A game of two halves

Posted by James Whittaker

Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesStoke City manager Tony Pulis tries to make sense of his team's second half performance during Monday's 1-1 draw versus West Ham.

This game was as perfect an illustration of 'a game of two halves' as you are ever likely to see as Stoke's fine first half was cancelled out by West Ham's better second.

With that in mind, it seems only fair that I dissect the talking points of the evening in two parts:

First Half

For me, the writing was on the wall in respect to the manager's intentions when Jonathan Walters, despite carrying an injury, made his 63rd consecutive start supporting Peter Crouch from out wide when many were hoping for both to be rested. I'd heard midweek that there were a few players that may not last the match because of injury and one would barely make halftime if selected. I was therefore disappointed to learn that all would start and this indeed dictated our fortunes on the night. The concept of a 'squad' is seemingly foreign to Tony Pulis as he continues to select injured favourites at the expense of those fit and raring to make an impression, and in the end, those forced substitutions meant that we were unable to make a vital change in the last 25 minutes or so.

The half started very slowly and it was a case of who could keep the ball in the air longest -- it was everything the fans have been complaining about. On 11 minutes though, something happened. The ball was moved quickly and positively on the ground, culminating in a through-ball for Walters that West Ham had to deal with, giving us our first corner. The rest, as they say, is history as the most perfect routine unfolded before our very eyes: ‘Meticulous Clockwork’ is how it was described by Gary Neville who seemed more excited than anyone in red and white at the attention to detail and timing of the move.

The goal calmed us right down and for the rest of the half we witnessed exactly the kind of football we’ve been screaming out for, with runners getting beyond Crouch and Steven N’Zonzi, in particular, causing all kinds of bother in and around the edge of the penalty area. Attacking strength in numbers is the only way Crouch can be accommodated -- we’ve barely seen that commitment or freedom this season -- but in this first half, we looked good.

Second Half

Sadly, after the break, it was a different story as despite Stoke attacking from the kick off and getting a useful set piece in the attacking third, it broke down and the team found itself on the back foot and caught in the headlights by a team so very different from the one before halftime. West Ham started attacking furiously down the flanks and Geoff Cameron in particular was struggling against Modibo Maiga which meant Walters was back to help, which meant Crouch was once again isolated. You can see where this is going. That pressure told as Stoke failed to clear the ball and from then on in it was pretty much one way traffic.

The problem Pulis had at this point was that he had already been forced into substituting one injured player, and Glenn Whelan was the next one to leave the pitch as we saw the wind-shy figure of Wilson Palacios enter the fray. In many people’s eyes, including my own, on paper, our best middle three are N’Zonzi, Charlie Adam and Palacios. But on the pitch, the Honduran did little to convince anyone that he was a realistic option there moving forward. Ironically, ‘moving forward’ was where he looked fine. He always has. It’s the complete and utter lack of urgency tracking back that is the problem. It’s nothing to do with fitness, it can only be application. If you’re not fit, you can track back at full tilt for at least a few minutes, but he would do his usual tackling squat and then be ghosted past with ease showing no desire to make amends.

It was around this time that Pulis should have noticed Crouch’s total isolation and brought on some pace to run into the channels onto through-balls by the best ball-playing midfielders we have. Unfortunately Matthew Upson wasn’t totally fit either and so Michael Kightly came in, leaving Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones kicking their heels while watching Crouch run in cement trying to latch on to through balls into space as we had no out ball to relieve the constant pressure.

As it happens, we rode our luck and managed to take away a point, but the next two games are now crucial and Pulis faces a real selection dilemma in the full back and midfield positions. Left back will be the killer given our failing to find one for years -- I hear there is a lad at West Brom who is supposed to be good, Goran Popov I think his name is

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