Arsenal 3 – Stoke City 1

As Stoke looked to end their Arsenal hoodoo, Mark Hughes brought back Joe Allen for the unlucky Walters and decided to stick with the 3-4-3 formation which had previously seen off Watford and Burnley. With no Super Jon the captain’s armband was passed to Charlie Boy and once the match commentator informed us that it was the Scot’s birthday everything felt right with the boy as if this confirmed his theory that, in the absence of The Captain, the honour to lead the team was being based on star sign rather than footballing ability.

Indeed, this theory seemed to be confirmed as Adam misplaced a pass early on which led to Arsenal rushing forward to attack Grant’s goal and, maybe buoyed by this mistake, it was evident Arsenal had been told to press the Stoke Captain quickly every time he received the ball. Yet despite Stoke’s midfield’s tendency to give the ball away needlessly it was Stoke who looked the more dangerous in the opening exchanges with Arnie being Arsenal’s tormenter in chief as he twice laid the ball back only for Joe Allen and Shaqiri to fluff their lines. There was even a potential goal of the season contender as Muniesa forced Petr Cech to tip over after a perfectly struck volley from what seemed like the centre circle.

It was therefore no surprise to anybody, apart from the Christmas Grinch on the Arsenal touchline, when Stoke took the lead after Xhaka assaulted Joe Allen in the Arsenal penalty area and Adam stepped up to stroke the resulting penalty home. Should Xhaka have been sent off? Initially I thought no but after seeing the replays, which Lee mason didn’t have the luxury of to be fair, it is clear Xhaka deliberately elbowed the Welshman and who knows what the result might have been if the Swiss midfielder, who was easily Arsenal’s best player, had been sent for an early bath. And of course on the side line the Christmas Grinch clearly thought Lee Mason got it wrong, presumably believing that Allen should have gotten his face out of the way!

One nil up at the Emirates might have seemed a dream scenario and things might have been different if Mustafi hadn’t injured himself a few minutes before Stoke took the lead but with Bellerin coming on at right back Arsenal began to look a lot more potent and Pieters in particular will not be wanting to see the Spaniard anytime soon as Bellerin continually looked to join the attack. Potent as he is going forward Bellerin may be the weakness in the Arsenal defence that other teams will look to exploit because he does leave the Arsenal right exposed as he looks to influence the attack.

But it was the Spaniard’s attacking intent which finally undid the Stoke defence three minutes before the interval when his low cross was met superbly by Walcott who volleyed past a helpless Grant in the Stoke goal. 1-1 quickly became 2-1 five minutes after half time when Pieters, out of position after receiving treatment, could only watch on as Ozil ghosted through a disorganised defence to head past a stranded Grant.

Even a goal behind you still felt Stoke had a chance even after Grant made a smart save from Oxlade-Chamberlin and if Mame had managed to do better with a free header from six yards out we might have been lucky enough to see the Christmas Grinch throw a festive tantrum. Instead Stoke seemed to lose a little spirit after this miss and to shake things up Mystic Mark decided to turn to one of his go to men in Two Meter Peter and if Crouch’s first touch, a downward header, had sneaked in we may have talking about a substitution masterclass but instead the truth was as soon as Stoke introduced the veteran striker they began to fade from the game.

And it was left to the Arsenal sub, Alex Iwoba, to put the final nail in Stoke’s coffin as he steered a low shot past the diving Grant and into the bottom corner to seal yet another defeat for Stoke at the Emirates.

This game was always going to be difficult and in the main Stoke can take some comfort in the way they created chances against a team who are going to be up near the top of the table come the end of the season but as we enter a hectic festive period there are still a few points to consider:

  • It seems 3-4-3 is here to stay, at least until the Captain returns, and so the next question has to be who gets the nod to play in the front three. Arnie played well, at least for the first half, in the false nine role but at home where Stoke will be expected to attack a more dedicated striker will provide a greater threat. At least for the Southampton game I would bring back Super Jon.
  • I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record once more but why is Adam still playing when Glenda is fit again? The Scot may be our best striker of the ball we have but he gives the ball away too cheaply to play the covering role in front of the defence. Arsenal clearly noticed he could be ruffled and every time Charlie Boy received the ball he was closed down quickly. A tactic I am sure Southampton and Leicester will have noted produced dividends.
  • Another broken record moment! When we bring on Two Meter Peter we are broadcasting to world how we are going to change our game plan and being honest it is not working. It was good to see both Ramadan and Ngoy getting onto the pitch and both fit into the way we were playing, and creating chances, much better than Crouch.
  • Although he doesn’t get the Giraffe of the week the improvement, in such a short amount of time, in Mame’s defending has to be noted. His last ditch sliding clearance shows he is willing to do the dirty work which playing wing back entails.

