By Calvin Palmer
Stoke City came within two minutes of grabbing the sporting headlines by becoming the only British team to win in the Europa League yesterday. In the end they had to settle for a 1-1 draw against the renowned Dynamo Kiev.
Playing five men across the back, Stoke manager Tony Pulis thwarted Dynamo Kiev’s attacking intentions, forcing the Ukrainian side into long-range goal attempts for most of the game.
Soaking up Kiev’s pressure took its inevitable toll and a momentary lapse of concentration left Vukojevic completely unmarked in the six-yard box. He rifled the ball in and so denied Stoke their glory.
Stoke took the lead early in the second half after good work by Ryan Shotton on the right. He got round his man and took the ball into the Kiev penalty area, drilling the ball low across the face of the goal. Cameron Jerome was perfectly placed to pick his spot and fire into the roof of the net.
For those who deride Stoke for only being able to score from set-pieces, Jerome’s goal was proof to the contrary. It was neatly worked and well taken.
That goal did provoke one question: Where was Kenwyne Jones? Shotton should have had both Jones and Jerome to aim for in the box. Having laid the ball off to Shotton, Jones should have been going hell for leather to get into the Kiev penalty area. Isn’t that what strikers are supposed to do?
New signing Wilson Palacios showed that he is going to be a tremendous asset to Stoke’s midfield. He is strong in the tackle and uses the ball sensibly. He found his man with every pass and showed great vision to set up Jones for an assault on the Kiev goal with a 30-yard pass. When he was withdrawn after 87 minutes, I would like to have seen Diego Arismendi come on as his replacement but Pulis had other ideas and opted for Jonathan Walters.
While there was much to admire about Stoke’s performance, one tactic needs to be eradicated – goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen’s punts upfield when the ball is passed back to him. These long kicks invariably result in the opposition regaining possession.
A case in point occurred during the last five minutes as Stoke, leading 1-0, were intent on running down the clock. There was a nice interchange between several Stoke players around the halfway line before the ball was eventually passed back to Sorensen who did what he always does, launching the ball upfield. It reached the halfway line where it was won in the air by a Kiev player. Kiev launched a new attack and the Stoke defence was again put under pressure.
Watching two Champions League games earlier this week – Barcelona v AC Milan and Benfica v Manchester United – I noticed that in similar circumstances, the full-backs track back, allowing the goalkeeper to pass the ball out some 15 yards and possession is retained.
If Stoke still want to punt the ball forward, and they will, at least from the full-backs it will penetrate deeper into their opponent’s half. Even if the opponents win the ball, in that area of the pitch Stoke’s midfield has the chance to win the ball back.
Sorensen’s long kicks from back passes too often result in Stoke’s defence immediately being put back under pressure.
Passing the ball out to one of the full-backs is not rocket science or a daring new concept in football tactics It is just simple common sense. Opponents cannot pose a threat if they do not have possession of the ball.
If Stoke City are to progress the next level — and it is a big if, despite the newspaper talk of them becoming a top six side in the Premier League — then retaining more of the possession has to be a priority and something they need to work on.
None of these criticisms detracts from a fantastic team performance. Stoke City proved in Kiev they are a force to be reckoned with in the European arena.
Now it is back to the everyday business of the Premier League and securing a result on Sunday against Sunderland to maintain their unbeaten start to the season.