It is not often that I find myself staring at a metaphorical blank screen, unsure of what to write about a game. I think that probably tells the story of this game as much as anything.
I watched the game from Delhi, with my Liverpool-supporting friend. After my groans of despair when the team news landed, I had to explain to him who Aaron (‘no, not that one’) Ramsey was and why he was in the team ahead of Todd Cantwell. I settled for the ‘he’s Dean Smith’s favourite that he bought in from Villa’ line, explaining that I didn’t get what he offered the team.
My initial reaction was that the team looked set up not to lose. And for most of the first half, my feelings seemed to be justified. It was 45 minutes of football that was instantly forgettable. Low intensity, shapeless, passionless. A proper mid-table bore draw.
The one bright spot amongst City’s endeavours was Onel Hernandez, who looked to be the only person to carry any threat for much of the half. When football finally broke out after 24 minutes, he was the one on the end of the chance.
It began at the back, McCallum and Hernandez exchanged passes before McCallum drove infield with an excellent run.
His initial ball wide to Liam Gibbs wasn’t the best though and the move looked to have broken down when Isaac Hayden’s shot was blocked, but Sam Byram won the ball back straight away before Hayden set Teemu Pukki free. He was crowded out before Dowell swung a cross towards the far post where it was met by Onel, who could only hit it wide.
City were looking comfortable in their own half of the pitch but offered almost nothing going forward. Stoke had a couple of chances, a weak Fox shot and a more powerful shot from Clarke that Angus Gunn saved with his knee, but other than that they were generally well contained.
Just before half-time, City took the lead. Gibbs won the ball in midfield, held off a challenge before playing a ball into the channel for Pukki. He was never going to get a shot off first time so he turned away from goal initially, then cut back to make space. The keeper parried his shot only for Ramsey to arrive at the far post to hit home on the half-volley.
Until then, the football had been so soporific that I barely celebrated the goal, other than to remark about having to revise my pre-match comments about Ramsey.
The second half began in a largely similar fashion, scrappy from both sides. City won a corner early on but Hayden’s shot was grasped by the grateful Bursik in the Stoke goal.
After 10 minutes, Dowell, who didn’t look to have fully recovered from his laryngitis, was replaced by Gabriel Sara, but the game continued to meander its way along unhindered for a further 10 minutes before the introduction of Todd Cantwell and Marcelino Nunez finally bought some quality.
The substitution saw the withdrawal of Hernandez, to the displeasure of the home crowd, and of Hayden who was on a yellow and is still getting back to full fitness.
City switched to something more like 4-1-4-1 and finally began to inch their way towards playing some football. Cantwell and Nunez provided some much-needed quality and composure on the ball and City finally were able to keep possession and move the ball more threateningly.
Stoke had a great chance to equalize on 68 minutes though. Fosu-Henry beat Byram to deliver a cross to the far post where Powell should have done much better than his header over the bar.
The second goal, when it came, was well worked.
Sara bought the ball down with his shoulder, received the return ball from McCallum, and switched it infield to Nunez. The Chilean played it wide to Ramsey on the right who ran towards goal. As Stoke filled the penalty area with players, the loanee laid it to Pukki whose cute backheel was rifled home for Ramsey’s second.
Definitely eating my pre-match words now.
Many words have been written this week about the lack of a plan under Dean Smith. When I dissect his words and sound bites in an effort to discover what he is looking to achieve, the move on 72 minutes is probably a good example.
Gibson headed the ball powerfully out of defence. Pukki came short to collect, Nunez did well to retain possession and find Ramsey whose long cross-field ball found Sara, but his shot was saved.
End-to-end in a few moments, resulting in a shot on goal.
Even more so the third goal. The ball was charged down in defence, Nunez ran the ball forward before a cheeky backheel to Ramsey. He played it to Cantwell who split the defence with a superb ball back to Nunez. His shot was only parried and Sara bundled the rebound into the net.
Stoke threatened to hit back though. They won a corner on 78. The ball was knocked down and Gunn made a great stop from a shot from the edge of the six-yard box. Stoke retained possession and worked another longer-range shot.
Another save from Gunn who did little to suggest that we could see Krul back any time soon.
City were finally playing some decent football. Jordan Hugill came on for the final 10 minutes and almost scored straight away – another great ball threaded through by Cantwell put him through but the keeper smothered it.
As the game drew to a close, Cantwell and Nunez lost possession in midfield. Stoke raced forward. Initially, they were kept on the edge of the box but Delap fashioned a cross. The City defenders were all gathered in a line on the edge of the six-yard box. The cross was behind them all to the unmarked Powell who hit the ball into the net.
In many ways, the game was typical of City’s season. Pretty woeful for much of the time. A goal that flattered them. A period where they looked half-decent and then a soft goal following a loss of possession high up the pitch.
The win will ease the statistical pressure on Smith, but it was not as convincing as the scoreline suggests.
Until the introduction of Cantwell and Nunez, they offered little to suggest anything other than a season of mid-table obscurity. Then they came alive, looked bright and inventive and created a number of chances.
The Smith mantra of getting the ball forward quickly paid dividends, yet also led to the Stoke goal. City committed players forward, lost the ball, and were playing catch-up from that moment on.
The games keep coming though – QPR next in what will be a far sterner test than yesterday.
Dean Smith isn’t out of the woods by any means.