Stoke Giraffe of the Week           Bruno Martins Indi

Stoke Lemon of the Week           Charlie Adam

Match Ratings

Lee Grant – 8                        A couple of memorable saves and once again couldn’t do a lot with any of Arsenal goals.

Glenn Johnson – 7              An off day for the usually impressive Johnson

Marc Muniesa – 7                Defended well enough and, as always, was eager to join the attack.

Bruno Martin Indi – 9         Giraffe of the week for the second match in a row and getting a permanent deal for the Dutchman has to be Stoke’s number one priority in January.

Erik Pieters – 6                     Must be having nightmares about the pace of Bellerin but showed if you push the Spaniard back he is not the best defender in the world.

Charlie Boy – 5                     Captain for the day, still gave the ball away too cheaply and this weakness in his game is beginning to be spotted by the opposition

Giannelli Imbula – 6           Looked good bringing the ball forward but, like his midfield partner, gave the ball away too cheaply and too often.

Mame Diouf – 7                   Played well at wing back but loses a point for not even getting a free header on target.

Shaqiri – 6                             Not the little Swiss’ best day

Arnie – 7                                Looked at home playing as a false nine in the first half but ran out of steam in the second

Joe Allen – 8                        Ran all over the pitch and his knack of being in the right place led to Stoke’s penalty

Substitutes

Two Meter Peter – 6            Could have been the ultimate impact player if his first touch had gone in but in the end didn’t bring much more to the party

Ramadan – 7                        Didn’t have much time to make any impact.

Julien Ngoy – 7                    Like Ramadan didn’t have long on the pitch but good to see a product of Stoke’s academy getting their debut

Manager

Mark Hughes – 6                  I’m more convinced after this display about the change in formation but the reliance on substitution by numbers is beginning to grate

Referee

Lee Mason – 7                       Maybe could have sent Xhaka off but the man in the middle didn’t have the benefit of television replays that we did. Otherwise refereed the match well.

Stoke’s Christmas Wishlist – Centre Halves

With less than a month left to one of the most exciting days of the year, yes the opening of the transfer window, I thought I would look at Stoke City’s current squad and give my opinions where we need to strengthen. This time I look at the heart of the defence:

First Choice:       Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi

Reserves:            Geoff Cameron and Marc Muniesa both have centre half on their passports but I suspect they both entered the country under false pretences

Any Others in or around the first team squad?

Dionatan Teixeira is in the first team squad whilst Harry Souttar has been rumoured to be sniffing around the first team squad.

What about ones for the future?

Along with Harry Souttar there is also Ryan Sweeney and Kosavar Sadiki.

Do we need to bring anyone in?

Once the captain got injured, and Clumsy also unavailable due to injury, Mystic Mark looked into his crystal ball and came up with a system playing three at the back. This has demonstrated that both that Stoke are short of cover at the back and that Muniesa is not a central defender. Even if Hughes trusts Teizeira and / or Souttar to join the bench there is still a need for a third choice defender to provide cover for Bruno and the Captain and to allow the younger players to pick up experience on loan.

Do we need to let anyone go?

The lack of a defender on the subs bench for the last two matches has highlighted how light Stoke are in this position. The priority has to be hanging onto everyone, at least until a suitable third choice defender is captured. Only then would it make sense to either let Muniesa go or loan out Teixeira and Souttar

Have we been linked with anyone?

The centre halves we have been linked, Nathan Smith and Joe Worrall, are both ones for the future and if purchased I would expect them to be loaned straight back to their respective clubs.

Any other business?

The elephant in the room, signing Bruno permanently has to be the Stoke board’s first order of business.

Love Him Or Hate Him But Please Don’t Play Him Instead of Shawcross

Reading The Sentinel’s website this week I had to take a second look when I noticed an article entitled “Fans insist Muniesa must stay . . . even at the expense of the captain”.

Now whilst I have been pretty vocal in my opinion of Muniesa’s defensive attributes, he has none, I do feel he overs the squad something in his ability to cover a multitude of positions and I still insist he has the potential to become a highly effective holding midfielder. Therefore, I agree with the first part of the article’s title as I feel it would be wrong to let the Spaniard go in this transfer window.

