‘Best teams in the world struggle’ – Thomas Frank’s Stoke City verdict and what happened at half-time


There have been few games under Michael O’Neill when there seemed to be so little hope that Stoke City might win.

A mid-week defeat at Barnsley had been dispiriting at the same time as Brentford had been emphatically thumping Sheffield Wednesday while their key men including Ivan Toney and Josh Dasilva were returning to fitness.

Stoke had not won on their previous 29 league trips to London stretching all the way back to 2014 nor anywhere on the road this season since beating Wycombe in early December.

But then, after just 26 seconds, they were in front.

Brentford keeper David Raya dropped a howler as he inexplicably played a short pass straight to Tommy Smith, who could pass the ball across to Jacob Brown to roll in the opener from close range.

Stoke suddenly had something to defend and they were prepared to do that with discipline, organisation and tenacity.

In the end, however, quality told. Brentford grew more urgent after the break and Vitaly Janelt found a way through with a piece of magic, pouncing on a loose ball on the right corner of the box and sending a sizzler into the far top corner.

Stoke had a couple of half chances themselves, with Jordan Cousins hitting the bar, but the pressure grew at the other end and Toney was alert to poke a flick from Bryan Mbuemo past Angus Gunn for a 79th minute winner.

Brentford manager Thomas Frank was cautious about accepting praise for any inspirational half-time team talk, saying through a broad smile: “If I take a lot of credit for that, yes let’s do that, but in that case I don’t know what the f— I was doing before the game. Let’s say it was a minus before the game and a plus at half-time.”


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It was, he admitted, a tough, testing afternoon but one he backed his promotion-challenging side to pass eventually.

He said: “I think the team showed all the kinds of phrases you want – unbelievable character, mentality, attitude – to comeback now and we’ve done that a few times now. It’s not something that’s happened overnight.

“Getting behind 1-0 after about 20 seconds but coming back against a Stoke team who are, for me, one of the better teams in this division…

“People said about Brentford that we were gone, that we were going to walk easily into the Premier League but we all know how difficult it is in this league. We lost to Stoke last time and they had a bit of spell when they were fifth, they have some good players and a good manager.

“It’s so difficult in this league. Stoke are defending very well. We’ve struggled the last two times that we’ve played them. They have played a back four in the last six or seven games but this time they changed to a 5-3-2, I guess to make it more difficult for us offensively.

“It’s a signal of teams trying to make it more difficult for us. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess it’s because we’re doing pretty ok. We just need to find a solution, I need to give a solution to my players.

“The first half, our quality on the ball was bad, we took too many touches, we didn’t play forward enough, we didn’t play enough through lines, we chose bad decisions, we didn’t press well enough but we still kept the ball moving in a way, kept the tempo, so that over time they would get tired.

“In the second half we went from level five to level nine, I would say, on the ball, movement, much quicker, playing the ball forward much, much better. That was the difference between first and second half, also the intensity of the pressure, which got us zooooom, all the way forward.

“When you play against a back five it’s very difficult to make chances. The best teams in the world struggle, even Man City sometimes. We sometimes need a bit of brilliance and we got that from, what a screamer, from Vitaly.

“After that I thought it was a matter of time until we scored the winner. It wasn’t that we had chance after chance after chance but we had many, many dangerous situations and we kept an unbelievable high tempo so we could get opportunities again.”

Stoke did well to keep chances to a minimum before half-time, even if they were stretched to the point that Jordan Thompson and Rhys Norrington-Davies, who were both on bookings – and Norrington-Davies was lucky not to be shown a second yellow card for a high challenge – were taken off at half-time as red card risks.

Brentford dominated possession but Stoke, often at their most dangerous on the counter attack, still worked a few chances if only they could have been more clinical. If only Brentford had missed Toney and Bryan Mbuemo for large parts of the season like they have missed Steven Fletcher and Tyrese Campbell, perhaps.

O’Neill said: “We lost a game to a good team, a team that is challenging for automatic promotion, so it would have been a very big result for us to come here and win.

“We got a gift to start with and in the first half we were very good, very solid, made it very difficult for them. They struggled to get out and we looked comfortable, I felt, in the first half.

“In the second half, we didn’t get going as much but partly we have to give credit to the opposition in that respect. They obviously have a lot to play for and you could see that but it took a really good goal to swing it back in their favour.

“It was a great strike to level the game and then we’ve had a couple of decent chances to go ahead again and ultimately they take their chance.

“Toney, as he’s proven all season, if he’s not the best, there’s not anyone better than him probably in this league.

“I felt in the games we’ve played we’ve handled him quite well. But that’s the difference, he’s come and it’s a great finish, good anticipation and that’s what ultimately separates us in the game.”



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It was the first time that Stoke have lost two on the bounce this season but, at the moment, it is looking like all too-much like mid-table kind of win some, lose some, draw some season.

“This time last season if we’d lost down here it would have been a disaster, we would have been looking to see where the next three points is just to make sure we could stay away from the position we were in,” said O’Neill.

“This season we’re disappointed not to get three points to keep in contention with teams that are trying to get in the top six. We started with two wins, now we’ve had two defeats, we take a couple of steps forward and we take a couple of steps back.

“That’s probably where we are at this minute in time but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a lot to play for this season.”





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