A turgid ‘long ball’ contest, with a narrative of errors in key moments: interesting to study as the 'mirror' to the other scintillating results.
‘To get so close and once again concede a late goal…one is tempted to feel that one has been harshly treated in the last couple of games’ – Roy Hodgson, 20/08/2011, after Chelsea 2-1 West Bromwich Albion
This is an easy game to analyse for all the wrong reasons, with the added spin of a derby day. Both teams filed their usual systems for this game, with two relatively static 4-4-1-1 shapes facing one another. In both, however, the attacker behind the advanced forward drifted around the pitch and was the locus for most attacks: Somen Tchoyi for Albion and Jonathan Walters for Stoke. The Potters played their expected long-ball approach which has become their trademark in the Premier League.
The one significant change for Albion was that, in the first half, they ditched the notion of inverting their wide midfielders, something they had pursued in the late losses to Manchester United and Chelsea. This pointed to a contest in which Albion wanted to use their pace and crossing in the wider zones, against the slow but strong full-backs of Stoke. A statistic says that in the 2010/11 season Stoke had one of the worst defences for conceding headed goals: slow full-backs generally encourage wingers to have fun, negating the strategy of packing players with height in the box. Indeed, Huth is primarily a centre-back and started at right-back, whilst Wilson (replaced by Wilkinson due to a hamstring injury near the end of the first half) is of a similar mould.
In the first half Albion’s shape was, overall, the more successful – Tchoyi drifted with the play well, and it was only the display of smart reflexes by Begovic which kept out Shane Long’s point-blank header resulting from Tchoyi’s cross to the near-post. Paul Scharner threatened not far off the right-hand post too, as did Olsson at the opposite end of the woodwork. Other efforts were confined to volleys and half volleys outside the box. None were successful and required a player of higher calibre in this area.
It was clear, however, that the two shapes were effectively stalemating each other. Whilst Albion passed the ball around with increasingly varied length, Stoke almost exclusively played long balls over the top. This had the bonus for Albion of causing them to regain possession often, but they usually squandered it. At the end of the match, Albion had 12 shots off target and 4 on.
Once again Mulumbu was the definite anchor man with Paul Scharner being given license to come forward when he saw fit. Had Tchoyi passed and not fired a shot in the second half, perhaps Scharner would have scored in space. Scharner, however, is not an attacking midfielder and it is a rather wasteful game plan to not cater to your players’ strengths (Scharner’s goal scoring being from corners or from the edge of the area, stereotypical for his role as a ball-winner). This is one source of frustration I have had watching the opening three games and it is down to the change in system. Shane Long, meanwhile, did not save Albion’s graces with his poaching ability. What I’m saying, is this performance seemed to be coming.
A positive for Albion was the way they operated down their left-hand flank. Brunt was encouraged to play his accurate crosses because he was on his natural left-foot. Nicky Shorey was encouraged to come forward, overlapping, and played some pinpoint crosses. This forward focus did not matter much as Jermaine Pennant had a quiet game, and Robert Huth was out of his depth against the pace and guile of Tchoyi, Brunt and Shorey who all crowded his zone. As the half wore on, Albion switched the play more and more to the right, with Tchoyi drifting that way. This took pressure off of Mulumbu and Olsson, Albion’s defensive players on the centre-left. They were arguably Albion’s best players by some distance. This meant that Matthew Etherington came into the game more, and both Pennant and Whelan were unlucky at the close of the half.
Stoke’s shape mirrored Albion in midfield, with Dean Whitehead keeping back in the defensive zones and Whelan coming forward when he felt able. Neither did much though beyond playing the ball forward to Walters, which was the reason why Mulumbu was under a lot of pressure throughout the match. Kenwynne Jones, meanwhile, was poor on the ball and often dallied. This led to an easy game for Tamas in the centre-right zone.
What is unpalatable about Stoke’s ‘old fashioned’ strategy in many ways is that it seems back-to-front: they play it very quickly out of the back four with direct passing, but were rather slow in the attacking zones. This is rather contrary to the logic of playing the ball out slowly and advancing up the pitch, picking up speed as the play flows forwards. This, however, played into Albion’s hands – they were never outnumbered, and usually had men spare to cover channels. This was a symptom as much of their caution as their organisation, though.
Tchoyi was usually Albion’s most profitable avenue for a goal, but he made a lot of poor decisions. I will not put this down as being a purely bad performance, and leave the point that he had very little support and (again) was expected to be a rather isolated playmaker. Albion were rather wide, when perhaps they should have been bolder and narrower – this would have allowed Reid as well as Shorey space to come forward and get involved. Morrison and Brunt, however, were not inverted.
Second half: ‘change places!’
(Double ended arrow indicates delivery; other arrows denote general movement around the pitch as usual)
Half-time brought several tactical changes to the match, with odd effect. Brunt and Morrison swapped sides, with Tony Pulis responding in an unsophisticated but logical way by inverting his own full-backs. We thus had the spectacle of watching the same players on the exact same side of the pitch in both halves. One could be forgiven for thinking they did not even swap ends. This produced a sort of ‘mirroring’ effect.
