Obstructed View – Reflections on the Stoke (A) Game

Well, I think we’ll call that “scrappy”. After all, what else did we expect on the cliched wet and windy Wednesday in February? Especially with a 9ft striker in the opposition ranks, a 73 year old able to put the ball on the tall lad’s bonce from anywhere on the pitch, and a dynamic has-been from the Red Ranks who seems to have proven he’s a damn decent footballer, clearly in disguise when at Anfield. Add to that an Austrian who plays out of his skin when he sees Royal Blue, and a narly Centre Back whose middle name is ‘Foul’, and a ‘keeper playing above himself, and the recipe for Banana Skin was written with this fixture in mind.

But hang on, Stoke City have 4 wins and 4 draws from their 11 Home Games before this fixture, and the likes of Man Utd, and Leicester and Southampton have retreated to their warmer millponds with a solitary point, and when City, Chelsea, and Arsenal visit they’ll know they’ve got a fight on their hands. Only Spurs have whipped ’em, and that was in the dark early days of the Season when Stoke looked odds on relegation fodder. This isn’t an article to sing the praises of the opposition, but to try and restore some perspective after an overnight deluge of “we should be beating Stoke all day long”. Well, sorry, a point away after the ravages of the M6 and the A500 and after a 10 day lay off that made us look a tad rusty and off the early pace, could well be something we look back on and see as a step forward, not a stumble. Not a big step, like City or arguably Palace, but a step in the right direction nevertheless. If you want to argue that point, I assume you won’t argue that at worst it’s not a step back either. We can’t win every game you know. Stoke are a decent side, and we did well.

What did we learn?

Looks like we’ve got a Diamond Called Morgan Schneiderlin. Ok, it doesn’t quite scan like the Barkley song, and we have to use, obviously, the tune to This Girl, by Kungs vs Cookin’ on 3 Burners (don’t tell me I’m not down with the kids, and btw, it was my tune of the Boys’ Trip to Ibiza last September, sad old git that I am). Who comes up with these tunes, and where’s their creative influence? I want to be the man who invents a tune. Musical influences apart, Schneiderlin was top drawer last night, and we may have just got ourselves a player on the relative cheap, and given the ageing frames in front of their back 4, you have to wonder on last night’s form, why United let him go. We’re not averse to recruiting good ex United players who take us to a new level, and Morgan may just have that in his locker (Locker? Drawer? No more furniture references I promise….). His anticipation was good, his passing often simple and effective (and forward, God help us), and the occasional swept ball to the wide areas that hit his man in a way that Old Man Adam (only 31? You must be joking, check his passport) would be proud. I was initially sorry to see Barry on the bench, but then I realised I was letting sentimentality get in the way of the right footballing decision, and so it proved. Barry will get his record PL appearances, probably with us, but let’s focus on what’s right for the team first! Morgan also led the protects about the ‘Not Offside’ so perhaps he’s ‘ushcering’ in a period of Everton Schneide too. Long overdue.

Lookman looks like a player too.

Mirallas last night had all the mobility of a fridge freezer (sorry), which when you’re playing alongside someone built like a double wardrobe (soz again), with similar movement off the ball, is less than helpful. But Lookman’s mobility – and actually raw speed, not just mobility, adds a new dimension to our formation, and will get opponents more worried about us, than we should be about them. He’s similar to Bolasie in that regard, although clearly a long way to go to be performing at that level (er, his normal level, not his speed on the treatment table; dash it, again….), but I like him coming on after an hour or so, just when the opposition are knackered, and ensure he can focus on what is needed at that stage of the game, rather than overly worry about what you’ve got to do in Minute 1 as opposed to Minute 71. The answer, ask Raheem Sterling, should be to play the way you play from the moment you’re on the pitch. But, unlike Raheem Sterling, put away your chances too. That’s not a veiled reference to a ‘miss’ last night, he did superbly well to get to the ball and hit it first time, and with a bit of luck, Grant would have deflected it in, or it’d hit the post, or Davies could have got a Blond Lock on the end of it as it fizzed past him. I like the look of Lookman, and reckon we may have bagged another bargain.

But it wasn’t all about shiny new players last night. We actually looked dreadful for the first 15 minutes, and only marginally better in the rest of the first half. Stoke clearly had their game plan, we must have known it too, but we were unprepared for it, as ball after ball either went up to Crouch, or went over the top as it did for the goal, to wide players like Arnautovic. I’ve said before that marvellous though Holgate is, he does tend to get under crosses and last night he got lost under a hoofed ball over his head, but he then had no one covering him. The ball was in the air a long time, I’d expect Williams to move across to cover, just in case, or even expect a DM to be around the back, as I suspect Gueye would have been had he been on the pitch, and assuming he was over his jet lag. There has to be some critique of the excellent Holgate, but he’s 20, and he’ll be better when he’s 21, and again at 22 and so on, not just from correcting positional play where he’s been exposed a few times this season, but by getting better and better at the things he’s already great at. Just to repeat, he’s 20. And only just 20 at that.

I worry that the flick ons in the air, and the occasional flicks with the good feet that people forget Crouch possesses, will be a sign to forthcoming opponents at how to get at Everton. We now face Bournemouth, a good footballing side, who will fancy playing it through us on Saturday, and so I fully expect Gueye to return, and we may well have the flat back 4 of last night, a 3 of Gueye and Schneiderlin and Davies a bit further forward, supporting Ross, Rom and Kev. Mirallas had a shocker last night, but he’s been decent since Christmas so he keeps his place for me, unless Ronald McKoeman fancies starting Lookman to keep the Bournemouth full backs penned deeper. We’ll see. I’m a marketing man with a love of history, and unlike many, have no claim to be a master tactician of the football world.

I’ll leave that to the people who get paid for it.

Ross Crombie

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