The Stoke City festive period wrap-up: a saviour reborn?

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Last month’s Round Table here at All Stoked Up found us discussing the Potters’ shortcomings. Unanimously, the forward line won – or, lost? Has a blast from the past having us all eating humble (mince) pie?

Just before we all downed tools for a mulled wine or two, we had a chat about which areas Stoke City need to improve and who they should buy in January.

Jokingly, at the time I elected for our lack of scoring – and Peter Crouch specifically. Turns out it wasn’t a bad shout, even though I wasn’t giving my thoughts much consideration.

Two goals and an assist in the last two games suggest that Stoke City’s own gentle giant is as hungry as ever for game time…been reading our stuff, Peter?

Next: Stoke City's January to-do list

So, where has this recent run of long-lost form come from? First and foremost, Crouch is a nuisance. If the long balls aimed for him to flick on are used cleverly, he can be so much more than a target man.

Despite his size, he can hold the ball up well and he can create space for others simply by making a run. His height has always been a worry for defenders, constantly giving them something different to think about.

With not a great deal going on up front of late – and the shortcomings of one Mr Bony – Peter Crouch looks to be the answer for the time being. At 35 years of age though, time is not on his side.

However, has the recent resurgence got the hierarchy thinking of a short-term contract extension?

Liverpool send Stoke City packing

The re-emergence of Crouch was some consolation to the rather unwanted results over Christmas.

Stoke City headed to Anfield opting to play three at the back against the leagues top scorers. With the success Antonio Conte is having at Chelsea with the set-up, it remains to be seen whether this is being trialled by other managers.

However, I feel that away at Liverpool wasn’t the best time for the Potters to attempt their own version – potential disaster written all over it.

Things got off to flying start in the north-west though; Jon Walters on the end of an Erik Pieters front post cross after 12 minutes. Joe Allen, on his return to Anfield, forced a save from Mignolet a few minutes later.

Stoke City were generating chances and were showing the home side no respect. With the Potters on top and looking good value, Liverpool were going to have to turn things around.

Hughes, since these festive games, has spoken out at the need to eliminate individual errors. Exhibit A being Glen Johnson’s failure to deal with a  Sadio Mane cross, allowing Adam Lallana to finish.

Roberto Firmino scored Liverpool’s second in the 44th minute with a sweet low drive. The ball hit both posts before crossing the line for added effect.

Despite going behind, Stoke City were still in the game when they returned after the interval.

Gianelli Imbula was left red-faced however, after a spirited defensive tracking run resulted in him turning the ball past Lee Grant to gift Liverpool a two-goal cushion.

Imbula’s blushes though were soon spared by skipper Ryan Shawcross, whose mistake to allow Daniel Sturridge to beat Grant one-on-one arguably epitomising Hughes’ despair.

One nasty away trip done – just a trip to Chelsea next, then? Piece of cake…

The Champions Elect

If at first you don’t succeed, then try it again against even better opponents – just a loose guess on Hughes’ go-again philosophy might have said.

So, three at the back again…what could possibly go wrong? At least the Blues’ opener wasn’t a result of a defensive slip-up. Gary Cahill leapt well to nod home a Cesc Fabregas corner.

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Stoke came out for the 2nd half like a raging bull. Within a minute of the restart, the Potters had equalised through Bruno Martins Indi. Peter Crouch barely to had to leave the ground to win a header, directing it into Martins Indi’s path who guided the ball home.

Ten minutes later and Willian restored the hosts’ lead after some good wing play by Victor Moses.

With 26 minutes left on the clock, Crouch took hold of a pass from Charlie Adam. Adam played it to Bojan Krkic who spread it out wide to Mame Biram Diouf. A great cross allowed Crouch to get ahead of Cesar Azpilicueta to tap home.

Stoke’s second goal was the first time Chelsea had conceded two in a league fixture since a humbling at the Emirates in September.

A minute later and Willian struck again. Stoke had chances but the game was wrapped up five minutes from time when Costa was allowed to get in between Ryan Shawcross and Martins Indi.

Despite conceding another four goals, Hughes was much more contented with the performance. The lack of defensive errors, primarily, we assume…

Dry January?

The first game of 2017 was on Tuesday night at home to Watford. After two games with three at the back and eight goals against, surely it had to be time to go with a sturdy back four?

No, Hughes was looking for third time lucky.

It was a fairly drab first half which saw nothing much more than a 31st minute header from Crouch punched clear.

Pre-match optimism was buoyed by the return of the suspended Marko Arnautovic. Eager to prove his worth this season, the Austrian tried to force the issue with the odd piece of trickery, but found his efforts wanting.

It wasn’t until Shawcross found himself on the end of an Adam cross and calmly slotted home with the last kick of the first half that the game got the ‘kick’ it needed.

Four minutes into the second-half and Adam whipped in another low cross which allowed Crouch to poke home with his knee.

Overall, a much better performance from Stoke City. It was a fixture that on paper, had potential to allow the previous games’ wounds to heal.

Merry Christmas? No, but Happy New Year

Bar the defensive errors in the Liverpool game we didn’t look out of our depth.

The effort in the Chelsea game was great overall, much improved and spirited. In fairness, not many – Hughes included, I’m sure – would’ve been expecting much from the two away games in terms of points.

The most important aspect of the festive period was the bounce-back win over Watford. The boys did what they had to do, and despite the lack of champagne football, three points is three points.

With Charlie Adam and Peter Crouch in recent solid form, things could be looking up. Crouch is chasing his Premier League century (only two goals away) and has been starved of game time the last 18 months.

While the return to form is of course positive, I honestly believe that Crouch is a short term fix to the lack of goals. Crouch is currently picking up unexpected slack from Wilfried Bony, and is rewarding Hughes with his faith in selecting him.

I fear, though, that it won’t last forever. As things stand, he is the obvious solution. As a famous old quote (whose origin escapes me) once said: “the obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer”.

Here’s to a positive 2017, Potters.