December’s Giraffes and Lemons

Another new year and once more, after the craziness of last season, the top of the Premiership is beginning to take on a familiar shape. The title seems to be Chelsea’s for the taking and whilst Manchester City’s recent stumble may have taken some by surprise surely Arsenal’s recent downturn should come as no surprise to anybody.

My Team Giraffe for December doesn’t however go to the league leaders, Chelsea, who have continued to impress but instead to Manchester United, who under Jose are slowly making inroads into the teams above them. Whilst the title this season may be beyond the Red Devils I am beginning to feel more confident that my initial prediction that they would finish in the Champions League places will prove to be true.

At the other end of the table my Team Lemon of the month has to go to Crystal Palace for the second month in a row because even after the appointment of Grab the Cash Sam, look a team in disarray.

Here then is my updated prediction for the end of the season (and how it has changed since the start of the season):

  1. Chelsea (2nd)
  2. Manchester City (1st)
  3. Liverpool (5th)
  4. Manchester United (3rd)
  5. Tottenham Hotspur (6th)
  6. Arsenal (4th)
  7. Everton (7th)
  8. Southampton (10th)
  9. Stoke City (8th)
  10. West Ham United (9th)
  11. West Bromwich Albion (13th)
  12. Leicester City (12th)
  13. Bournemouth                (16th)
  14. Middlesbrough (11th)
  15. Watford (14th)
  16. Burnley (17th)
  17. Sunderland (19th)
  18. Swansea (15th)
  19. Hull City (20th)
  20. Crystal Palace (18th)

Although you could argue that Mike Phelan was always only going to be an interim appointment the way he has been treated by the Hull City Board has been disrespectful to say the least and this is why they get my Individual Lemon of the Month. Whilst Marco Silva may be the man to keep them in the Premiership the Hull board put their shirt on Phelan at the start of the season but instead have decided to replace him with a manager who had previously been linked to Nottingham Forest!

My Individual Giraffe of the Month also goes to a player who I have to admit I have never been a fan of but is beginning to look like the real deal, Dele Alli. The Spurs midfielder is beginning to have a consistent impact on the big games, something I felt he didn’t do last season and is beginning to remind of another player who was indispensable for his club, Frank Lampard.

November’s Giraffes and Lemons

With Christmas almost upon us the Premier League is beginning to have a familiar feel to it as the usual suspects congregate near the top of the table whilst at the bottom can be found the teams most people suspected would struggle. It is interesting however to see the top two places filled by teams who have no European involvement this season, with European competition shutting down shortly for a couple of months will the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City be able to pull away from Chelsea and Liverpool now their schedules are less crowded?

My Team Giraffe for November goes to the league leaders, Chelsea, who have continued to impress and, for a supporter who likes to revel in the defensive side of the game, who have been miserly at the back. Another way to gauge Chelsea’s recent success is the level of imitation which they have been awarded with a larger number of clubs beginning to dabble with three at the back!

At the other end of the table my Team Lemon for November has to go to Crystal Palace who are currently in freefall and were responsible for probably the worst defensive display I have seen in the last twenty years, and that is saying something if you remember I am a Stoke supporter!

Here then is my updated prediction for the end of the season (and how it has changed since the start of the season):

  1. Manchester City (1st)
  2. Chelsea (2nd)
  3. Liverpool (5th)
  4. Arsenal (4th)
  5. Tottenham Hotspur (6th)
  6. Manchester United (3rd)
  7. Southampton (10th)
  8. Everton (7th)
  9. Watford (14th)
  10. Stoke City (8th)
  11. Bournemouth (16th)
  12. Leicester City (12th)
  13. West Bromwich Albion (13th)
  14. Middlesbrough (11th)
  15. West Ham United (9th)
  16. Burnley (17th)
  17. Swansea (15th)
  18. Crystal Palace (18th)
  19. Hull City (20th)
  20. Sunderland (19th)

Keeping with Crystal Palace my Individual Lemon of the Month goes to Alan Pardew for the sterling work he is doing moulding a group of talented individuals into a team who look like they don’t know what they’re doing and clearly don’t want to play for the manager.

