Stoke’s draw is the worst of all relegation draws…

Date published: Monday 23rd April 2018 7:47

This past week the bottom three clubs in the Premier League, all in serious danger of relegation, all drew their matches. This in itself isn’t particularly notable, and by the season’s end this particular set of results will be all but forgotten. But it’s worth taking a look at these three draws, because each in its own way said something important about the club in question.

The most important fact about West Bromwich Albion is that they’re not relegated yet. Strange but true, and they can thank Darren Moore for that. The caretaker manager has taken five points from three matches – which reminds us that West Brom’s other caretaker manager, Gary Megson, took two points from two himself. That means the Baggies have taken almost 30% of their season points in five games, and that all 18 of their losses came under Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew.

There are plenty of jokes to be made here, but it’s telling that Megson and Moore were able to get results out of an otherwise stagnant side. Both men have considerable history at West Brom, Megson as manager and Moore as player, and the side appeared noticeably invigorated under their leadership. Nothing at all fancy in a tactical sense; for example, Moore has started with a basic 4-4-2 in all three of his matches. I realise I’m straying dangerously close to PFM territory, and I don’t mean to imply that history and “passion” are themselves enough to keep a club from relegation. But the West Brom players certainly seem to have responded to such an approach, and showed they could indeed get results.

Note, too, that three of the five caretaker opponents were Tottenham (away draw), Manchester United (away win), and Liverpool (home draw), not exactly easy pickings. In all three games, West Brom played unafraid against superior opponents, and none of the results were flukes, not even this weekend’s 2-2 draw with the Reds. Sure, Klopp’s men were the better side, but this never threatened to be a rout. And if you have the confidence, sometimes you get the result. The point gained from a losing position matched the club’s entire total for the year under Pulis and Pardew.

So there was a decent side somewhere at The Hawthorns this season. It’s too much to expect survival at this point, but if Moore can keep up the results he might get a shot at managing the club in the Championship next year – where he’d likely have plenty of chances at wins, not just draws.

Southampton also drew their match, 0-0 at Leicester City on Thursday. The main reason they drew 0-0? That’s what they came for. That’s right, in a relegation race, Mark Hughes played for a point. This would ordinarily be cause for scorn – and I criticised Hughes for not going for it at Arsenal – but in this case it wasn’t unreasonable at all.

At Arsenal, sitting back is asking for it, so you might as well risk. But Leicester are a counter-attacking side, and if your defence is in good form, a clean sheet isn’t out of the question. Opening up might have been suicidal. So Hughes went 5-4-1, with the full-backs held back most of the afternoon. When he brought Charlie Austin on in the 73rd minute, he took Shane Long off. And although the midfield wobbled at times, Kelechi Iheanacho let a decent early chance go by, Alex McCarthy tipped a Vardy half-chance over the bar, and that was all Leicester had to offer. The Saints only had one decent chance themselves, as Ben Hamer saved from Shane Long.

Hughes never needs encouragement to go conservative – yesterday at Wembley he practically folded before the cards were even dealt – he undoubtedly had one-and-a-half eyes on the table for the tactics against Leicester. Swansea City would be cannon fodder at Manchester City, and perhaps the same at home to Chelsea the following weekend. Southampton would then need only a draw at home against Bournemouth to set up the crucial match at the Liberty Stadium, where a win would put the Saints in pole position with two rounds to go.

That sort of three-rail shot is much easier planned than made, though, and you can easily see Southampton falling a couple of points short come May 13. Hughes has explicitly promised to go on the attack the rest of the way, but if you don’t build an attacking mindset in the first place, it’s a lot harder to find the goals when you need them.

As Daniel Storey noted in his article on the Cup semi-final, it would be entirely characteristic of Southampton this season to go quietly into that good night. Should they go down, Thursday’s 0-0 would be just another piece of evidence that they never had enough fight in the first place.

That leaves Stoke City, and although they’ve certainly had the fight, at least since Paul Lambert arrived, they’ve been missing…the staying power? The tactical consistency? The strikers? The luck? All of the above?

Wherever the fault, yesterday’s 1-1 draw home to Burnley could certainly stand as the symbol of Lambert’s tenure. It was the sixth time in ten matches that Stoke had lost a result in the 60th minute or after. Three were at home, three away. Three wound up draws, three losses. The draws came when Jack Butland fumbled a ball into his goal, when Andy Carroll scored on a brilliant volley in the 90th minute, and yesterday when Steven Ireland’s late drive clanked off the post.

The frequent changes in personnel and set-up couldn’t have helped. Lambert had been chopping and changing in all areas of the pitch since almost day one, and his tactics yesterday betrayed a manager that still hadn’t found the line-up he’d been looking for. In the previous match, Peter Crouch had come off the bench to pair up with Mame Biram Diouf up top, and had scored what had looked like the game-winner. So, in a must-win game, Lambert started a 4-4-2 – for the very first time since he had arrived.

In one way it made sense. Burnley had played 4-4-2 the past few weeks, so Stoke wouldn’t be outnumbered in midfield. Crouch and Diouf, both very good in the air, could match up reasonably well against Burnley’s centre-halves. But in a 4-4-2 the only possible place for Xherdan Shaqiri was on the right wing, and so the Potters’ best playmaker was, if not completely marginalised, severely reduced in effectiveness.

In the 11th minute Stoke finally caught a break: deflections both in the build-up and on the ensuing shot brought them an early goal. Burnley’s opportunities were limited to set-pieces. And not long before halftime the Potters seemed sure to go two up. A fantastic cross on the counter from Moritz Bauer went right to the feet of Diouf…and he somehow managed to let the ball go through his legs.

The second half belonged to Burnley. Ashley Barnes got the equaliser in the 62 nd minute, and the Clarets coasted to the draw that brought them closer to a Europa League berth. Long balls to Crouch and Diouf brought nothing. I mentioned Steven Ireland’s late shot off the post, but a win would have seriously flattered the hosts. They finished with 43% possession and an 8-16 shot deficit. Playing at home, against a team that had been one of the pre-season relegation favourites, Stoke simply weren’t good enough.

The three sides are probably feeling very different today: West Brom proud, Southampton wary, Stoke depressed. But no matter how you get it, a draw is only one point, and you need three draws to equal one win. West Brom, Southampton, and Stoke are 20th, 19th, and 18th in wins; second, first, and equal fourth in draws. Turn a couple of ones into threes, and the whole world changes. If only it were that simple…

Peter Goldstein

 

 


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