Two points dropped but two places gained

Posted by James Whittaker

Chris Brunskill/Getty ImagesMark Hughes stunned Stoke supporters by not starting Jonathan Walters.

Stoke failed to make their possession and territorial advantage count as they were held to a 0-0 draw with old foes Cardiff. The hosts seemed to have had the better of their Welsh visitors, but in truth Cardiff keeper David Marshall had very little to do on the night while Asmir Begovic was called upon more than once to protect the point.

- Match report: Stoke 0-0 Cardiff

It was a point that saw the Potters climb two places, such were the results elsewhere on the night, scant consolation from a performance that was lacking that cutting edge in front of goal. The night had started off well with the news of Jonathan Walters being demoted to the bench and the return of the mercurial Marko Arnautovic, meaning it was the first time in 103 matches that the Irishman was not in the starting XI.

The writing was on the wall with the team selection, this was a game Mark Hughes was clearly desperate to win and that was reflected in his line-up which retained Charlie Adam and saw two attacking players flanking Peter Crouch. It was certainly an interesting performance from a transition perspective as the side showed once again that they are comfortable reverting to direct type, seemingly in response to a number of basic errors being made in defence in the last few weeks from attempting to play out from the back.

To his credit, Crouch won almost everything in the air, but the trouble was there was no-one up with him to take advantage of the flick-ons. I'd written previously about the effect Stephen Ireland had in this respect, but unfortunately it was left to Adam to fill that role and once again he failed to offer (as evidenced in the Charlie Adam heat map that can be created here) that much needed support alongside and in front of Crouch. For me, Adam had a very poor game, not just with his inability to play the role right, despite him flattering to deceive, but more for his attitude throughout which could have seen him sent off on more than a few occasions with silly shows of petulance off the ball.

He was booked early on for a typical Adam tackle and from that moment seemed to have his heart set on an early bath as he proceeded to kick the ball away, shove opposition players to the ground and fly into players with his elbows raised. It was testament to the manager's desperation for a result that he stayed on for the duration, along with the injured Erik Pieters and a clearly unfit Arnautovic. It was a gamble that didn't quite pay off with Pieters having to go off at halftime and Arnautovic a mere shadow of himself throughout.

Much of the play therefore was via the quick feet of Oussama Assaidi over on the other wing who found himself constantly receiving the ball and often supporting Crouch in the absence of anyone else. I've seen fans criticise Assaidi since the game, which is preposterous. The fact that his teammates used him so readily reflects the standing he has as an attacking force, and that Cardiff had two or three men on him every time showed they were in agreement. Some fans though were critical that he wasn't able to beat his many markers; I'd suggest that was a big ask, almost as big as being able to put in a pinpoint cross to the only man who was waiting in the middle, Crouch.

He simply had no options in the first half, but with the introduction of Marc Muniesa in the second period, along with an additional attacking impetus from the side overall, he was presented with better options and that saw him make more key passes than anyone else. He was also the player with the most tackles and shots on goal and rounded off with a 91 percent passing accuracy, but yes, he obviously had a bad game.

It was certainly a case of two points dropped but Hughes will be happy that his team didn't lose and managed to keep a clean sheet after the murder on Merseyside. Another bonus was the performance of Marc Wilson at centre back that brought a bit more stability to the position and he deserves to keep his place for the visit of Chelsea on Saturday, though they will be a very different prospect for him. It will be a difficult match against the Blues, but hopefully one that will see pockets of space to be exploited as they flood forward, spaces that Stoke will hopefully seek to take advantage of. Hughes, though, will most likely have his eyes on the other two pre-Christmas fixtures against Hull Tigers/City and Aston Villa which may or may not influence the team selected on Saturday.

It's been a point a game so far, but if Hughes can get four or five more on the board before the transfer window opens, I'd imagine everyone involved will be happy enough for the first half of the season, though what happens in the second half will be down to the Manager and Chairman.


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