Every 4-0 Thumping Has A Silver Lining
For our past seven halves of football we have conceded, on average, two goals per half, this is truly appalling form, especially for a team with such high targets of European football. Another concerning figure is that during this run starting from half time against Swansea to today we have only managed to score twice in over 5 hours of football. But after letting the anger/violence/depression these matches have caused ebb away I have been trying to think of some positives to take from these results.
Obviously there is nothing to take from some truly awful performances; the gigantic injury list has taken another star player with Afellay being ruled out for nine months with a snapped ACL; and there has been little sign that Mark Hughes is willing to make tactical changes to try and stop the rut. But one thing that the club can certainly take from these games, is how it has exposed some of the hidden frailties (some quite significant) that an average run to the end of the season would have left hidden, ready to hurt us at some point in the future.
The most obvious place to start is the defence. For a good deal of the season we wrote off poor defensive performances to a lack of captain fantastic Ryan Shawcross being in the side. But he has been an ever present in this dreadful run of matches, don’t worry I’m not going to criticise Ryan (although that penalty was extremely stupid and has all but guaranteed he won’t be travelling to France this summer). Instead Shawcross’ return has exposed serious problems in our defence. Chiefly this is a lack of pace, but more importantly players not recognising their own short comings.
The two biggest culprits here are fan favourites Marc Muniesa and Philipp Wollschied. Both have a tendency to leap forward to meet the oppositions attack early, leaving huge spaces behind the defence, which are exposed rapidly with the pace and guile of forwards in the Premier League. Both are relatively inexperienced and this may be something that gets better with time, however Marc about to complete his third, and the big German his second, season at Stoke and it is something that they should have already added to their game. Therefore this clearly indicates to the management that we need a new solid CB who will make no mistakes and keep the door at the back firmly closed.
If we leap up the pitch to our forwards we see another colossal issue, we have the most toothless strike force in the league, outside of the relegation fight. Our strikers have provided less than a quarter of our total goals this season (not counting Bojan or Walters as a striker as both have rarely played as a genuine striker). That figure is dismal. Crouch is a one trick pony at best whose lack of movement means he can only play when the ball is played directly to him. Diouf has obviously had a tough season personally, but he is in no way a clinical striker, although his pace is a good threat it is not permanent enough for him to spearhead our campaign next year. Joselu is an odd one who has at times looked truly ruthless, but it appears he cannot play with Arnautovic. Upon Marko making a run from out to in, as he does every game and is a move responsible for our best play, Joselu goes out to the wing to cover him. This leaves a 6 foot something target man stranded out wide with a tricky winger who enjoys beating his man in the middle, killing any attacking threat we pose. It is apparent the Coatesy is going to have to get his wallet out and bring a top quality finisher to the bet365 stadium.
Despite the injury crisis not helping either of these situations, it has displayed what lack of quality we have in depth. An area where this is truly apparent is on the flanks. At the start of the season we had 2 genuine wingers and only 3 full backs. Too many times this season have we seen the team almost totally exclude one wing from the play due to Diouf or Walters being stationed on that side of the pitch. The quarter final of the League Cup is the perfect example of this as I cannot remember Walters do anything other than be offside for most of the match.
Whilst we do have some of the longer serving players sat on the bench providing cover they are not at the ability that they need to be. Most are Tony Pulis signings, bought with a very specific style of play in mind who struggle, and that is putting it generously, to get involved in the fast fluid passing style Hughes is hoping to achieve. Hopefully many of these players will be moved on and replaced with younger players who have more hunger to put on a good display when they get the chance.
The final issue displayed by the awful performances against Liverpool, Spurs and Man City is a total lack of work rate. I am not the kind of fan who believes players like Jon Walters should play simply because they work hard, working hard should be the bare minimum of a footballer and skill and quality is what players should be selected on. Nevertheless, the total lack of effort displayed by most of the team in our past 3 fixtures is embarrassing and unacceptable. In February it was revealed that we had covered the second least ground as a team, ahead of only Aston Villa. With teams such as Tottenham and Leicester dominating these statistics it is a problem area that needs addressing. It appears as if most of the players are already packed and ready for their two months off, and it will be a job for Mark Hughes to get his squad motivated for the upcoming fixtures. Especially next weekend’s clash against Sunderland, where if we don’t match their work rate and energy we could be on the end of another embarrassing result.
So the hope we need to take from these matches is that they will be the final push for Sparky to reform a large deal of the squad, hopefully giving us the best chance of pushing on next year.
Written by Tom Thrower
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