On Saturday, I decided to have a go at sitting in the singing section, a sort of busman’s holiday for me as we love a singsong in the Cooper household and where I normally sit in the Gallowgate watching Newcastle United isn’t exactly a library.
I had increasingly felt that some of the new songs dreamt up by the Young Team were passing me and much as I love “we are the Geordies, the Geordie boot-boys” this is 2017 and I much prefer a Samba or Gazelle to something which takes 15 minutes to hole up.
It was a great game to sit there, stand there, sit there, stand there. The ground was in good voice, no more so than the Gallowgate choir, the flags didn’t get in the way, we won and everyone played their part. Overall, I enjoyed the experience, I was especially pleased that songs about Rafa didn’t dominate proceedings as much as they had previously.
While any support of the team is better than none, recognising the players’ efforts on the pitch in song is bound to inspire them to try harder, it certainly inspired Chancel Mbemba. Like the song said, he never gave the ball away on Saturday, in contrast to the last time I saw him play against West Ham when it all went to his head and he started to think he was David Ginola.
There were also no racial stereotypes in any of the songs unlike those nasty Manyoo fans whose disgraceful song about Romelu Lukaku’s 24 inch chopper was rightly condemned by people who haven’t got one. Lukaku wouldn’t be able to run with a 24 inch chopper anyway, perhaps Mitrovic has one as well and that’s why he can’t get around the pitch, who knows, but I’m happy that on Saturday the efforts of the players were rewarded as much as the equally important support of the manager in weeks gone by.
It was a great atmosphere in the singing section, well done to all involved, though I don’t have the energy to do it every week. Years ago I found out that I didn’t have the energy to run around a football pitch for 90 minutes any more, now I know I don’t have the energy to sing around one for 90 minutes either.
At the start of the match, when the teams lined up, two things became obvious about Stoke City.
Firstly, they are absolutely enormous and that was without Cranefly Crouch on the pitch. Even Atsu looked like a tadpole in a pond full of bullfrogs and he’s not exactly tiny, if Anita was still here he would have been able to run through every Stoke player’s legs without touching their Lukakus.
Secondly, Stoke had absolutely no idea how to play the 3-5-2 Mark Hughes set them up to play. Hughes must just drop a bucket of jelly on a table on Friday and say to them “that’s the shape I want you to have tomorrow.” An absolute mess, the gaps were there for us to exploit and fortunately we have a manager who knows how to exploit them.
Another reason to hail Rafa, few managers have complete control over a team shape, formation and can make the players stick to it. Rafa has it, Mark Hughes doesn’t. That isn’t so much of a criticism of Hughes, I know he’s been a manager for nearly 20 years now and he is obviously better at his job than a Pardew or McClaren, but hardly any bosses achieve Rafa’s level. Even KK only had that control of his team because he just told them all to attack, and they did.
What Rafa has done this season is change our style slightly, moving from his old style Liverpool team with the quick and mobile goal-scorer to the Valencia model with the big hold-up player. With the Liverpool team the goal-scoring onus was generally on the striker: the Torres, the Dwight Gayle, with his Valencia team the striker was used to bring on midfield runners and share the burden. The season Valencia won La Liga Jon Carew scored 8 goals with most of the midfielders bagging a similar amount.
For Benitez to find consistent success with this tactic I have no doubt over the 38 games that Atsu, Ritchie and the combined defence will get close to that, I’m not sure about anyone else. In his fleeting appearances this season, Dwight Gayle looks like a man devoid of confidence, he even runs differently, like a man who knows he isn’t going to get there. Hodor Mitrovic would probably get 8 goals over 38 games but there is no way he will play 38 games, he’ll be suspended for at least 15 of them.
‘Hodor Mitrovic: 8 goals a season? Hodor.’
All of which brings us to Joselu, the new Jon Carew. He missed three great chances against Stoke. People have generally been kind to him, suggesting he was trying too hard against his former employers or was out of luck for the same reason, he was destined not to score against a manager who “didn’t trust him.” I can’t see that either of those were true but overall I am happy with his performance, like match-winner Lascelles who said:
“He’s done a great job for us today. He held the ball up well, he kept finding himself in dangerous areas and he’s been a real threat for defences in other games as well, so it’s certainly not one of them when I’m going to have a go at him.”
I’m not going to have a go at him either. He’s never been able to finish, that’s why he hasn’t made it anywhere. If he could finish, he would still be playing for someone like Real Madrid and would have cost us Michael Owen money to prise him away.
