It may be a new season, but at Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon it felt like a case of ‘same old, same old’ for Stoke City supporters as The Potters fell to an opening day defeat against Everton.
The game itself was a relatively uninspiring affair with few chances created by both teams and little action at either end of the pitch. This contest will only be remembered for Wayne Rooney’s winning goal, on his homecoming for the Toffees, which was a little sprinkle of romanticism that elevated a dull opening day fixture.
Whilst Everton supporters will accept a one-goal victory with open arms the travelling Stoke contingent will have left Goodison Park with mixed emotions. Despite the hosts having spent £100 million on new personnel in the summer, The Potters certainly were not outclassed or outperformed. In fact, they looked pretty solid defensively and will feel disappointed at not having come away from the game with at least a point.
However, Mark Hughes’ side have failed to score in seven of their previous nine away fixtures in the Premier League and it took until the 93rd minute for Stoke to force Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford into a genuine save worthy of note. Whilst the Welshman appears to have solved Stoke’s defensive issues from the previous campaign, a lack of creativity in the final third still remains the most prominent issue.
Here, The Boot Room looks at the positives and negatives that Stoke will take from their opening day defeat.
Positive: A solid defensive performance
Mark Hughes deployed a 3-4-3 formation at Goodison Park with Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron and new loan-signing Kurt Zouma making up the three central defenders in front of Jack Butland in the Stoke City goal.
The trio produced an impressive defensive performance and very rarely looked troubled by the Everton attack, although their only lapse in concentration resulted in Wayne Rooney drifting into space and cushioning a free header into the far corner of the net to secure the three points for the home side.
However, The Potters never looked like crumbling and supporters will be hoping that the days of regularly conceding three or four goals that have characterised the last eighteen months are long gone.
Stoke are expected to further strengthen their defensive unit by signing Bruno Martins Indi later this week and, on paper at least, a back three of Shawcross, Zouma and Martins Indi looks impervious. Mark Hughes has certainly built a solid foundation this season and The Potters will be much harder to break down than in previous seasons.
Negative: Impotent attack
Whilst Stoke City produced a solid defensive display on Saturday afternoon the lack of creativity and threat in the final third of the pitch will be a major cause for concern.
It is hard to recall the last time that Saido Berahino produced a performance worthy of note and he was completely ineffective once again against Everton. The 23-year-old has now failed to score in any of his 14 appearances for The Potters since signing from West Bromwich Albion in January and he has found the net just once in 41 league appearances over the last two years.
They are damming statistics yet the gravest concern for Stoke supporters will be that Berahino is not missing chances – he simply is not getting into goal scoring positions.
Part of the blame must also rest on the shoulders of Mark Hughes. The Stoke manager continues to play Berahino as a lone striker and it is abundantly clear that the forward simply does not possess the attributes to be able to lead the line effectively.
The 23-year-old needs to be played in a pair, where he can use his pace and movement to work opportunities off a target man, or potentially as an inside forward, with the freedom to drift into central areas from a wider starting position.
The Berahino conundrum is something that Mark Hughes needs to resolve – and sooner rather than later.
Positive: Impressive performances from new signings
There were three new debutants on show for Stoke City at Goodison Park and it is safe to say that all of the new faces produced impressive performances.
Kurt Zouma looks every inch the complete central defender and it is clear to see why Chelsea continue to rate him so highly. The 22-year-old was defensively imposing and yet equally as adept in possession on Saturday afternoon and he may turn out to be a shrewd piece of business by Mark Hughes, even if he does return to Stamford Bridge at the end of the season.
The Frenchman oozes class and he will only get better week by week as he gets regular game time.
Former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher arrived at the Bet365 Stadium at the start of the summer after agreeing a free transfer from Midland rivals West Bromwich Albion and the 33-year-old was solid, if not spectacular, in the middle of the park.
His experience and leadership qualities will undoubtedly be a huge bonus for The Potters and on Saturday he rolled back the years, constantly biting at the ankles of Eevrton’s midfield, shielding the three central defenders well and setting up fresh attacks with quick, simply passes.
Fletcher is a direct replacement for Ireland international Glenn Whelan, who joined Aston Villa earlier this month almost ten years in The Potteries, but certainly looks like an upgrade on his predecessor.
Ghanaian winger Eric Maxim Choupo Moting came off the bench for the final 20 minutes at Goodison Park and looked lively on his debut in English football.
The 28-year-old certainly possesses the pace and strength to excel in the Premier League whilst he was calm and composed in possession, producing a number of clever passes and driving runs as The Potters attempted to grab an equalising goal in the closing stages of the game.
It is widely accepted that Choupo Moting is lacking in match fitness having missed out on pre-season but the winger showed glimpses on Saturday that he has the potential to be a big player for Stoke this season.
Negative: Square pegs in round holes
Mark Hughes deployed a 3-4-3 formation on Saturday afternoon but it is questionable if Stoke City currently possess the personnel to make the system work.
Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, was shoehorned in as a makeshift right wing back against The Toffees whilst Dutch defender Eric Pieters played on the opposite side. Neither player looked completely comfortable in their new role and, although they stuck to their defensive duties admirable, they offered very little attacking threat.
Diouf is blessed with an abundance of energy, pace and power but is bereft of technical ability when in possession of the ball whilst Pieters is fundamentally a solid defensive full-back.
Throughout the entirety of the contest at Goodison Park the pair failed to provide a consistent attacking outlet in wide areas and very rarely ventured into the final third of the pitch, leaving the front three of Saido Berahino, Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri shouldering the responsibility of trying to create goal scoring opportunities.
The only offensive input worthy of note that they produced was when Pieters produced a fantastic low cross across the edge of the six yard box – but it was a rare moment of quality.
If Mark Hughes is to persist with a 3-4-3 formation then he undoubtedly needs to purchase natural wing backs for both sides of the pitch.