Monday night brought high drama to the Potteries, as for the third time in three seasons an encounter between Stoke and Aston Villa ended with a goal scored with virtually the last kick of the game. An action-packed, if arguably low quality game saw both goalkeepers make some top class saves, a home debut goal for £8m record signing Kenwyne Jones, and the emotional sight of the bereaved Tony Pulis – not even thought to be in the city – striding purposefully to the dugout to take back the reigns for the second half.
For Potters’ fans, Stoke’s performance was encouraging and worrying in equal measure. On the plus side, the attacking options at Pulis’ disposal since deadline day hinted that the much-vaunted “Plan B” may finally have arrived. With the normal direct game plan clearly not working, the introduction from the bench of Ricardo Fuller and Jermaine Pennant changed the face of the game. From that moment, the Villa defence simply could not cope with Stoke’s pacy, attacking front four. Although Kenwyne Jones faded in and out of the game, his strength and mobility worried the life out of the Villans, and the timing of his jump and precision header for the equaliser were superb.
Fuller, meanwhile, showed that despite the arrival of attacking talent of the calibre of Jones and Eidur Gudjohnsen, it is the Jamaican who remains Stoke’s danger man. His unpredictable twists and turns provided the main catalyst for the Potters’ revival, creating chance after chance. The only question is why he did not start the game alongside his fellow Caribbean strike partner.
Jermaine Pennant’s arrival just after the hour mark meant that for the first time there was a genuine attacking threat emanating from each Stoke flank. Aston Villa suddenly found that they had more just the probing runs of Matthew Etherington to worry about, stretching the Birmingham club’s back line to breaking point. Pennant’s acceleration and delivery ultimately set in motion the move leading to that last-gasp winner.
Etherington’s display on the left went a long way towards justifying the lucrative new contract he signed in the summer. Continuing where he left off last season, Etherington was the only consistent thorn in the Villans’ side throughout the contest, his surging runs from deep easing the pressure when the team was on the back foot and his delivery creating both Stoke goals – the first with an inch-perfect cross for Jones to head home, the second being a hard-to-defend low, whipped-in diagonal ball across the box. Stewart Downing may have scored, but his Potters’ counterpart was by far the more influential of the two left wingers on display.
Concerns, and major concerns in some departments, nonetheless remain. The team that started the game, in spite of a bright start, was largely bereft of ideas, and there was scant sign of any evolution for the first hour as myriad aimless punts upfield were comfortably dealt with by the 6’4” James Collins at the heart of the Villa defence. The full-back situation was not addressed over the summer and once again cost Stoke a goal, Robert Huth – still the proverbial fish out of water at right-back – allowing Downing the freedom of the Britannia Stadium to head the Villans in front. The space down Stoke’s right flank allowed both Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young to drift wide and put in some telling crosses, and only a shocking miss from Young and a couple of fine saves from Thomas Sorensen prevented Stoke from being dead and buried by half-time.
Given the signing of not one but two attacking right wingers to replace Liam Lawrence, the sight of Rory Delap starting in that position was as puzzling as it was depressing to many supporters, especially given the well-known weaknesses down Villa’s left. The former Republic of Ireland international is ineffective both in attack and defence when utilised on the flank. Supposedly used to provide defensive solidity against opposing wingers, the 34-year-old struggles to afford his full-back the cover that the more attack-minded Etherington offers. His celebrated throw, meanwhile, has lost a great deal of its efficiency. Pennant’s cameo improved matters immeasurably, his well-documented attacking instincts blending with a surprising willingness to track back and offer the same pressure valve as his counterpart on the left.
Of course, evolution does not happen overnight, and the important thing for Stoke was to get those first points of the season in the bag. Attentions now turn to Saturday’s early afternoon game with crisis-torn West Ham. The talent, versatility and strength in depth now at Stoke’s disposal, just three seasons into life in the Premier League, is astounding for a club of their relatively modest stature. The burning question is whether Tony Pulis has the courage of his convictions to let them play.