5 Things We Learned From the Stoke Game:
1. Andy Morrell has something to work with in Theo Bailey-Jones
I’ll be honest: I was underwhelmed by my first impression of the young lad. To be fair, he is a youngster finding his way at our level for the first time, but the contrast when he replaced Adrian Cieslewicz in the Blackburn game was marked. So I was pleased with what I saw against Stoke.
He didn’t go racing past anybody, but he got himself into some nice positions, as his late headed chance showed, and his movement was impressive. He dropped off, played little give-and-goes and asked questions of the full backs. His flexibility opened up the channel down the left: notice how often Johnny Hunt got into good crossing positions in the last fifteen minutes. Obviously, that was partly down to the full back’s excellent stamina, but it was made possible by Bailey-Jones shifting the right back out of the way and making room for Hunt to attack down the outside.
It was a tribute to Bailey-Jones’ ability to listen and absorb, as he looks a different player already after a month with our coaching team. It also showed how attack can be the best form of defence: Jon Walters made a huge attacking impact when he came on, but the amount of time he spent in the last quarter of the game covering Hunt’s runs forced Stoke onto the back foot.
2. Rob Evans is a genuinely flexible midfielder
I’m not totally sure what sort of midfielder Evans is, and I don’t know if the coaching staff do either. But that’s a good thing.
We’ve seen him play the anchor role solidly, and we’ve also seen him look to be more adventurous. Bearing in mind the necessary condition that this was a friendly, it was good to see him look to impose himself on a Premier League side. He’s never been short of confidence, demanding the ball and firing off long range shots has been proof that he’s not scared of taking responsibility. But the number of times he broke into dangerous positions in the box during the final quarter of an hour was a new development, in first team games at least.
We can genuinely look at him as a first team option as we go into the season, and we have terrific depth in that part of the pitch. I’d be happy if we started with yesterday’s trio of Evans, Jay Harris and Joe Clarke on Saturday, but that would still leave us with a second midfield of Kevin Thornton, Dean Keates and Johnny Hunt. WIth Jay Colbeck in reserve beyond that, we really shouldn’t find ourselves having to run Harris and Keates into the ground as we ended up doing last season.
3. We need another centre back
I know I’m stating the obvious, but there’s a serious gap at the back. Right back looks thin, but a centre back with pace is essential. Neil Ashton filled in manfully at the back, and if we’re desperate we know we can turn to him, but that really isn’t a road we want to go down too often. I’m not at all convinced that Junior N’Tame is the solution, but we’ve got to find someone with some level of pace to cover round the back of the series of reliable stoppers we’ve accumulated.
4. Stoke are going to be different this year
I don’t want to commit myself to saying they’ll be better; just different. It was impressive to see how they knocked the ball around, the extremely fluid movement as players looked to familiarise themselves with the movement and possession-based approach Mark Hughes is introducing at the Britannia. It was also something of a contrast to what had gone before. To be fair to Tony Pulis, his side weren’t quite as doggedly long ball as they were said to be: that was always more of a lazy media label. But he never tried to get them to play like that.
But there’s a codicil. Admirably as Wrexham were, they aren’t Premiership quality. If you want proof that Charlie Adam doesn’t look as good when he plays against top division opposition as he did at The Racecourse, take a look at his Liverpool career. Also, it was the fluidity of movement which really looked alien compared to what they used to do. These changes might make Hughes consider some hard decisions. His back four’s sloppy passing at times made you wonder if he might have to take extreme action to further suit his squad to what he wants to do. Might he have to replace defenders not because they can’t defend, but because they can’t pass the ball out from the back?
5. Andy Bishop and Bradley Reid look too similarWith similar hair styles and Reid wearing Bishop’s number nine shirt for some reason, I kept getting the two of them mixed up. This state of affairs can’t be allowed to continue: one of them must dye their hair. Sort it out Andy!