Stoke City 1 - West Bromwich Albion 0
Contrasting styles: good passing beats poor pressing
Albion's unbeaten run came to end, as perhaps, did some of the more messianic belief in the "Barnsley in the Black Country" style, as a Stoke side that seems to have exorcised its own Pulis-ball daemons, in favour of a "pass it along the ground" style that once saw them signing youngsters from Barcelona, exposed some of the shortcomings in the high-press approach, if it's not executed all that well.
Few surprises, at least for those not concerned about having your best players in your starting XI, with the continuation with the players who have fitted into the system in the last two games, and whilst Albion fans got to see how James Chester had developed since leaving B71, they were denied the chance to see how Sawyers had adapted to no longer being asked to peform a role he was never best suited for: the loan agreement details confining him to the stands.
The difference in the two styles was quickly in evidence with Albion's initial press seeing them pick up posession a couple of times within the first five minutes as Stoke's attempt to play through them saw passes go astray, however with ten or so minutes on the clock, Stoke passed through our back three but the striker, now one-on-one with Johnstone, saw his sidefooted shot past the stranded keeper come back off the post.
Shortly after the commentary team had brought out a stat comparing Albion's passing effiency in the division, under Bilic and Ishmael, 82% to 52% for those of you who are interested in the effectiveness of the passing game, Stoke's passing saw them in down our right but saw Johnstone get his angles right and block.
Five mintues later and it was the merits of the high-press to the fore, as Furlong got to the by-line after Albion had regained posession inside the Stoke half and pull it back into the box for Robinson who saw two of his own attempts blocked by defenders before a final shot, from someone else, failed to trouble the keeper.
Around the half-hour a Stoke long throw to a player who was somehow left unmarked right in front of the centre of our box saw Robinson, (Jake? Alex?) come back to try and make a tackle, from which the ball span out to Furlong who, in stooping to head to back to his keeper, Johnstone once again coming way off his line, only managed to head the ball past him and into the net.
Despite the lack of protest from the away side, the referee gave a foul on Robinson and the Albion breathed another sigh of relief.
Five minutes after the restart, Ajayi would give away a foul after a Stoke attacker had got goalside of him but the resulatant free-kick clattered against the bar, with Johnstone well beaten, shortly after which Livermore clattered against a Stoke player and got booked.
The double substitution after ten minutes of the second half was a bit fornulaic, Phillips and Diangana on again for Grant and Hugill, who seemed to have returned to the anonymous level of contrbution seen prior to the last two games, although not moving Robinson, our most effective player on the night, into the centre but merely asking Phillips to do a job there seemed to be an opportunity missed, even it did see the continuation of the system.
With the substitutions not intended to see a change of style though, it was no surprise to see Stoke work the ball down our left and get the ball to the feet of a striker inside the 6-yard box but the shot went straight at Johnstone, whilst two minutes later, after Albion's long throw approach saw them offered a shooting opportunity, seven yards out, Livermore failed to hit the target.
Shortly afterwards Albion were cut apart down their left again but after Johnstone had made two fine point blank saves from close range, his attempts to dive at the ball and knock it away saw the ref award a penalty as his dive took him into a Stoke forward. The same forward stepped up to take the kick, slipped as he struck it, and although the mis-kicked ball was now going behind Johnstone's dive, the pace lost in the slip meant that SJ was able to get one hand behind him and palm it away whilst going away from it - another fine save - and keep Albion in the game once again.
With ten minutes to go Townsend slips as he looks to clear and so gives posession to Stoke halfway inside our half, from where a delighfully chipped pass over our back three saw a Stoke player one-on-one with an onrushing Johnstone yet again, but this time it's a perfectly executed lob that gives Stoke a lead they wouldn't surrender, depsite a couple more Furlong long-throws that Rory Delap, now a coach on the home bench, would surely have appreciated.
Hopefully, the international break will give our left-centre-back cover, Clarke, time enough to take his place in the starting XI and so free up Townsend to start instead of Reach, who's not really shown he's up to the task, wide on the left, because when our left sided wide player is not finding team-mates with a pass, let alone delivering a half-decent cross, and Livermore and Mowatt are having an off-day on the same day, we aren't really offering much of a threat going forwards, to which we can add that a high-press, that starts well, with Robinson chasing down defenders in a style reminiscient of Lee Hughes and Shane Long at their most niggling, pretty much evaporates when no-one else is pressing up far enough to reduce the options, for the defender under pressure from Robinson, to pass it off to.
Clearly O'Neill and Ishmael are committed to taking their clubs on two completely different journeys in terms of style, and it'll be very interesting to see where the sides, and where Romaine Sawyers come to that, end up.
Oddly enough, given the results of past clashes of style up in the Potteries, I don't recall hearing a rendition of Deliah from the home fans, not that I actually wanted to hear it, of course, but you used know what to expect when you went to Stoke?
Agree Kev. The proverbial Martian would have assumed Stoke were top of league and WBA in the pack behind. O'Neil's teams always keep a tight shape and this was a key difference between the two teams. Our back three were all over the shop. Bartley, in particular, seemed to have lost half a yard and forgotten the basics; e.g. 'get goalside' of your opponent.
Reach is more of a Brunt (NB both from Sheffield Wednesday) than a Townsend, so as you say, we lost the edge in both halves on the left side.
Time for another rethink, Val ?
Only a brief report - I can’t be the only supporter struggling to balance a life around these fixture moves and Friday night games. They really don’t care about us at all.
The lineup was understandable and for the opening 10 minutes we were bright enough but after that Stoke were the better team and should’ve beaten us more comfortably.
I thought tactically they exploited the gaps in our style very well and in Joe Allen had a player of premier league passing quality who was able to read and bypass our press with cute balls inside and in front of our centre halves. If the striker got there first and laid it off we were done - all it took was a final through ball or clip behind. There were many near misses. It could’ve been 3 at half time.
Ten games unbeaten and top of the league, the manager is entitled to be cut some slack.
But, to me anyway, after the first 10 minutes of the 2nd half clearly made no difference, we should’ve been humble enough to change the formation, accept a point as a good result and maybe try and nick it. Especially given the intensity we play at and how obvious it was that fatigue was impacting our quality. I’d have gone 4-5-1 and rode it out.
Instead a couple of poor performers were put out of their misery but their replacements fared no better because fundamentally our approach was wrong. Definition of insanity and all that.
As the let-offs kept coming, good saves/missed chances/penalty saves, I genuinely thought we might get away with it but I was pleading at the screen for us to shut up shop. We didn’t and then the inevitable happened- sloppy play, all go charging out at the ball, bypassed by a simple clip and for once SJ couldn’t get there and Stoke found quality enough to finish it.
We had a bit of a rally but I couldn’t see any way back into it for us and that proved to be the case. We all know that we’re a genuine goal scorer short.
Hopefully Big Val learns from it and isn’t so stubborn in future especially after a block of games like that. Stoke look like a team to watch. The manager knows what he is doing.
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