What amazes however is the second statement, “even at the expense of the captain” and it was these seven words which made me read and then reread the article. In this blog I often express opinions I know not everyone will agree with and in this context I cannot criticise fans for holding views contrary to my own. But what these comments got me thinking about is how the central defender’s role is currently perceived.

With foreign coaches bringing their philosophies to the Premiership we are seeing an evolution in the type of player that is required to play in the upper echelons of the modern game and no more so than in the central defence. Here we are seeing defenders being required to be the instigators of their team’s attacks and as such central defenders need to be a lot more comfortable on the ball, the obvious examples are John Stones at Manchester City and David Luiz at Chelsea and now you can add our own Muniesa to the mix. However, whilst I welcome this evolution I believe it has yet fully run its course!

The players I have mentioned whilst all being good on the ball have another thing in common, they are all prone to making costly mistakes due to overplaying the ball or neglecting their defensive duties as they attack and in Stones case in particular it is costing his team because they look nervous when teams press them. At Manchester City, Pep has the luxury of trying to fix this problem by bringing in an old fashioned defender, one who can defend, to play alongside Stones whilst at Chelsea, David Luiz has been a revelation recently because he has the added protection of playing in a back three but at Stoke, Muniesa’s case is different.

We already have a good old fashioned centre half in Shawcross and if we manage to secure his services long term in January a ball playing defender who can defend in Bruno and these two between them can be the starting point of Stoke’s attacks whilst also being the rock on which Stoke’s defence is built. Would replacing Shawcross with Muniesa really make that much of a difference going forward because I fear if the swap was made we would be considerably more fragile at the back?

But we’ve being playing a back three recently!

Again the two other players in a back three would be Bruno, who as I have stated is comfortable both with the ball and defending, and Glen Johnson, who nobody can argue is one of our better attacking defenders. So would Muniesa add more than Shawcross if he were to play as the third defender? Going forward perhaps but the benefit would be negligible compared to extra security Shawcross would provide as a defender.

Personally I like Muniesa and I was thrilled to see him score a goal but whatever happens in the January transfer window and no matter whether you love him or hate him I hope we don’t ever play him at the expense of the captain.

Stoke City 2 – Burnley 0

With Glenda and Joe Allen on the bench Mystic Mark decided to stick with the formation and, mostly, with the players who managed to put Watford to the sword. Was the reason because Hughes had one eyes on Stoke’s upcoming run of tough fixtures or did he believe he had stumbled upon a way to play which has currently become the vogue this season? Although I would like to say it was the former, sadly I believe it was the latter and I only hope after Saturday’s performance Stoke’s management team look at how we were overrun in midfield and realise with the personal they have available 3-4-3 isn’t the right formation for us just yet.

Admittedly Stoke look more dangerous with Shaqiri and Arnie playing closer to the centre forward but is more of a case that Super Jon has looked like a player with a point to prove in the last two games? And how he proved that point, after a deft back heel from Shaqiri to Mame, the Senegalese whipped in a beauty or a cross only for Walters to outdo both as he deftly diverted the ball past the despairing Robinson.

Maybe that goal went against the run of play as Burnley started the match determined to get a first away win of the season as they lay siege to the Stoke goal, aided by too many sloppy passes from the home team, with Charlie Boy being the biggest culprit. But as soon as Stoke had taken the lead they began to search for a second, with Stoke’s big two, Arnie and Shaqiri, being involed in almost everything good Stoke managed to produce.

And it was the Austrian who had a hand in the second as he raced down the left wing after Muniesa had brought the ball out of defence and when Arnie looked up, after skinning his full back, he was probably as surprised as anyone to see the Spaniard at the edge of the box calling for the return ball. Undaunted Arnie found Muniesa and whilst it may not go down as goal of the season the Spaniard’s volleyed finish will surely mean it will find a place in his own personal highlight reel.

At the other end Muniesa was perhaps fortunate not to be shown a red card as he tussled with the combative Andre Gray but looking at the replays it could also be argued that the Burnley was as much at fault for the shirt tugging which resulted in the free kick.

With the teams coming out for the second half it was clear Sean Dyche had told his players to revert to the intensity which they had started the match and to target Muniesa as the weak link in the Stoke back line as they pressed for a way back into the game. However, Bruno and the excellent Lee Grant in goal were more than a match for a Burnley team who, whilst they dominated the possession, were unable to create many, if any, clear cut chances. In fact, apart from an acrobatic paw to save an Andre Gray shot Burnley looked unlikely to score and maybe it was frustration which led to Ashley Barnes leading with his elbow to floor Bruno.

