As always, we travelled hopefully. As so often, we didn’t arrive anywhere near a result. This has done us no real harm, as the other teams in our own particular circle of hell in the Premier League showed why they are where they are by not managing to win games they could have done. It is one of football’s truisms that good teams find a way to win matches. It is less often pointed out that crap teams find a way not to win them, but it is equally so. We aren’t a good team at this level – even ignoring the fact that we’re not really a team at all in the sense we used to understand this, merely a collection of individuals brought together by a skilful manager to attempt a very short term fix to keep our owners in the money – and so we duly found a way to lose an eminently winnable game against a side who had been anxiously looking down at the maelstrom below them wondering whether they would be sucked into it, but are now free to soar and swoop like eagles, in the mid-table mediocrity that is the highest aim of 12 of the 20 teams in the division. Failing to get the job done were:
Maguire Dawson Ranocchia Robertson
Marković Huddlestone N’Diaye Clucas Grosicki
So, Harry Maguire on the right of defence with presumably a licence to advance, eh? Interesting, but would it work? With the threat of nuclear conflagration hanging over us, there is far too much stress in the world at the moment, so I will not add to it by unnecessarily prolonging suspense; no, it wouldn’t.
Anyway, some football. In the sort of watery sunshine and coolish weather that everyone calls a lovely spring day on this Brexit benighted isle, City began defending the goal in front of the City faithful, a good turn out considering many people were probably still feeling a bit miffed about the death of Jesus the previous day (Stay strong, kids. MUCH better news on that to come later today!). But defend it we didn’t, as a fairly desultory passing movement in our half between Maguire, Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone broke down when Dawson gave it away to Shaqiri, a skilful and well-balanced player who did what such players do, immediately spotting and finding a fine ball to a striker to discomfit the defenders. The beneficiary of this was Arnautović, who had much to do, but was aided by a defence that slid across as reluctantly as the door on a 1970s conservatory. Maguire didn’t get to him, Andrea Ranocchia and Dawson didn’t seem to know where they needed to be, Arnautović finished with aplomb. And also with his right foot, belting the ball past a throughly-cheesed off Jakupović. 1-0 after 6 minutes. Bugger.
We saw more of the Shaqiri/Arnautović axis in the first half – another fine ball from the former allowed the latter to blast a volley wide that he should have scored and then a typical bit of Shaqirian trickery was part of a move that allowed Arnautović to break free and screw one just wide of goal with Jakupović again aghast at the lack of protection. It didn’t really look like we were going to do much defending so, sensibly enough, we started to push forward. And this worked after a fashion too. Lazar Marković was lively and moved well bringing a save out of their netman which led to a corner that wouldn’t quite fall for Maguire. Another raking move from a Sam Clucas ball should have produced more if Andy Robertson hadn’t made such an arse of the subsequent cross. We ended the half with a series of corners that didn’t produce much more than a OumarNiasse effort that was gang-blocked by their defence but, come the end of the first forty five, we were having enough of the ball to suggest we were controlling the game. Which is correct, if you ignore the facts that they were creating the better chances and had scored an actual goal.
Second half, we started strongly and, I kid you not, we scored a goal too. We did! It had a pleasingly comic genesis as their left back, under no pressure at all, managed to stumble over his feet so effectively that he turned a Clucas cross going nowhere into a corner off the corner flag. Silly fellow, as we pointed out happily from right above him. From the corner Marković and Clucas combined, the cross eventually found it’s way to Maguire who flailed a leg at it and it did a strange sort of superball-type bounce as it evaded their keeper. 1-1 and how Big Harry larged it in front of the cavorting City goers!
We were doing well at this point, the goal seemed to settle us further and we looked the more likely, but chances remained hard to come by. But Maguire continued to move forward with purpose and link with Marković and Robertson and Kamel Grosicki, perhaps more sporadically did so on the left. I started to get that unexpectedly comfortable feeling that we were going to get a draw out of this and may be nick the win, and Swansea were losing and, O, you should never think like that, should you? it all started so innocently, with Saido Berahino and Charlie Adam withdrawn, my notes gleefully reporting this as ‘Adma – thoruoghly Pissed off!’ (spelling courtesy of the locally-based Titanic Brewery’s excellent ‘Iceberg’ ale, partaken of enthusiastically pre-match). And who should replace them but lovable beanpole Peter Crouch and former Tigerish division four rampager Jon Walters? And, rather surprisingly, they won the game.
Walters began to attack us down our right flank, which looked flaky every time we were put under any pressure, Big Harry looking comfy enough with the ball at his feet but not at all when on the retreat. Shaqiri got away, twisted and turned and produced a telling cross that Walters headed powerfully, but not enough so to defeat Jakupović, who reacted elastically to paw it away from goal and the in-gangling Crouch. Custodian of the leather! But the tide was by now undoubtedly on the turn and sure enough, our sand castles were about to be washed away. Walters again marauded down the left, with the cover blown and he plonked the ball over onto Crouch’s head who did what he’s done for the last dozen years at the top level and headed it home. I couldn’t help but wonder why, given that this was about as complicated a ploy as distracting a predator by pointing and saying ‘Isn’t that a unicorn over there?’ before running in the opposite direction, why Ranocchia seemed so utterly bemused by it and didn’t stick closer to the Premier League’s leading Ian Ormondroyd impersonator. 2-1.
We were in retreat now. We still had a threat moving forwards, but got no closer than a Grosicki shot-cum-centre that produced a decent save with Niasse unable to hasten onto the loose ball. All the action was at the other end as the grizzled warrior Walters again got free and headed against the bar. The belief had now drained away completely and once again our right side melted away. it didn’t seem to matter as we cleared it and it fell to Shaqiri, well covered by Robertson on our left. Robertson for some reason didn’t bother to close him down, Shaqiri, once he had got over his surprise, lashed a beautiful dipping effort over and past Jakupović. 3-1, game very much over.
It’s unclear to me why we are so poor away from home, so imperious in Hull. We could have done so much better today and had by far the better of what we might call the middle half, either side of the interval. Once we had done the hard part and drawn level, it seemed that we were the most likely to win, before we wilted at the sight of the iron grey head of Jonny Walters. Marco Silva has organised us so much better defensively that it was a surprise how poor we were today; every Stoke goal was well-wrought and beautifully executed, but each was very poorly defended by players who should do better.
Then again, look at Stoke. Berahino, Arnautović and Shaqiri are all impressive on the ball, Adam, Crouch and Walters have all done their thing at this level now for a lot of years. That seems to me to be a good hand of good players for a team which will breathe a sigh of relief if it finishes 13th. If we do get relegated, as we may, it might be because we are not good enough. We’ll see.
Mark Gretton (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)