Draw with West Ham aside, Stoke City gaining positive momentum
Mark Hughes and his Stoke side managed to do what they haven't done all season: string two good halves together. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to take all three points on the day with West Ham fighting back to draw 2-2.
Quite often a scoreline fails to tell the story of a game and that was certainly the case for Stoke on Saturday as their best incisive, attacking play of the season wasn't rewarded with the points it quite possibly deserved. Games are won and lost on small moments and decisions, but this one was drawn amid controversy, with referee Chris Foy failing to act on Alex Song's two-footed lunge in the build-up to West Ham's first goal. Indeed, Mame Diouf will be kicking himself for not putting the match to bed before that with two gilt-edged chances that, on another day, would have seen Stoke win by three or four.
It was another good game from him as he continued his role as lone striker; his pace and urgency set the tone for the whole side's tempo. Around him, there were a number of battles going on: Jon Walters was physically dominating poor Aaron Cresswell, Victor Moses was turning Carl Jenkinson inside and out and Bojan Krkic danced around Song for each and every one of his 82 minutes on the pitch. It was an encouraging performance from the Spaniard in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday and he built on that showing with another that belied any fears of him not being physically capable of handling the rough and tumble of the Premier League. He was finding pockets of space in around the five midfielders of the opposition, and with his quick feet he was simply gliding around anyone who tried to get near him. A player who has always been one who thrives on confidence, this game will have done him wonders and indeed his chances of a start next week no harm at all.
The whole side attacked with purpose and -- but for some poor final balls and the opposition goalkeeper -- the points could have been well and truly in the bag well in advance of West Ham's second-half comeback. Once again the absence of Peter Crouch meant more play from the midfield and wide men and it was the Potters exhibiting the much-hyped "West Ham way" of play with 23 dribbles to the Hammers' two. Indeed, they bettered their high-flying visitors in most areas of the pitch; having nearly twice as many passes in the final third, four times as many corners and twice as many shots, but unfortunately the statistic that matters eluded them -- a win. Those next three points will not be far away though based on the evidence of the last three halves of football, and Hughes is now left with the quandary of whether to introduce Crouch back to the side, given how much better his side looks on the front foot in the absence of the tall striker.
While that particular problem will be one the manager welcomes, he won't be as happy with another that continues to plague the side: conceding goals from so few shots on target. Against West Ham it was two conceded from two shots; against Sunderland away it was three from three, and against Southampton, one from two. Allowing such a high chance conversion is a world away from the defensive solidity of old, and that damning statistic of six goals from just seven attempts on target is something Hughes could do well to rectify. Quite how he does that is why he gets paid so handsomely; he may well have been given food for thought in this match with Geoff Cameron's stellar showing (statistically the best tackler on the pitch), and with Phil Bardsley due to return from suspension, Hughes could perhaps even hand the American a starting berth at centre-back alongside captain Ryan Shawcross.
Regardless, the manager will go into his preparations for the Tottenham game buoyed by the many positives of the last week and -- like the fans -- will be hoping that his side are finally starting to find some consistency.