Stoke, meanwhile, grasped the fact they needed to play narrower. With Pennant and Etherington being rarely involved except to play passes into Walters, it made sense for them to drift towards the centre and assist in picking up possession, breaking up play. This blunted Scharner’s forward runs, who kept back for most of the second half. The result was a less stretched Stoke defence, which found it rather easy to deal with Tchoyi and Long in the centre, who were a largely predictable partnership by the second period. Whitehead and Whelan meanwhile drew closer together and played better as a result.
Despite both teams being rather focussed in the wider areas of the pitch, the first corner of the game came in the 51st minute. None of the rest were inspiring, either. The errors piled up as the blunt shapes continued to pound at one another with little aesthetic beauty – the sight of Wilkinson playing a long-ball towards the centre, ‘over the top’, was a common one. Tactics like this sometimes beggar rationality as they rely as much on chance and aggression as precision.
The important changes of the second half came in the final half hour, with a series of substitutions on both sides, changing the game steadily. For Albion, Jerome Thomas replaced Chris Brunt and took up his place on the left, with Morrison moving back to his natural right side. This meant a contrast of two wingers’ styles, with the traditional wing play of Morrison (not much in evidence) set against the cutting inside and possession-based threat of Thomas. Thomas was not involved much beyond some decent play, made an error which he cleaned up and looked solid defensively; back from a medium-term injury it’s hard to have asked for more. Marc-Antoine Fortuné then replaced Tchoyi, taking up the advanced role with Long playing behind off him. This made some sense because Fortuné is more of an assist-giver or link man than a goal scoring forward. A more progressive choice would have been Simon Cox, who is the superior finisher, which is what Albion lacked (12 shots off target, again). He didn’t have much time to make an impact. Graeme Dorrans was the final replacement, coming on for Morrison, which was met with applause from the fans for many reasons. Albion still seemed like a second class side.
Stoke were not much better, but their replacements made a lot of sense: Tony Pulis appeared to be happy with a point following a European game in the week, and they could always nick a winner like they did the week before, while Albion seemed happy to keep pounding the same tactical drum. Danny Pugh replaced Matthew Etherington with Ryan Shotton coming on for Jermaine Pennant. Both are primarily defensive players and could easily have been their full-backs on paper. This increased Stoke’s security, and encouraged their narrower shape – rather than trying to outpace the Albion wide players they channelled their talents inwards towards the centre, being difficult to knock off the ball.
Including the swap of Wilkinson in the first half, all three of Stoke’s substitutions were defensive ones. Albion’s meanwhile were all of an offensive nature, but they were far too late to have any real impact and did not solve their problems. The psychological straitjacket of settling into a long-ball, ‘hoof’ game was done and Albion seemed to have lost much of their natural attacking instinct. This wasn’t the ball-playing Albion side of last year: the mix this season seems to be more ‘traditional’, ‘over the top’, and it is not working. With players such as Thomas returning, however, we may see some changes.
Controversial late goal
Reading the rest of the narrative it is difficult to imagine Stoke scoring: it was a ‘bore draw’ in all but result. However, the narrow and aggressive tactics of Stoke produced a late goal. Tamas, not having had much to do against an ineffective Jones all game was presented with the choice of covering the ball and allowing Foster to claim it or to attack the ball and clear it. He chose the former and the resulting mix-up led to Shotton scoring into an open net. The controversy comes from whether Shotton was showing his studs in the air, threatening the health of Foster, who was attempting to catch the ball (in a ‘flappy’ way it must be said).
The controversy for me, however, was that either team deserved to take anything from this turgid contest. Both managers should frankly be ashamed with the negative tactics on display, which was not dissimilar from pub football teams at times. Not every team can play like Barcelona, and it is not always desirable to see that. A physical, hardworking, direct game can be thrilling if done well: Germany at the 2010 World Cup can be presented as great examples of this, combining good play with the ball on the deck as well as supreme, precise counter attacking. We’ve seen Arsenal last season, and Inter in the 09/10 season slay Barcelona with such style, and that is in itself thrilling. Owen Hargreaves, who Albion hope to secure on a pay-as-you-play deal, gave one of the greatest and most thrilling performances I have ever seen when he ran with immense industry and stamina against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup. This, however, was not much more than people shouting ‘hoof it!’
This change in mentality, as much as shape, is the problem for Albion and they have to change this if this trend of late goals deciding tight contests is to end. Poached efforts are simply not enough, concerted pressure is better, which was the mantra last season under Hodgson as well as Roberto Di Matteo. ‘One is tempted to feel’ that this is the crux of the problem: late goals should not result from a firmly ‘structuralist’ approach. Meanwhile, the Stoke fans sang ‘We always beat West Brom’: awful.