increasing caused West Brom problems and after a neat one-two it looked like Pieters had won a deserved penalty only to look up and see Martin Atkinson waving play on. When you are fighting down at the bottom of the table bad decisions by the officials become magnified and watching the referee wave play on you got the feeling that this was going to be another one of those days.
This feeling was only magnified when Johnson raced onto a clever header from Bony and after beating Foster could only watch as Dawson somehow managed to head the ball off the line. Bony has been much maligned in recent days but his showing against West Brom was easily his best in a red and white shirt, his intelligent runs and willingness to hold the ball up allowed Shaqiri, Arnie and Allen to run at the West Brom defence time and time again. At the other end the Stoke defence looked comfortable in coping with everything the West Brom threw at them and Hughes must have been pleased as the teams headed for their half time oranges.
After the break Stoke, with Shaqiri and Arnie in particular, started to play the type of football we know they can produce. Arnie crossing for Joe Allen to narrowly head over the bar before a cheeky back heel sent Pieters into the box, only for the Dutchman to trip over his own feet, and despite the protests from the Stoke fans and players Martin Atkinson at least got this one right.
Then in the sixty first minute Hughes made his first change bringing on Two Meter Peter for Bony. Ten minutes later Stoke were in front for the first time this season when Joe Allen was quickest to react to the confusion made by another deadly Shaqiri cross. No one can doubt Stoke deserved this lead and it could be argued that the goal would never have happened if Hughes had not made the substitution but with Bony off the pitch, and Shaqiri tiring, Stoke began to lose the ascendancy. Yet this wouldn’t have mattered if Two Meter Peter had the legs to latch onto a Shaqiri through ball a few moments later but his lack of pace allowed the West Brom defender to close down the threat.
A combination of nerves and tiring legs was allowing West Brom to get back into the game and Lee Grant, making his debut in the Stoke goal, increasingly found himslef called upon, most notably when palmed away a bullet header from James McLean a few minutes after Stoke’s goal. With the prospect of a first win this season becoming a reality the nervousness in Stoke’s defence became more evident and when a lack of confusion between the Beast and Grant resulted in a corner, Stoke’s new zonal defence was unable to deal with Rondon’s near post header. On the sideline Tony Pulis, celebrating his one thousandth league match as a manager, jumped up in down in delight as his team somehow found themselves returning to the Hawthorns with an undeserved point.
Stoke’s performance against West Brom, on the back of an unlucky defeat to Hull in the EFL Cup has given me confidence that we do have the quality, and more importantly the desire, to be a Premiership team again next year but there are still issues that need to be resolved:
- Whilst playing Geoff Cameron alongside Glenda provides a more stable base for our attackers he is not the long term solution, and with Affelay out for who knows how long, this area has to be our number priority when the transfer window opens.
- What has Ramadan done wrong? Easily our best player against Hull no one would have expected him to keep Shaqiri out of the team but surely his pace and directness would have been a welcome option from the bench.
- Keep working on zonal marking. I understand that with the new anti-Stoke rules our old way of defending corners is a penalty waiting to happen but we look scared whenever the opposition has a free kick or a corner.
- Hughes needs to take the team out for a beer. The corner from which West Brom scored came about because of a lack of communication. Lee Grant should have been calling to the Beast that it was the keeper’s ball.
- Persevere with Wilfried Bony. Stoke scored once Two Meter Peter was introduced but from the moment Bony left the pitch Stoke’s attacking trio of Allen, Arnie and Shaqiri had less space. In today’s game a lone forward is not all about scoring goals but the space he creates for his midfielders.
Stoke Giraffe of the Week Shaqiri
Stoke Lemon of the Week Geoff Cameron
Lee Grant – 7 Looked composed and made a couple of good saves but should have claimed the ball that led to the corner for the equaliser
Glenn Johnson – 8 Linked up well with Shaqiri down the right flank and unlucky not to score his first Stoke goal
Ryan Shawcross – 7 Almost back to his best and continues to be a menace in opposition penalty area.
Bruno Martins Indi – 7 Another confident performance and clearly has the ability to play the ball out from the back
Erik Pieters – 7 His best game this season and looked like the Pieters who first turned up at Stoke. Should have had a penalty in the first half but did trip over his own feet for the appeal in the second.
Glenn Whealan – 7 Quiet but effective and showed he was willing to put his body on the line to keep West Brom out
Geoff CAmeron – 6 Only a short term solution but showed he had the tactical nous to fill the holes when Stoke pushed forward. His touch however was that of a centre-half not a midfielder.
Joe Allen – 8 Deserved his goal for the amount of grass he covered and looked better suited playing further forward.
Shaqiri – 8 Quiet in the first half but in the second tore West Brom to shreds. If the second half Shaqiri plays every week then Stoke shouldn’t need to worry about their current position
Arnie – 8 After seeing Ramadan shine against Hull in his normal position on the left, Arnie provided the perfect repost with a display that said “this position is mine”
Wilfried Bony – 7 Looked sharper and did the hard work which allowed Stoke’s attacking trio to shine. Stoke looked less of a threat after he had left the pitch
Two Meter Peter – 6 Did what was asked of him but if Stoke are playing one up front he does not have the legs or mobility to occupy two centre-halves
Charlie Boy – 6 Only on the pitch for five minutes but still able to pick up a yellow card
Mame Diouf – 6 Not on long enough to make an impression and, if you are being harsh, was at fault for the West Brom equaliser
Mark Hughes – 6 Better starting XI but the bench was questionable with no Super Jon or Ramadan. Still seems to wait until sixty minutes before looking to the bench. Does it take this long to get the Mystic Mark Bingo set up?
Marin Atkinson – 5 Didn’t miss just didn’t give a stone wall penalty and, especially with Arnie, seemed to be refereeing by reputation rather than what was actually occurring on the pitch. Chickened out when not sending Yacob off for a second kick to Joe Allen’s forehead.