Finishing on a more positive note my Individual Giraffe of the Month also goes to a player who won the respective team award. I thought about giving it to Victor Moses for his transformation into a wing back but instead the award goes to his fellow wing back Marcos Alonso. I for one was not surprised when Conte switched to a back three, partly because it has always been his preferred formation but also because Alonso was one of his first signings. Defensively he is strong but more importantly he is also one of Chelsea’s main attacking outlets and I predict by the end of the season he will have become a Fantasy Football favourite.

Crystal Palace 4 – Stoke City 1

First the good news, despite another four goals in the against column if you are honest you would have to concede that Stoke’s performance was an improvement from their hammering by Spurs the week before. And now the bad, Spurs played Stoke off the park and looked like a Champions League team, Crystal Palace didn’t and, although they may not go down, I stick my earlier predictions on this blog that they will be at the bottom end of the table come the end of the season.

Once more taking a look at the team sheet the first question myself and the boy had was, what is Mark Hughes doing? Yet again we had a slow cumbersome centre forward on the right wing and although we had returned to playing a right back at right back, our new marquee centre half had been shunted out to left back! If Pieters was to be sacrificed for his lack of first team form then why not play Muniesa?

With Bojan also returning to the starting line-up, replacing the underperforming Imbula, it was clear Hughes wanted to see more creativity from his midfield but from the first whistle Stoke were chasing shadows as, like every match so far this season, the opposition started stronger. It was immediately clear the Palace players wanted the ball more and even when Stoke managed to get hold of the ball they gave it away too cheaply. No more evident than when Bojan, not for the last time in the match, sold Glenn Johnson short early in the match.

As Palace began to dictate the flow of the game cracks in the Stoke defence began to resurface and when Bojan gave away a cheap free kick on the edge of the box you sensed that the writing was on the wall. And so it was, as the ball was floated into the box Stoke’s defence didn’t seem to know if they should be holding their line or dropping back and it was no surprise to see John Walters, isolated on the back post, heading the ball into his own neck. Was this his first shot on target this season?

Stoke’s woes were compounded when two minutes later Scott Dann was allowed a free run at the ball from a corner and he gratefully rifled his header into the back of the net. Hughes’ may boast that his Stoke are a more complete footballing team than his predecessors but would a Tony Pulis team concede two such soft goals from set pieces?

Any boasts about Stoke as a creative force sadly looked out of place for the remainder of the half. Time after time Stoke won the ball only to give the ball away cheaply with a mistimed or over hit pass. With the biggest culprits being the “star” players Hughes is so proud of, Bojan, Arnie and the plainly short of match fitness Bony. The only consolation which could be drawn from the remainder of the first half was, apart from set pieces, Stoke, in the main, dealt comfortably with everything Palace threw at them.

When the teams emerged from the tunnel for the second half groans could be heard from my boy as he noticed Hughes had opted to make no changes, the only tinkering it seemed was to play Whelan further forward. Whelan, whose legs if they haven’t already gone are going, instead of the more dynamic and more creative Allen!

Still, whilst Stoke didn’t look like creating too much, they played their football further up the pitch and even though they didn’t look like they had enough to salvage a point, for the first time since the second half mauling against Manchester City they looked like they were getting into the game. Then Stoke’s frailties at set pieces were exposed once more, tinged of course with our customary bad luck and ill-discipline.  Picking up a stupid yellow card, for a late shoulder charge, Arnie conceded a soft free kick on the touchline and predictably Stoke’s defence were unable to deal with the resulting cross and Given could only curse as McArthur’s shot took a wicked deflection of Geoff Cameron and whistled past him into the net.

Three nil soon became four. With Stoke’s defence backing off Townsend was allowed space on the edge of the box to shoot and he duly obliged by curling a shot just inside the right hand upright. Mark Hughes has a lot to be concerned about but one of the most pressing must surely be the fact we are conceding goals in twos, a mental frailty that perhaps sums up the lack of belief in the team.

