Following on from the Wombling wise words of Steve McClaren over the past few weeks, his assistant Paul Simpson has been getting in on the act with a glowing assessment of our recent 3-0 defeat to a team that was bottom of the league and very obviously atrocious:
“We have said along, if we get performances we will get results. We had the performance (v Sunderland) again and we have to keep sending the message that, we have to keep 11 players on the pitch, regardless if it is a mistake by an official. We just have to keep doing it. We have seen some real signs of progress and we hope the supporters have too.”
So have we seen any real signs of progress?
How would we measure that progress?
I like a team that plays good football and NUFC are moving towards doing that, certainly better than the stagnant dross I’ve witnessed for the past few years. But for all I like a team that plays good football, getting beat 3-0 by a team as bad as Sunderland can’t in any way, shape or form be classed as “progress”.
So we’ve seen better football, easily achievable given the previous standards but we’ve also seen worse results, which I didn’t really think was possible. In the same way as NUFC are trying to progress, so are today’s opponents Stoke City.
Who Manages Them?
Since the dawn of time, Mark Hughes (pictured above at a post match press conference in Ramsay Street) has been skulking around English top division football like a bitter old crone determined to pour urine on the dreams of those who long to be entertained. He seems to have slightly mellowed this season, maybe he is also A WORK IN PROGRESS, past post-match chit-chat seemed to be done while staring at a pile of last night’s vomit as he mumbled phrases like “professional away performance” and “deservedly ground out the points”.
Last week after a home defeat to Watford he shocked us all by saying:
“We were poor today. Credit to Watford, I thought they came here with a good game plan and worked hard at it.”
His face still looked like he was chewing on some phlegm he’d coughed up but at least what he said was fair. Mark Hughes, Becoming Human: A Work In Progress.
If our progress under a new manager has so far been slow, Stoke City’s was immediate under Hughes in the 2013-14 season, his first at the Britannia Stadium. The potters finished 9th for two successive seasons, a couple of places higher than they ever did under Tony ‘The Punt’ Pulis, as Hughes attempted to move them away from the sort of football that only NASA could watch, making a functional but agricultural team slightly different and slightly better.
In his third season in charge progress has been a little harder to see. Stoke haven’t looked like a team that will finish in the top half this season, they seem to have lost the defensive resilience and set-piece nous of the Pulis era without seeing much benefit from the players Hughes signed to allow the team to be more creative.
In short, they don’t have many shots, they don’t score many goals. They are not the eye-bleedingly guttural toss of previous seasons but Hughes has not yet created a new Barcelona, even though Stoke have bought half of their players.
Who Have They Signed?
More journeymen, more creative and more Catalan. Ex-Barca wingers Moha El Ouriachi and Ibrahim Afellay joined the Potters in the summer, along with winger Xherdan Shaqiri from Inter Milan. Both Shaqiri and Afellay should be involved today, though both seem to have careers which have taken a wrong turn. Afellay going from PSV to Barca to Stoke and Shaqiri from Bayern to Inter to Stoke.
Shaqiri is Stoke’s answer to Florian Thauvin, cost £12million but looks slow, fat and useless, one midweek report saying that the shift the Swiss put in against Chelsea was like that of a League 1 player. So more of an Ameobi than a Thauvin then.
In defence, Philipp Wollscheid was signed permanently after a successful loan deal from Bayer Leverkusen and right back Glen Johnson was brought in on a free. Still only 30 despite seemingly having played for every club in England, Johnson is a player who has continually amazed over his career. I’m amazed he has 54 caps for England and amazed that Liverpool spent £17.5million on him. They could have got half of Andy Carroll for that.
Up front Stoke spent £5.75 million on Joselu from Hannover, who sounds like an early 90’s euro dance act and is finding it difficult to adapt to the Premier League so far, again a sign of Stoke’s transitional Work In Progress. Hughes said about the German born Spaniard:
“He’s a good technical player, he’s got good ability and I like his movement. His link-up play is very good and with the finishing we’ve done so far in training I’ve been very pleased. You can see technically he’s very adept, getting his body in the right position to take chances.”
Which is hard to do if the rest of the team is lumping the ball up expecting a 7 foot C3PO to be on the end of it. Well done to Hughes for signing flair players but Stoke always look more likely to score when they go back to what they know.
‘Peter Crouch – Sir, it’s quite possible this club is not entirely stable’
Who Have We Seen Before?
Back up keeper, 39 year old Shay Given on a two year deal, linking up with Hughes for the second time, Given left us to play for Hughes at Manchester City in our relegation season.
His twelve year stint at Gallowgate almost made him our record appearance holder and after an outstanding career with NUFC, professionally speaking at least, he had every reason to move from our shambolic Ashley inspired mess of a relegation season to Manchester City, then the richest club in the world.
Personally speaking, his engineering of a move left a bad taste in my mouth and definitely contributed to our relegation, something I’m not all that keen on forgiving him for. He should be on the bench today and overall will deserve his round of applause; he was perhaps the best NUFC goalkeeper of my lifetime.
Stephen Ireland will probably be on the bench today. During a four month, two appearance loan in Toon in 2011, Ireland managed to combine into his performances the desire of Michael Owen, the workrate of Hatem Ben Arfa, the intensity of Sammy Ameobi and the ability of Luuk De Jong.
How Will They Do This Season?
Stoke will finish somewhere between the 14th position they currently occupy and the 9th place they have finished in the last two years. They are still a work in progress.
Hughes has to find a way to integrate the flair players he has bought with a team that still looks more dangerous with old style strikers like Walters and Crouch on the pitch. Chelsea loan signing Marco Van Grinkel and consistent Glenn Whelan should mean that departed Steven N’Zonzi isn’t missed too much and the return of Ryan Shawcross at centre half should make the Potters defensively more sound and give them presence at set pieces at both ends of the pitch.
However, the impact of creative players like Bojan, Shaqiri and Joselu will be the decisive factor in their season, much like us with Perez, Wijnaldum and Thauvin. If those players stay fit and play well then progress will be made. If they don’t, relegation will be an unlikely but possible danger.
‘Hard to smile properly when you live in Stoke’
Are We Going To Win?
Stoke have a decent record away from home this season and always have C3PO to come on at the end if Plan A isn’t working, perhaps one reason why Stoke score most of their goals at the end of each half, Plan B is better than Plan A.
Having said that, against Watford, defensively they couldn’t handle the number 10 position and we have players who can find space in that area and use it, both Perez and Wijnaldum will be key today.
Stoke are not the defensive and aerial powerhouse they used to be, up front Mitrovic should not fear the bruising encounters of old and once again can dominate the opposition defence.
Likewise, when Crouch does eventually come on, our central defenders will need to mark him and not allow him to pull off onto our full backs for almost free headers on goal.
Perhaps more worrying than our inability to keep 11 players on the pitch or keep a clean sheet at the moment is our ability to big up the opposition. Paul Simpson also said:
“Stoke are a good side with really good players. We know we have to be on our game and if we are, like we were for that first 45 minutes at Sunderland and keep our 11 on the pitch, we are quite sure we can give Stoke a hell of a game.”
I would hope that if we are on our game and keep our 11 on the pitch we would be able to do more than give a team in 14th place visiting SJP “a hell of a game”.
My suggested team:
I hope the players and supporters believe a little more than the management do and our WORK IN PROGRESS makes a little more progress this week.
Howay The Lads.