Saturday’s victory over a very stubborn and determined Blackburn Rovers team showed the importance of a well-balanced and organised midfield for any subsequent progress for the Potters.
This summer’s addition of another flying winger in the shape of Jermaine Pennant has given Stoke an extra dimension. Our new dual wing threat when combined with the aerial prowess of Kenwyne Jones makes us look a potentially exciting proposition going forward.
It is great to see Stoke employing two such effervescent wide players with Matthew Etherington looking like he is going to surpass last season’s return on assists after a flying start to his season. Obviously a more cavalier approach requires solid foundations to ensure that we are not left over-stretched and painfully exposed.
As we know, TP loves to use four centre halves in his back four but at this level they still require some protection especially if we (hopefully) continue to utilise our wingers. This is where Rory Delap and Dean Whitehead step into the equation.
Clearly neither player are going to “wow” the fans with any great technical application but they are the engine room for the Potters and have the determination and steel to give us a foothold in games. As much as we have improved over the last few years we still cannot expect to roll teams over and leave ourselves exposed.
The central midfield role at Stoke is a very disciplined job and it isn’t a task that many would have the stomach for. The ground that our two “spoilers” are expected to cover is immense. If they don’t do their job properly the opposition will have much more of the ball and our wingers won’t be able to use their pace to break away if Rory or Deano don’t snap into the tackles and win possession back for us.
We have seen in our previous two seasons at this level just how vital getting the midfield right is. There are many excellent central players in the Premier League and we really need to have our best midfield playing in order to compete. During our first season back we tinkered with our central quartet without much success until TP got the balance right by bringing Liam Lawrence back into the team and pairing Rory with Glenn Whelan. The four players used on Saturday had a similar (but improved) look about it. They looked balanced, combative and in Pennant and Etherington had pace and skill in abundance.
No doubt a 1-0 win against Blackburn had the ill-informed assuming it had been the type of match that their limited knowledge of the game had already predicted it to be. In actual fact it was a very enjoyable 90 minutes with Stoke creating numerous clear cut chances and probably deserving more than Jon Walters’s excellent first Premier League goal.
The other very pleasing aspect to our third league win of the season was a long overdue clean sheet for Tommy and his back four. We’ve had a few shaky moments at the back so far this year but Saturday’s shut out was much more like it. Don’t get me wrong, Blackburn didn’t pose us many problems with their far more direct approach than us but the lads still had to cope with numerous punts from Paul Robinson and the (albeit poor imitation) long throws from Morton Gamst Pederson.
I think our nervy defending has been caused by several factors. Firstly Tommy had an indifferent World Cup and then suffered an infection in his elbow. We also appointed Ryan as captain over the summer which given Abdoulaye’s stature at the club was always a big call. Thankfully our young England hopeful appears to be growing into his new found responsibility and I’m convinced that it will spur him on to even greater things in the future.
The other on-going cause for concern has been at full-back with large question marks hanging over both Robert Huth (who we know is superb at centre half) and Danny Collins who had a very shaky debut season. I’m hoping after Saturday’s extremely solid showing both of them continue in the same vein of form from now on. I certainly haven’t been Danny Collins’s biggest fan since his arrival from Sunderland as I didn’t really trust him defensively but over the last two or three outings he seems to be adding a bit more steel to his game which will help him and the team out no end.
It was great to get another win before the international break and although it probably managed to sneak under the radar of most national newspapers, this was a win that offered real encouragement to the Stoke faithful and has left us sitting in a very healthy looking 7th position in the league.
Early days of course but hopefully our new found balance will see plenty more victories like the one against Blackburn and who knows, perhaps even a top half finish when you look at the players we have who can’t even get a game at present?