For Stoke City’s final league game of the season, Mark Hughes opted for five changes from the team that lost two-one away at Crystal Palace last weekend, and saw his changes pay off in a 2-1 success to end the campaign.
Hughes chops and changes
Joselu returned to the starting line up as well as Phillip Wollscheid, who were brought in to add more flair to the Potters and offer an alternative to the long ball tactics that naturally come as a result of playing Peter Crouch as the sole striker. Bojan Krkic also made a welcome start having featured sporadically towards the end of the season.
Clearly with West Ham United being without their key player in Dimitri Payet, missing through injury, Hughes was keen to attack a team using the ball on the ground and the flair that players such as Bojan can bring.
However, in the first-half Stoke never really got going, and the defensive errors that have occurred too frequently in recent times reared their ugly head once more. From a corner Michail Antonio was allowed to turn, shoot and score for the Hammers. It is these basic errors which have haunted the Potters in recent weeks and maybe signing a centre back over summer could keep all of the defenders on their toes for next season.
Potters begin with a stutter
In particular, Stoke appeared slow in their build-up play in the first half.
Giannelli Imbula, so often the instigator of attacks by taking the ball forward, was content with passing sideways and backwards.
The ball was passed too slowly between players and without urgency when going forward. It was a lethargic display in the first half.
Spaniard must improve
Joselu didn’t have one of his better matches, and he unfortunately flatters to deceive at times, despite displaying all the necessary qualities of a striker.
He is strong in the air, holds the ball up well and nobody can fault his work ethic. However, he is not particularly quick and this is probably the reason why he only cost £5 million.
Against West Ham, the striker exacerbated the problems of having a forward with little pace and playing the ball slowly. The Spaniard didn’t offer an outlet and unfortunately dropped too deep at times which meant that the Potters struggled to play the ball out from the back and therefore had to absorb the Hammers’ pressure. This is evidenced as Stoke only had one shot in the first 45 minutes.
Bojan and Imbula shine
Despite the appalling first half, Mark Hughes clearly sorted the team out in the second half.
Imbula carried the ball forward and it was encouraging to spot the link up play with Bojan starting to develop. Bojan looked back to the form that saw him grab his first season by storm, gliding effortlessly through the midfield and past defenders. In full flow, the former Barcelona maestro is staggeringly good.
Imbula, who hasn’t perhaps netted as many times as he may have liked this year, also took his goal well which got the Potters back into the match. Having been allowed by Hughes to take on his man and drive at the West Ham back four, he took the ball to the top of the area before firing home.
The link up play with Bojan, as well as the change in tactics from Hughes permitting him to drive forward, gave Stoke much needed impetus in the second-half when they had been so passive in the first.
It was also positive that Stoke showed some grit and determination. Shay Given used his experience to save well three times, and Glenn Whelan also cleared the ball off the line twice.
This level of commitment, missing in recent weeks, proves that elbow grease beats flair on some occasions and it was good to see that maybe a bit of luck, one clearance was millimetres away from being a goal, went the way of the Potters which perhaps hasn't been going their way as of late. Shay Given also gave reassurance in goal to prove his worth to both Stoke and the Republic of Ireland ahead of Euro 2016.
Summer spending necessary for Hughes
Mama Biram Diouf showed he still deserves a chance too. The Senegal striker was tracking back and defending before grabbing the winner with a bullet header.
However, although the former Hannover man got the winner, a striker is still key for the Potters over summer. With no striker having cemented their place, a new addition to that department could make Mark Hughes’ revolution complete.
The Welshman will probably also be in the market for a centre back to provide competition for defensive roles, although it must be said that Ryan Shawcross looked back to his best having stuttered since coming back from injury. In addition to this, some cover on the wings in the form of Norwich City’s Nathan Redmond or Newcastle United’s Andros Townsend will also be high on Mark Hughes’ wishlist.
All in all this has been a positive season for Stoke as they secured their third ninth place finish in a row. If Hughes gets his men over summer then then it would be an unwise man who would bet against them improving further still at the Bet 365 stadium next season.