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Aug 17, 2014

Reality check for despondent Stoke

Andreas Weimann celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game in Aston Villa's opening day win at Stoke.

I wrote earlier in the week about the return of the excitement and hope of a new season, but on Saturday, the Stoke fans realised the flip side of that particular coin and left disappointed and angry after losing 1-0 at home to Aston Villa.

- Report: Stoke 0-1 Aston Villa
- Hughes: We should do better
- Lambert: My side were excellent

That sense of excitement was brimming across the fan base, but there was always a fear people were getting ahead of themselves. It just wasn't meant to be.

There was no single thing to blame, but a few of the problems seen on the pitch were associated to the inclusion of new boy Bojan Krkic. Mark Hughes decided that he would play on the right side, or at least that's where he stood at kickoff as he found himself in a free role, making appearances all over the pitch.

He didn't have a poor game -- far from it -- but Hughes needs to work out exactly how to make the best use of Krkic that benefits the team as a whole. The floating brief afforded to him sacrificed the formality of the shape which was to the detriment of the team as their right side was unprotected for the most part. That, in turn, meant Phil Bardsley found himself with little support defensively or when moving forward, though to be fair, he coped admirably and put in an encouraging performance.

If Krkic is going to continue in the starting 11, the most suitable place for him to play would be in the area he tends to gravitate to: behind the striker picking up the space in between midfield and attack. That, of course, would be at the expense of Stephen Ireland, which would be a shame, since he looks as good as he ever has at Stoke.

The main issue on the day was a complete lack of urgency against a Villa side who perfectly executed their game plan. Their pressing high up the pitch perhaps contributed to a more nervous showing from the Stoke players who -- Bardsley apart -- didn't want the responsibility of possession.

The defenders launched far too many long balls in the general direction of poor Mame Biram Diouf, who was left chasing aimlessly into the channels. The last time Stoke played Villa, that convincing 4-1 win last season, Ryan Shawcross played seven long balls. On Saturday that figure rose to 20.

In fact, it's not too dissimilar a start to the one made last season; that same lack of urgency and tempo was an early feature of Hughes' tenure, though something he quickly nipped in the bud.

His postmatch comments suggest that this is not news to them and is something that will be rectified next week against Hull City. Despite the issues, I don't think anything really needs to change personnel-wise, apart from perhaps a choice between Bojan and Ireland. The ingredients are very much there, it's just that some of the concepts need to be modified and a kick up the backside of a few of the players can only help, too.

Getting the whole side 15-20 yards farther up the pitch would see a much improved attacking force, yet Villa's pace on the break simply stopped Stoke from doing that on Saturday. Getting closer to Diouf would also mean the services to him take advantage of his acceleration and movement off the last defender instead of expecting him to get on the end of purposeless 60-yard punts upfield.

Things aren't a million miles from where they should be, which makes the reaction from some sections of the crowd who saw fit to boo on the final whistle all the more senseless. An early reality check is a good thing on and off the pitch, and will hopefully serve to focus fans and players ahead of another long and hard campaign.

One down, 37 more to go.

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