Despite being the beneficial recipient of two outrageously poor refereeing decisions in a first half they largely dominated and deservedly won, Town yet again paid the price for a hopelessly supine 2nd half allowing Stoke, who outplayed their hosts comprehensively, to equalise late on.
The first decision in Town’s favour was to leave a high, dangerous though probably not malicious tackle by Koroma completely unpunished. No red, and the no yellow and no free kick. Within 5 minutes, Koroma celebrated his remarkable reprieve with an opening goal which Town deserved after harassing the Potters for long periods.
Just after the goal, Stoke had a huge appeal for a penalty as Lees took out Campbell in the box and it was difficult to imagine a more straightforward decision for the referee to make. Paradoxically, a Stoke equaliser at that point may have aided Town by preventing the nonsensical retreat back to the penalty area which occurred in the second half.
Bright and full of intent, Town nearly took the lead early on as Koroma easily outstripped Stoke’s right back for pace before finding Ward at the near post who flashed a decent glancing header just over the bar.
With O’Brien dominating midfield and regularly surging forward, Town dominated from the off though actual chances on goal were rare and pretty tame. It took Stoke a long time to get in to the game but Pearson, who had a rare off night, made an error on the byline which allowed Fletcher to gain possession and a few seconds later Nicholls was having to make a smart, instinctive save.
Pearson himself was sold short by Hogg on the halfway line and a breakaway could have resulted in an equaliser but Lees did well to slow the pace of the attack and Nicholls was equal to the eventual shot.
Town finished the half strongly but, again, the quality of opportunities was poor and a second goal rarely looked like coming.
Stoke brought on Joe Allan after the break and when Powell replaced the injured Vrancic on the hour, their superior bench turned the tide of the game.
A quiet first 15 minutes saw Town slowly adopt the defensive mindset to cling on to a single goal lead until it became entrenched. Just as surely, they retreated as a unit and left the stage entirely free for the talented, if injury prone, Powell to dictate the tempo at will.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the strategy has collected points both home and away, but it is neither edifying nor enjoyable to watch and in 3 of the last 4 home games, unsuccessful.
Town’s cause was not helped by some fading legs. Sinani, Ward and Koroma, who had led the highly effective pressing in the first half seemed to lack energy and O’Brien’s probing ceased. Hogg, who was physically ill on the pitch during the second half, played far too deep and Pearson didn’t recover from a poor first half and gave a rare duff showing at centre back.
Stoke didn’t create a great deal for all their dominance but the pressure was increasingly intense and inexorable. Nicholls made a few routine saves and Pearson continued to make poor decisions on the ball and it seemed obvious that Town needed to make a change to their shape and personnel.
Although Corberán’s options were not particularly numerous, and a struggling Ward needed to be replaced, the like for like moves he made were unimaginative and simply didn’t move the dynamic. Rhodes is simply incapable of playing the role Ward has made his own; not just now, in his 30s, but in his entire career. Had he been brought on to play in a two, with someone pushed further forward, this may have worked but, as it was, the substitution was a waste.
Holmes for the anonymous Sinani was more acceptable and the American nearly scored a vital second following excellent work by the criminally under utilised Thomas but couldn’t adjust his body to take full advantage of the headed chance.
At the other end, Pearson finally made an error which was fully punished, trying a short pass out of an area flooded with Stoke players instead of aiming for the proverbial row Z. Baker smashed his shot against the post with Nicholls beaten, O’Brien made a fantastic block to prevent Campbell scoring but Brown, on for Fletcher, hit an unstoppable drive in to the top corner for a deserved leveller.
Rather irritatingly, Town stepped up a gear after the setback but a comfortably saved effort from High was the only notable attempt and another home draw was played out over 7 minutes injury time.
Perhaps the switch to a back 4 has unsettled Town’s defence with neither Pearson or Lees as comfortable as they have been though it should be noted that Turton, at right back, was probably Town’s man of the match. With Stoke playing a lone striker in Fletcher, perhaps utilising Sarr as the central man of 3 would have been more sensible. But definitely not on the left!
Corberán insists that the steady retreats backwards when in front is not planned and arises as players tire, passes go astray and the opposition encouraged, but he needs a solution to the issue.
Still, unbeaten run continues even if it has a Lee Clark feel about it.