Thrilling Ineptitude

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”
– Thomas Jefferson

Stoke City and Huddersfield Town buried whatever memory lingered of their last meeting in the Potteries with a contest brimming with goals, excitement and commitment.

The visitors, excruciatingly frustrating and exuberantly fluent in equal proportion, were undone by sloppy, avoidable errors in a first half which should have seen the hosts out of sight despite conceding 2 very well worked goals.

Hampered by the withdrawal of the isolating Hamer and weakened by the loss of Pipa, Town faced a tough challenge at the gambling company sponsored home of the Potters, and met it with verve and no little panache. Some of the time. In possession but not out of it. Going forward but not when pressed.

Carlos Corberán is not about to advocate launching the ball in to row Z or fire long balls to a non existent big man up top. He surely knows the limitations of the players he has available for his style, which pretty exclusively occupy defensive positions but sticking to his beliefs and philosophy of his methodology is his only choice. Rightfully and righteously.

Some of the time, as disastrously on display in a torrid first half at the back, his plans will come unstuck and those limitations laid shockingly bare but, just as often, players will exceed their own limits and points will be gathered to continue to build the foundations of success.

None of this optimistic outlook excuses the, frankly, shambolic and careless mistakes which saw Stoke, a side with genuine play off ambitions, quickly fight back from the blow of conceding first.

A largely forgettable first 20 minutes, ironically featuring a lot of comfortable Town possession amongst the back 4, was interrupted by genuine quality when Toffolo wriggled free of attention and picked out Eiting at the edge of the box. Sweeping a perfectly timed strike past Stoke’s rookie keeper, who was meant to provide the visitors with advantage until the late drafting of our own, Eiting was rewarded for a bright start to the game which had begun to make Town tick.

The errors which were to blight the visitors’ day began almost immediately. Playing out from the back requires composure and judgement, confidence and a rapid transition to safe possession; the absence of any of these qualities encourages and facilitates far more effective pressing. 

Stearman, who has generally adapted well to the Corberán style but prone to error when attempting passes beyond the mundane and a predilection for playing team mates in to trouble, had instigated the descent with a gift to Nick Powell who hit a shot directly at Periera prior to Eiting’s opener. 

Having escaped that aberration, grabbing the lead and playing with confidence in possession, Town looked well set, but they then succumbed to an equaliser eerily reminiscent of the goal conceded against Luton with Stearman beaten in the air at the back post and the ball dropping in to undefended space for Campbell to smash home off Sarr. 

Clucas’s delivery had been excellent but the situation, just as it was 2 weeks ago, was eminently defendable. Falling for the same routine is a worry.
At least the equaliser could be attributed to Stoke’s qualities rather than the ineptitude which was to follow.

Hogg, who had a first half to forget, was caught in possession after failing to take an admittedly sharp pass from Eiting, and the ball was quickly switched to Campbell in space. Town’s tormentor from the home game in January drove the ball powerfully at Town’s stand in custodian who had failed to close his legs and Stoke took a lead they didn’t particularly deserve but took full advantage of Town’s wobbles.

Periera partially atoned for his error by blocking a shot from Campbell after the lively striker had been put through by a superb Fletcher back heel, though there was more than a hint of fortune that the ball didn’t sneak under him.

Despite their travails at the back, Town continued to look impressive in possession with Eiting and Mbenza, in particular, looking capable of hurting the hosts and these two combined to craft an equaliser which should have earned half time parity. Turning effortlessly in the middle of the park leaving a bemused opponent behind him and space in front of him, Eiting glided forward and pushed a sumptuous pass in to Mbenza’s stride who instinctively finished.

Having displayed all the positive aspects of Corberán’s impact alongside the flaws which plague the project in an incident packed first half, Town were exposed again as injury time began.

While Periera’s final error, giving the ball away under pressure, led to Stoke retaking the lead, it was the culmination of an unfolding disaster between Stearman and Duhaney putting each other in increasingly difficult positions.
Stoke, already encouraged by the uncertainty which had crept in to their opposition, strangled the space available and profited accordingly, with Stearman capping his involvement in the mess by putting through his own net.

It seems inconceivable that Corberán would have chosen purity over pragmatism in the situation the goalkeeper found himself, particularly as any hope of a good ending to the sequence which had unfurled had entirely disappeared.

The speed, accuracy and appropriateness of building from the back improved markedly in the second half, though Stoke’s pressing reduced as the context of the game changed.

Buoyed by their late retaking of the lead before the break, the Potters began the second half confidently and their dominance saw them stretch their lead. While questions should be asked, yet again, of Town’s defending – Eiting was too easily beaten to a header on the edge of the box and the closing down was weak as the ball broke to Clucas, this shouldn’t diminish the quality of the mazy run which put him in to a shooting position. It was a shot, however, which a better keeper could have saved.

Within minutes, Town reduced Stoke’s lead as Sarr met an excellent Mbenza delivery from a free kick for his first Town goal and the dynamics of the contest shifted again.

Stoke voluntarily gave up space and possession to sit deeper, and Town took full advantage. For most of the last half hour, the visitors probed and tested their resilient opponents with Bacuna adding flair to Eiting’s orchestration and O’Brien’s energy. Toffolo was excellent down the left and Mbenza continued his rehabilitation well before being, inexplicably, replaced by Diakhaby.

The blunders which lead to this defeat may over shadow much of the very good play, and perhaps should, but you have to believe that the flaws are fixable even in the pain of defeat. Ultimately, they will be overcome by changes in personnel more suited to Corberán’s wishes, but for now he has to find ways to gain points; nervously looking over their shoulders at the bottom 3 places will not suit this squad.

At least it is far from boring.

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