For £5million you get an 8 goals a season man. That will do for me for the time being, I’m happy to applaud his overall contribution and big up his overall contribution and effort above his lack of goal prowess. We don’t have much else in reserve to be honest so we might as well big him up. He tries hard, doesn’t shirk the battle and creates space for other players to get into, so good for him.
The other thing I noticed on Saturday was that he looks absolutely mortal drunk when he’s tired. Maybe that is his problem in front of goal, maybe he was ‘tired’.
‘Joselu: Come on mate, we’ve all had a drink.’
Elsewhere in the team, the position which looks most up for grabs is the number 10 spot. A lot of players aren’t guaranteed a spot, Clark and Lascelles look to be doing enough to keep Lejeune out of the team, likewise Mbemba, Atsu and Hayden and for me Yedlin brings much more to the team in every department than Manquillo, he even gives the ball away in the last few minutes in a much more effective manner.
The number 10 though, normally the time I realise when Perez is playing is when he gets taken off. On Saturday he was better, still without much end product but certainly he was more involved and almost effective. How long he will keep Murphy, Shelvey etc out of the team is anyone’s guess. Rafa seems loyal to him now and I’m fine with that too, for now. A bit of end product won’t hurt his cause, that’s a position which we need 8 goals from. One thing is for sure, Jonjo won’t be sitting quietly waiting for his chance, he’ll be twisting more than Donald Trump at the UN.
In midfield at Swansea, Hayden had a poor game, his poorest that I have seen for a while, but he is still a young player and overall has massively exceeded my expectations of him. In Wales he was replaced by Diame, a like-for-like replacement, Hayden was playing rubbish, Diame is rubbish.
This week his like-for-like replacement was Shelvey, a mixture of the good, the over-eager, the frustrating and the always likely to get booked. Next week, if Hayden is brilliant I will be expecting him to be replaced by David McCreery, if he’s rubbish, on comes Alan Smith.
Two things Hayden might like to do is to stop getting booked so early in the game, it is bound to affect his game playing for 80 minutes knowing he could get sent off for one more inexperienced challenge. The other thing he might like to do is not pretend he is injured so much after every challenge, he spends more time on the ground than he does on his feet.
Speaking of which, there was no more tumbling from Merino against Stoke. His dive at Swansea brought some castigation but last week he had just finished two weeks with the Spanish under 21 squad so he was bound to be in the mood for a dive, I bet their training sessions are like a game of skittles. On Saturday, there were no theatrics. He was just absolute class from start to finish. We just have to hope that the Fat Man finds the money to buy him before someone else does.
Despite playing so well, in the end it would be wrong to say we won easily given the chances Stoke had – but I never thought the Potters would equalise. Shaqiri looked their only real top class player. Fair enough he likes a tumble, maybe in Germany he would have got free kicks for challenges like that or perhaps coming from Bayern Munich, he was used to his team getting those decisions all the time by way of intimidation.
Either way, despite his acrobatics, some of them about 30 seconds after a challenge, he was a class above anything else Stoke had to offer. Elliot made a couple of cracking saves from him and he effortlessly created the space which he used to score an excellent goal. The only Stoke player who was anywhere near as effective was Crouch, who always looks a real threat when he comes on. You know what he’s going to do, pull away on the full back and head back across goal. It’s one thing knowing about it, another thing stopping it and he almost set a last minute equaliser up on Saturday. It all just made me wonder why Mark Hughes left it until the last 10 minutes to bring him on. He hardly ever gets game time now. Not surprising given his age but on this showing he was head and shoulders above anyone else Stoke had up front. And head, shoulders, knees and toes above Shaqiri.
‘Peter Crouch: Too much time on his hands.’
A well-earned win then, apart from the last 10 minutes which were an entertaining way to lose your fingernails.
As Rafa hinted afterwards, no doubt his game management chat this week will include not giving the ball away in our own half in the last few minutes and not conceding free-kicks on the edge of your penalty area when faced with a team of giants.
In the last few minutes we were a mixture of equal to it and getting away with it today, certainly Choupo-Moting spannering the ball over the bar from 10 yards was a reminder that anyone can be a professional footballer, even if you are hopeless at football.
Overall on Saturday well done though lads. Effort, commitment and not making basic mistakes will always get its reward in football. It might not be enough to finish 4th in the Premier League over the course of a season, but it was enough to be 4th on Saturday night and that is a great feeling.
The better teams in the league might want to remember that, those 150k players at Liverpool and Arsenal. A bit of genuine, collective sleeves up effort is worth more than a team full of players who laugh when their team-mates miss chances. It certainly got me singing anyway.
Howay The Lads.