You could be forgiven for thinking that Tony Pulis was really annoyed about his team having to go to North London last night. He certainly wasn’t really that interested in playing football, that’s for sure.
Over the course of the evening’s, errrm, entertainment, the things that got the Stoke City manager most animated were mainly throw-ins, goal kicks and bookings. In other words, things that happen whilst the ball is not actually in play. You get the feeling that if he could, he would stick a pin in all of the available footballs and stomp off home in a rage, throwing his crap hat at the dog on the way through the door. Tony Pulis just hates football.
Whilst everyone knows what they’re like though, it’s hard to believe that they’re quite that bad until you see them in the flesh. Having paid up to £70 or so for their ticket – more if they paid a tout or an agency – it’s hard to imagine too many of the fans that were there really enjoying watching a 34 year old man drying a football with a towel whilst he waits for two of his team mates to jog the length of the pitch and join in. The Stoke fans, however, loved every minute of it.
In all my years of watching football, I have never heard fans cheering every single time they get a goal kick. Pulis must have convinced them that goal kicks were goals, the way they celebrated whenever an Arsenal attack broke down. By half-time, their fans were fairly sure they were winning 6-1 away at Arsenal and were more than happy.
Part of the reason they are so excited when they are awarded a goal kick is because, as far they are concerned, this is a great platform from which to create a goal-scoring opportunity. One can imagine Pulis and his men deciding how they’re going to play in the next game. “If we can somehow miss out the midfield, we’ve got a chance. But how do we get the two enormous centre backs into the opposition penalty area without risking being caught out from the goal kick?” Literally hours of meetings must have followed when this question was put to the Stoke coaching staff – hours rather than minutes because the subject matter was so spirit-crushingly boring that many of the attendees must have nodded off during the discussions.
In the end, the answer was simple. The keeper is right footed. So he kicks it as far as he can towards the opposition goal. But not too straight. He aims for the left corner of the penalty area with the ball arcing away towards the touchline. 7.653 times out of 10, the opposition defence will head the ball away but the ball will naturally fly towards the touchline on that side and they have a throw-in. At which point, the ridiculous “Delap-towel-jog-wait-throw” procedure begins. Painful to watch.
Before the game, I tweeted that there was only one man in the stadium more nervous than he was at the same time the previous week and that was Sebastien Squillaci. He was clearly going to struggle under the onslaught of The Giant Men Of Stoke. Of course, he duly stepped up and headed Nicklas Bendtner’s early cross into the net from a corner and, in actual fact, had a pretty decent game. Well done me.
No-one else really stood out for good reasons or for bad tonight. Cesc went off injured early on which is a real worry and, less worryingly, given his performance last night, Theo also managed to injure himself. One moment of note was the tigerish performance by Mister Wilshere who seems to be improving with every game – an achievement in itself, given the fact that he started off pretty damn well. His tracking back to cover for Clichy (and Arshavin, whose job it was meant to be!) was superb and an excellent tackle in our corner near the end pretty much sums up his spirit and attitude.
If this game had been played just before Christmas as it was meant to be, I’m not sure we’d have won it. Since then, the team has really grown in stature and it is players like Wilshere and Szczesny that typify this. Whether we can cope without Cesc and maybe Van Persie in the forthcoming games I don’t know but we’re certainly a very different bunch to the side that has crumbled around this stage in previous seasons.