As the game petered to an inevitable conclusion both managers brought on players to try and change the flow of the game but whilst Dyche’s decision to bring on Vokes and ex-Stoke player Michael Kightly to try and win the game Stoke’s inability to kill the game off has to partly be put down to the insipid substitutions by Hughes which have become his trademark. Whilst Glenda added security in the middle of the park, why wasn’t Ramadan introduced after both Arnie and Shaqiri had been substituted? Surely the Egyptian’s pace would have provided more of a threat than that of Two Meter Peter!

Nineteen points and a place in the top half of the table proves those naysayers, who predicted a tough season for Stoke, wrong but having now played all but Southampton and Leicester of the teams below us in the table, the real litmus test of where we will finish the season is before us. With Arsenal away next up there are a few things which need to be taken into consideration.

  • Although I do not think 3-4-3 is the way to go with the current Stoke squad next week may be cause for the formation to get its third run out in as many weeks, especially if the Captain is still injured. Whilst Bruno is looking like an inspired signing he does not have the electric pace which would allow him to deal with the Arsenal flyers and maybe playing three at the back will somehow compensate for this disparity in pace.
  • I hope the only reason Charlie Boy played in place of Glenda was because Hughes wanted to make sure the Irishman was fit to play against Arsenal on Saturday. The Scot does not have the defensive mind set to play as cover for the defence and too often he gives the ball away cheaply. His performance against Swansea needs to be forgotten quickly and Mystic Mark needs to take of his rose tinted glasses and realise Adam has been a liability in the last three matches.
  • I know Muniesa has been given the Man of the Match award by the Sentinel but this can only be for his influence at the wrong end of the pitch. Too often he was bullied off the ball because he does not have the physical presence of, for example, Bruno and his wanderlust is causing problems. He is not a long term answer as a centre half and unless the club and the player agree to try him in Clumsy’s role I fear the popular Spaniard will have to be shown the door.
  • Mystic Mark’s substitutions are clearly being done by numbers, with both Shaqiri and Arnie replaced for Allen and Crouch we had no outlet down the wings as Mame was being pushed back and, as well as he played, Super Jon does not have the legs. Surely Ramadan’s pace would have terrorised the Burnley defence and if, as I suspect, they dropped back to compensate it would have allowed Stoke to clear the lines more effectively.

Stoke Giraffe of the Week           Bruno Martins Indi

Stoke Lemon of the Week           Charlie Adam

Match Ratings

Lee Grant – 8                        Yet again dealt with everything that came his way comfortably and his performances have made news of Butland’s injury setback bearable.

Glenn Johnson – 8              Quiet going forward yet effective at the back and alongside Bruno dealt with most that Burnley has to throw at them

Marc Muniesa – 6                Gets a point for the goal but loses it again for the wanderlust which led to it. Needs to think about defending first before he looks to attack

Bruno Martin Indi – 9         Another top notch display and Stoke need to snap him up before someone else realises how well he is playing

Erik Pieters – 7                     Is defending better at wing back but is less of a threat going forward

Charlie Boy – 5                     Gives the ball away to cheaply and often looks a passenger as the opposition passes the ball around him

Giannelli Imbula – 7            A few surging runs but what impressed me the most was his increased physicality

Mame Diouf – 7                   I still maintain he is defensively suspect but showed what a threat he can be with his cross for Super Jon’s opener

Shaqiri – 8                             When he was on the pitch Stoke looked like they were going to score, when he wasn’t they didn’t!

Arnie – 8                               Similar to Shaqiri, looks more dangerous playing closer to the centre forward

Super Jon – 8                        Typical Super Jon display with a less typical finish

Substitutes

Joe Allen – 6                         Didn’t really do anything when he came on to replace Shaqiri

Two Meter Peter – 6            I get confused whether Hughes is bringing on Crouch as an attacking option or to bolster his defence! Still won a couple of balls in the box though.

Glenda – 6                             Brought on to provide a little calm in the middle of the park

Manager

Mark Hughes – 6                  I was worried Hughes may have seen the Watford display and thought he had found a miracle formation and so it proved. Sadly he hasn’t and now is the time for the manager to be ruthless and replace the under performing players like Charlie Boy

Referee

Mark Clatterburg – 7           The best ref in the world? Probably but had an average day at the bet365.