I often ponder on the psychology of footballers. Presuming they reflect on life at all, an assumption that might be stretching the reader’s credulity beyond breaking point, their state of mind appears to be the difference between success and failure. Intangible and nebulous, sometimes it over-rides fitness, tactics, even the laws of physics, as the ultimate determining factor in winning or losing.
Players and managers can convince themselves that black is white, such are their conceptual contortions in order to stay motivated. In so doing they sound so foolish in the media – Martinez, a serious, intelligent and articulate man told MOTD viewers that they will take the positives from Wigan’s 6-0 defeat against Chelsea. The point is, he meant it. Such self-delusion is a vital element of what marks out the professional sportsman from the rest of us mortals. The merest doubt in the mind and all is lost. Sometimes this comes over as sheer stupidity, or alternatively as arrogance, but to a professional it is as necessary as breathing.
So this morning, I muse on this – a shaky odd-goal victory over Stoke could have set us up for the season. More so than the excellent performance against City the previous week. This was blood and guts, controversy and good fortune, backs against the wall, where seven days previously had seen polish and poise. Yet I’ll wager that the fact that we came through it, the elbows and the power, the aerial bombardment and set pieces, the sweat and pressure, means more to the team that a point versus a top four challenger. We won and that’s all that matters.
Deprived of three quarters of our strike force, nevertheless Harry could not have been too disappointed by taking the field with 5 in midfield. Harry’s pretty quiet on the bench these days, snuggling back deep into his seat like a pensioner on a park bench with a few hours to kill before yet another evening of bad TV and nothing-to-do. Maybe he’s finally put those relaxation techniques to good use: ‘Meditation For the Stressed Sixties – Settling Into a Relaxed Retirement’. I’d make a fortune if I had the time to come up with a book like that. He’d have believed the back four could handle Fuller and Walters, rightly as it turned out, and the security of an extra midfielder may have quelled the twitching, at least for a while.
It worked well in the first half. Who needs strikers when you have two wide men like Bale and Lennon. Harry kept Lenny on the move, left then right then left again. Stoke couldn’t pick him up. Even if they knew where Bale was, they couldn’t stop him, not on this form. With their four, Delap was pulled inside: switch it with a bit of speed or a long ball and Bale was all alone.
Two long, perfectly weighted balls from Lennon, one off the nose, one the sweetest smoothest gem you could ever wish to see. There’s always something special about a volley – it’s the sudden unexpectedness of it all, the lack of predictability in an increasingly formulaic game – but this one was superlative, partly because of the height, partly because it was not just brute force that meant it flew into the opposite corner. A perfect connection, ball and boot, mind and body. True brilliance.
In between, we had let the lead slip all too quickly. The first bit of argybargy in the box and it’s in. Let’s deal with this here and now. Gomes has to expect some rough stuff in his box and needs the assistance of his defenders to clear it out. He could have done better on Saturday, no question. However, he was targeted, off the ball and illegally, at every set piece. Stoke are rightfully aggrieved at the goal that never was but just beforehand Huth had eyes only for our keeper and his little push successfully weakened Gomes’ leap. The pushing and shoving happens with every team – yes, even us – and every corner, but here was a concerted and deliberate campaign to prevent our goalkeeper from playing.
Goal-line technology gathers all the headlines but cutting out the fouling in the box would immediately and immeasurably improve the game to a far great extent.
At half-time, Pulis cancelled feeding time; his team came out hunting for red meat. Harry again – good team selection with Kaboul, alongside Dawson, the right man for this particular job. The two of them gave as good as they got, for the most part. Kaboul was turned once by Fuller in the first half and Daws launched himself once or twice, but they kept Stoke in front of them for the whole game.
Last season I wrote so many times that we have to match the strong and physical teams, rather than make Wengeresque excuses. A Stoke crowd getting worked up about our physical approach, oh the irony. Sadly however, another problem from last term did raise its ugly head – giving the ball away. Time and again we failed to hold onto possession, so back in it came. Sweat and toil is futile if we just hand it back to our opponents, and frankly against better teams it will prove fatal.
We defended well and I thought we had ridden out the storm when suddenly we rode our luck. With these things I try to back my own judgement in real time. Watching on a stream, my instinct was that he has to give it, he’s waiting for a second to be sure, now he’s glanced at the linesman but he’s right there, best view in the house, got to point to the centre, fair enough, disappointed but a point nevertheless, Stoke deserve it on the play….
And the game goes on. It was over but Gomes was fouled –see above. Also, I just do not think it was as conclusive as everyone with the benefit of 17 replays said
it was. I heard both a radio commentator and a Stoke fan say it was a yard over the line: it wasn’t.
Of the rest, Crouch worked hard but was often too far away from the midfield to be of much use and we could not find him in the later stages. JJ had a good match, especially in the second half. No comments about a second dawn (should that be a 37th dawn?) because we have seen it before, but I’m pleased for him. He made a significant contribution on Saturday.
I go to Wednesday in a more positive frame of mind compared with how I felt 30 minutes into the first half against Young Boys. We have every chance and the Lane will be rocking. We must keep the ball better than we did on Saturday and in the first leg. Not jumping to conclusions, but once is an off-day, twice is not a coincidence. Have to sort this out.
Above all, the squad will be confident after this win. Overall, the quality of our football didn’t merit that confidence but the knowledge that we had the strength to battle and hang on will resonate in the dressing room for some time to come. And that’s what counts.