Marko Arnautovic, Peter Crouch excel as Stoke beat Sunderland
Stoke got back to winning ways with a comfortable 3-1 victory at struggling Sunderland in a contest that was ultimately decided by their excellent work in the first half.
A golden 20-minute period saw the Potters strike three times to end any hope of a positive result for the home side, with a number of Sunderland fans appearing to leave the ground before half-time.
It was a dominant performance, and the change of formation back to the 4-2-3-1 of old more than played its part. The tempo of the first half was particularly pleasing, with the players moving the ball around so much more quickly than they have for much of the season.
Having gone three goals ahead, Stoke let complacency creep into their game and, given that Jermain Defoe was Sunderland's sole threat, the decision to hold the defensive line so high was naive.
It's also concerning that while the side are benefiting from the fine form of Peter Crouch, his inclusion seems to dictate the same for Charlie Adam, who compromises the midfield when the side are out of possession.
Manager rating out of 10
8 -- Mark Hughes thankfully returned to his tried and tested formation, and it got the best out of his players. Though absence and injury perhaps influenced his decision, the return of Xherdan Shaqiri was also a positive move and ensured that there was plenty of creativity to support Crouch.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Lee Grant, 7 -- Made a couple of decent, albeit routine, saves but didn't always inspire confidence when commanding his area. Could perhaps have positioned himself better for the goal.
DF Glen Johnson, 7 -- Got forward well, but had one or two moments of complacency when he tried to be too clever on the ball only to lose possession.
DF Ryan Shawcross, 6 -- Never looks as good when playing against a smaller front line. Was the weak link in the back four when it came to distribution, and came unstuck when trying to carry the ball forward.
DF Bruno Martins Indi, 7 -- Was positionally suspect on a few occasions but ended the game as the better of the two centre backs. Topped the clearance chart and also used the ball well in possession.
DF Erik Pieters, 8 -- Caught out of position a couple of times but otherwise imperious. Made more tackles than anyone else and used his pace well when tracking back.
MF Xherdan Shaqiri, 8 -- Back to the player fans know and love -- and with added work-rate, which will have pleased his manager. Provided a number of key passes including a sublime crossfield through-ball for Marko Arnautovic's opener.
MF Glenn Whelan, 7 -- A vital defensive presence in front of the back line and his positioning was crucial, especially given that he was often covering Adam. On the flip side, some of his distribution was poor, including a few misplaced simple passes while under no pressure.
MF Charlie Adam, 6 -- Off the pace as early as the first minute and a liability out of possession. Included solely to supply Crouch in the air, which he duly did with an assist, but was rightly subbed off not long after the hour mark.
MF Marko Arnautovic, 9 -- Dominated the left side of attack and his finishing was clinical. Linked well with his teammates, culminating in the goal of the day.
MF Joe Allen, 7 -- Worked hard to run beyond Crouch in the final third but was upstaged by his more flamboyant colleagues on the day. Dropped back to a deeper role with good effect for the final 30 minutes or so.
FW Peter Crouch, 9 -- A Man of the Match performance from a player enjoying a new lease of life. Thrived with the support of players around him and was effective all over the pitch, winning a mammoth 18 aerial duels in addition to making a handful of crucial clearances in his own penalty area.
MF Julien Ngoy, N/R -- Looked lively on the ball and had a decent shot blocked having made space for himself with his pace.
MF Ibrahim Afellay, 6 -- A tidy showing from the Dutchman who didn't really stand out despite having half an hour on the pitch.
James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie