Tom Griffin / @TomGriff87
Things continue to spiral upwards for City even after a rare blip against Barnsley last time out, back to winning ways and a win shy of the play-offs represents a successful opening 20 games for Grant McCann’s entertaining side.
A somewhat forgettable first half was contrasted with an indefatigable second with City mounting a constant surge on the visitors defence. Jarrod Bowen stole the show again with a brace that we’re so accustomed to seeing, in fact, if we’re counting his first against Middlesbrough then the star man is up to four braces so far this season.
Whilst City fans are in awe of his goal scoring talents, his astronomical figures for a wide player are uplifting his value significantly. The saving grace is that any fee sparingly placed is likely to be upwards of 25 million and even then, the Allam’s are not obliged to sell not until the summer, at least.
With injuries blighting our forward options, McCann had a decision to make; start Bowen centrally in order to incorporate Bowler on the right flank or award Tom Eaves the unenviable task of spearheading the attack, McCann opted with the latter and this proved to be the correct decision. City’s midfield last time out were largely ineffective in feeding our destructive wingers so McCann removed Honeyman from the hole in behind the forward, shifted Lopes next to Dan Batty and moved Jackson Irvine closer to Tom Eaves.
Though McCann’s blueprint system is the 4-3-3 variation with a holding midfielder and two advanced midfielders, in recent weeks, McCann has opted for a more defensive 4-2-3-1 which ensures more defensive screening with essentially two holders. There is, however, a flaw in this system, the rigid shape can cause players to develop a habit of shifting the ball sideways instead of penetrating the opposition back line – this became a developing problem in the first half.
Stoke kicked off proceedings shooting towards the South Stand end with City welcoming three former players; Tom Ince, Sam Clucas and Nick Powell (sub) back to the KCOM, all warranting mixed receptions of boos, applause and bemusement, in that order. If there was confusion in the reception for previous players, the total opposite was heard in the second minute. The whole stadium stood in harmony for Benik Afobe who suffered the tragic loss of his two year old daughter Amora with a minute’s applause. A particularly heart-warming moment on a bitterly cold afternoon.
The visitors kicked on after this whilst City were unable to kick themselves into gear. Stray passes. A lack of forward movement. Sideways passing. All were components that made for a drab opening to the game. Stoke struck early on somewhat against the run of play, or should we say ‘no play’. The goal stemmed from a stray pass when City were high up the field and this allowed Stoke to counter – exploiting space down the left. McLean was set free and delivered a superb cross into the centre, Sam Vokes was perfectly placed to plant his header into the corner.
City’s response was almost non-existent, a lack of urgency to go forward met Stoke’s low block head on and they were able to clear any immediate danger. It was clear from early on that their plan was to sit back and counter when possible, except their attempts to counter-attack were practically insubstantial.
The earlier point on the shape was prevalent; Batty and Lopes were both sat deeper with Irvine isolated in the pockets of space in behind Eaves. Perhaps the two deeper midfielders were deployed to nullify Stoke’s biggest attacking threat in Sam Clucas who was being utilised as the most advanced midfielder. This ‘protection’ seemed pointless as Stoke’s lack of attacking didn’t warranted an extra defensive screen.
Hull registered their first attempt on target midway through the first half, a hopeful long range effort from Grosicki embodied the frustration that City had in unlocking a well-drilled Potters defence.
The half grew on and still the biggest passing combination was Burke to De Wijs in a first half that felt as though a half-time bollocking was imminent. Though Jarrod Bowen tried to prevent that, he was denied down low by Butland in a rare attempt from inside the box.
A far lesser promotion prospect are City based on the first half, but McCann’s tweak in his tactics and a half-time bellowing did his best to change those prospects. Lopes slotted into the solitary deeper midfielder role, with Batty given fresh license to push forward. We continue to enjoy possession in those central areas, but this time, the ball is switched with more urgency to our danger men out wide.
Although Grosicki’s first run at Edwards didn’t lead to an opportunity, the uplift in second half application set the tempo for the remainder of the half.
In the 49th minute our star man produced a moment of brilliance to level the scoring, Irvine beat Allen to the punch with his aggression to win possession, Batth’s tackle on Grosicki inadvertently fell into the path of Bowen who’s thunderous, low strike on the edge pulled City out of a hole for the millionth time. Dynamite.
City had their tails up at this point. Pushing players forward with numbers, aggression to win possession back and battle through the Potters low block. Lichaj’s clipped ball to the back post had resemblance to that cross for Eaves beautiful diving header against Wednesday. This time, however, it was met by his look-alike Irvine who reduced Butland to a save at full stretch, he could only parry to Bowen who was non-surprisingly well placed to slam home. The turn-around had been completed.
Hull continued to breeze forward in search of jugular but those attempts to grab a third were epitomised by Tom Eaves frustrations in front of goal. He did everything right except score, he finds himself in the correct positions but when the rare opportunity arrives, he snatches at it as though his despracy is causing the lack of composure. He was presented with an opportunity on 61 after he swivelled in the area, but his left footed effort was high, wide and not particularly handsome.
You should never rest easy with a one goal deficit but the current mentality of this team lessens the anxiety of conceding a late goal. This could be due to Stoke’s lack of cohesion going forward, however it does beg the question of: ‘how a squad of such talented players are performing well below par?’.
Unlike their counterparts, City weren’t lacking ideas in the attacking third with Batty pulling the strings, full backs overlapping and wingers terrorising, watching City (other than last week) has given me immense pride and leaving the match fulfilled with the entertainment on show.
Stoke’s best chance to grab an unlikely equaliser was from a set piece, on 71 they were presented with that opportunity. A teasing Ryan Woods corner was met by the powerful Bruno Martins Indi, but he could only steer his header into the grateful palms of George Long.
Bowler was introduced with 10 minutes left and he put the worry into Stephen Ward’s eyes. I bet he was thinking, you’ve put me up against Bowen for 80 minutes and now my legs are gone you’ve gone and terrorised me with Bowler’s twinkle-toes.
A few minutes wasted with throw-ins and ball holding in the corner, then that was that. A win from behind signals the strong mentality in this squad and also McCann’s ability to change the game from a tactical outset. Bowen takes the plaudits and rightly so, but I am a huge fan of this side and it’s adversity to adapt in tough situations. Play offs is certainly a realistic ambition. Bring on Leeds.