Of course Stoke did have chances of their own and two of the best involved the good and bad of Stoke’s only substitute, Mame Biram Diouf. The good was the pace and urgency shown to sprint clear of the defence and set up Bony, who hopefully after a few more games will slot in these sort of chances rather than fall flat on his face, and the bad? The header he didn’t even get on target from one of Stoke’s rare corners.

Stoke’s only other real chances came about from the persistence, yes persistence (and you could also add tireless running) of Arnie, who if it hadn’t of been for a wonderfully timed tackle by Palace substitute Delaney could have brought the match back to two one. And then finally, after almost three and a half games, we finally scored a goal as Arnie took out all of his frustrations and smacked a curling shot past the diving Mandanda.

Last week I declared I still had faith in Mark Hughes and although it is slowly waning this is still the case but there are still fundamental flaws in the way Stoke are being set up and in the way they are playing and unless they are sorted soon we could have the unenviable sight of Tony Pulis’ West Brom doing to us what Spurs and Palace have done over the last couple of weekends:

  • Play players in positions they are suited to. For the second week we looked exposed at full back because we had a centre half playing there and lacking creativity in attack because Super Jon is not a wide player.
  • Where was Ramadan Sobhi? Diouf did well when he came on but Hughes’ only other attacking option was Two Metre Peter, an all too similar option to Bony and Walters.
  • Sort out the midfield. At one point I watched Whelan running like a metronome from one side to the other as Palace passed the ball from side to side. Whelan’s legs are not what they used to be and he needs help.
  • Work on set pieces, I have a theory our woeful defending at corners may be a hangover from the penalties we conceded at the start of the season but this is not an excuse and you can bet Tony Pulis is rubbing his hands in anticipation.
  • Make the players care about pulling on the red and white. Every match this season we have been out hustled and out run before we have been out played.

Stoke Giraffe of the Week          Marko Arnautovic

Stoke Lemon of the Week          Bojan

Match Ratings

Shay Given – 6                   Had little chance with three of the goals but should he have come out for Palace’s second?

Glenn Johnson – 7            A small speck of light in a collectively woeful defensive display.

Ryna Shawcross – 5         Needs to take hold of his defence and impose a desire to keep that round thing as far away from the net as possible

Geoff Cameron – 5          Unlucky for McArthur’s goal but should have been more of a presence when Palace crossed the ball into the box

Bruno Martins Indi – 4    Played out of position and it showed as he kept on coming two far across, and even at times cold be spotted in central midfield. Is the Beast the answer to Stoke’s defensive midfield problems?

Glenn Whelan – 6             Worked hard but too often off the pace and desperately needs help in the engine room of Stoke’s midfield

Joe Allen – 6                       Another who ran all day but sitting deeper reduced his impact on the game and when he went forward the opposition poured into the gaps he left

Marko Arnautivic – 7       Would have been 8 except for the stupid booking which led to Palace’s third goal. Always willing to chase a lost cause and the amount of tracking back he does seem to disappear under a lot of fans’ radar.

Bojan – 3                              Disappointing. What defensive work he did was clumsy and when he had the ball he too often passed to a player wearing the wrong colour stripes

John Walters – 4               Another match played out of position and, even though he was offside, another gilt edged chance that didn’t even hit the target. He’s missed one in every game that he has played this season

Wilfried Bony – 4              Lacked service and clearly lacks match fitness. Should play against Hull in the cup if only to try and rediscover his sharpness

Substitutes

Mame Biram Diouf  – 7  Provided a much needed threat when he replaced Bojan and until Shaqiri returns must be a better option than Super John

Manager

Mark Hughes – 4               Another confusing team selection which was confounded by a substitute bench which looked tired and about five years out of date

Referee

Craig Pawson – 8              Would have got the Giraffe but I could never have lived with myself if I awarded it to a referee. Have to give him the best compliment you could ever give a man in black, I didn’t really notice him at all.