Story of a Match: Stoke (A)
Norwich were cruelly denied a victory over Stoke back in August when a late, late, late Ken Wynn-Jones goal tied things up. Today, Norwich fans were cruelly forced to watch a game masquerading as football. What follows is an analysis of this game, and then I will never, ever speak of it again. (I might)
Lots has been written on the style of football that Stoke play, and not much of it has been kind. What has been almost universally said is that it’s effective, and today was as good a demonstration of how they close out games as you are likely to see. We went into the game with a couple of changes; Bennett was selected to play just off Holt, replacing Jackson, and Fox was dropped for Howson who made his first start. Those familiar with my raging mancrush on David Fox will know this immediately made me wary, and for this reason; I’m generally of the opinion that his influence in the middle makes us play better. But more on this later.
The pattern of the game for the first three quarters or so was about the same; Stoke applied pressure via long balls, throws and set pieces. Norwich then cleared these, but struggled to do much themselves with the ball, and it then came straight back at them. The key to the way Stoke made this work was with their forwards, and not just as target men.
Stoke pressed constantly, and from the front. The above graphic shows the interceptions they won throughout the game, with 5 very high up the pitch, and another 3 around midfield. They relieved pressure on their own defence by having their midfield and strikers put our defence under pressure, forcing them into quick, rushed passes that were often just hoofs into the unknown. In this, we became exactly the hoofing football team that everyone says Stoke are. And it was to no effect, as Holt was on his own up front against defenders whose size and aerial ability is well known. He was never going to have much joy, so it was no surprise to see Jackson come on at half time to try and work another outlet.
So you had, for the 2nd time this season, a Stoke team outpassing us. Back in August we became the first team since Stoke came up to the Premier League to have less possession than them in a game, and today was going along those lines. They were pressing our backline very high up the pitch, forcing Ward, Whitbread and especially Naughton into longballs, completely bypassing a midfield that, despite the absences of Wes and Fox, still had good players in it. Surman, Pilkington and Howson all have ability, but all of them were being bypassed.
As you can see, not only did we hit more long balls than Stoke, we completed less. And an overwhelming number of them coming from left back, where Naughton was. Stoke completed nearly half of theirs, repeatedly getting Crouch or Walters who were then able to work set piece or throw situations. I’ve never seen a team so actively try to win throw-ins, nor have I heard a crowd so delighted to get them. But that’s their style, and we all knew it was coming. For the most part, we dealt with it fine. The centrebacks and Ruddy were commanding, repeatedly clearing the ball (though rarely relieving the pressure entirely), so while we were under the cosh somewhat, Ruddy only had to make a couple of saves.
Of course, things changed when Stoke got their goal, and it had it’s own element of controversy. The throw in was awarded to Norwich, but overruled by the linesman and Stoke quickly got on with play. With Norwich slightly out of position, they worked the ball to Etherington who took it past Ward (who didn’t put up much of an obstruction) and then deceived Ruddy by feinting to cross and lashing it home. It was a good finish and perhaps a deserved goal for a team that had made more of the chances and had most of the play up to that point.
It wasn’t until the introduction of Fox, on 78 minutes, that we began to control the play and pin Stoke back in their own half.
The chalkboard above shows successful/unsuccessful passes between teams for the first 78 minutes. Not only had Stoke had more passes, but they were completing more of them, especially on the right wing where they were determined to win a high number of throw-ins. Until this point, they had played a totally effective game. They had smothered us to the point we were hoofing it about, and they were doing what they do best – winning set pieces and getting the ball in the box. Eventually this paid off for them.
In the last 15 (well, 12 plus injury time), this was reversed. We dominated possession and occupied their half, mainly through the introduction of Fox. He was able to take up a composed position in the centre of midfield and orchestrate things, rarely getting forward himself but trying to set people up, get the ball wide or slide someone through. Stoke’s well organised defence remained strong enough to hold us out, but this was the only period of the game that we were clearly on top and it was to be expected. A 1-0 lead is uncomfortable whether you’re the better team or not, whether you’re home or away, you always end up defending heavily in the last few minutes and holding on for dear life. The point I’m trying to make is that it isn’t just because Fox came onto the pitch that we started having possession and trying to create, but his introduction certainly helped.
On Fox, he completed more passes in 15 minutes than Johnson did in the entire game. Again, this is an unfair comparison as Stoke were happy to sit back and let him have the ball for the end of the match, but you can see what he’s trying to do; get it wide or at least not lose possession. In comparison, Johnson completed just half of his passes, regularly putting more pressure on the defence by losing the ball in bad positions. Some will say this is also unfair, as he’s not been bought to be a passer in the middle but a runner/tackler, which has an element of truth to it. Alongside players like Surman and Howson he isn’t entirely responsible for being creative but more for tackling. Unfortunately his overall contribution has never really hit the heights of his early season form, and his lack of pace and poor touch are often far too evident in a Premier League team.
This isn’t, of course, to blame Johnson for us losing or really to blame anyone. Stoke turned up with a tactical set-up, executed it to perfection and played with discipline. We turned up with a tactical set-up which struggled to get into the game and was unfortunately undone by a goal which came from a badly-awarded throw-in. In Lambert We Trust and whatever other slogans you want to put out there all apply as always, but this game struck me as very similar to the one in August. Lambert said post-match that Fox didn’t start because he felt the match would be too physical which may be right, but I’d have played him regardless, looking to impose our tactics and our style of play on the match rather than accepting theirs. Back in August we played Crofts and Johnson in the middle and struggled to get possession, and today, with different personnel, we again struggled for possession. We seem to be one of the few teams who struggles to get possession against Stoke, making me think that maybe playing to their strengths and not ours is not the way forward.