Looking at Stoke through a half-full glass…

Date published: Monday 25th September 2017 11:50

‘Is the glass half-full or half-empty?’ is a question with many applications. You’ve got a fever and feel rotten, but you don’t have to go into work; your car is wrecked, but you’re not badly hurt and it’s insured; your love interest calls you “an insensitive b*st*rd”, but somehow hasn’t threatened to leave you yet.

But this is a football website, which means we can only be talking about Stoke City. Except for last year, when someone forgot to put water in the glass at all, they’ve been the eternal optimist/pessimist divider. At the moment the table shows them all the way down in 16th – but of course they’ve played a tough schedule so far. They looked decent against Arsenal and very good indeed against Manchester United, but poor against West Brom and not much better against Newcastle. Wake me when the revolution comes.

If the outlook is the same, though, the players and approach aren’t quite. Half the outfield starters in the draw with Manchester United weren’t even at the club last year. And, as we’ll see, the tactics have been tweaked in spots, significantly altered elsewhere. But whether supporter or neutral, eventually you’re likely to find yourself asking the same old question – and that’s what we’ll do here as well.

Let’s start with the half-empty. The striker problem persists. Saido Berahino is in the house, but has been largely confined to the lumber room. Mark Hughes is so desperate that he’s having Stokealona dreams, going back to the false nine that he so abruptly dropped a couple of years ago when the future had seemingly arrived.

It used to be Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and Marko Arnautovic across the front; now it’s Shaqiri, Jesé and Max Choupo-Moting. The problem is that Jesé and Choupo-Moting are dribblers first and passers second, and neither seems comfortable with their back to goal. So they can’t produce the same fluid motion that made the first version so effective.

Then there’s Joe Allen. Was it only a year ago that he seemed the answer in midfield, a sure-to-be-star? He’s declined quietly into mediocrity, contributing here and there both in attack and defence, but not once threatening to come to Garth Crooks’ notice on a Sunday evening.

In defence, Hughes seems to have settled on three at the back, a reasonable approach these days. But that means Erik Pieters plays wing-back, and he’s not much more wing-backy than Joel Ward was when the late Frank De Boer tried him out there for Crystal Palace. Pieters is a passable left-back, but doesn’t bring enough in attack to compensate for the hole he has to leave when pushing forward.

That brings us to one Ryan Shawcross. The captain turns 30 in a week or so, and he pre-celebrated by signing a four-year contract extension earlier this season. Great servant, and good for him. But…was that quite the right move for Stoke City? He’s been hit by injuries the last two years, and when on the pitch has rarely looked anywhere near his best. He might be able to hold down the central position in a three, but it’s hardly guaranteed, and he hasn’t looked capable of anything else in a while.

One of his potential replacements, Kevin Wimmer, also belongs on the half-empty list, at least for the moment. He has yet to look settled, and had a genuine wet-the-bed nightmare in the loss to Newcastle. Like Shawcross, he missed the Chelsea game due to injury. But it’s only fair to give him time.

Which makes a nice transition to the half-full, which is just as full as the half-empty is empty. Staying in the back line, Kurt Zouma has been something close to a revelation as one of the outside centre-halves. He isn’t close to the finished article, but his talent is undeniable, and he’s also helped out in attack on numerous occasions. Right now he’s the main man. And don’t forget Bruno Martins Indi, back in the fold after War and Peace transfer negotiations. A bona fide solid mid-table Premier League centre-half for only ₤7m? That’s brilliant business.

Moving forward, we find Darren Fletcher. The Slight Upgrade on Glenn Whelan has proven to be rather more than that. His leadership qualities have never been in doubt, and his overall play has been solid all the way around (as long as you don’t ask him to play centre-half, as unfortunately had to happen against Chelsea).

In attack, Choupo-Moting has been an outstanding addition. He goes at his man just as aggressively as Marko Arnautovic, and is notably slipperier. He made Manchester United’s defenders look extremely ordinary, and Chelsea didn’t have it all that easy with him either. Jesé has tailed off after his hot start, but certainly figures to contribute over the course of the season. He’s faster than Choupo-Moting and seems to have equal dribbling skill. If he can get a bit physically tougher, and the manager can find the right system, he’ll excel as well.

And now for a few words on Shaqiri. We all know what he can do, and with Arnautovic departed and Bojan merely a memory, he’s become the leader in attack. Either coming off the right or playing directly in the middle, he’s taking charge in the manner of the top number 10s. No, he’s not in David Silva’s class, but could very well improve with more experience in the role, and then would be something really special.

We’ve saved the best for last, and that’s Jack Butland. Anyone paying attention knows he should be England’s #1, and may someday even be so in real life. (Am I the only one who thinks he looks a bit like Ricky Gervais?)

So the water level is at its usual mark. At the moment the half-fullers have the edge. Although the side went down heavily to Chelsea this past weekend, press and fans were largely unperturbed. Chelsea are Chelsea, the back line was makeshift, on the whole the team played decently, and it’s nothing like last year, thank goodness. But you can be sure that at some point during the season, the viewing angle will change. As the level drops, the anxiety will rise. And then back again, of course.

Me? I’m a hopeless optimist, so I say half-full. I love Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting, Zouma is on my radar every week now, and there’s nothing like a Butland beauty. Plenty of winnable games in the next couple of months, and the Potters should close the first half in, oh, no worse than 10th place. Absolutely. Definitely. Maybe.

Peter Goldstein

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