Stoke City produced a battling performance to secure three more precious points against a Blackburn side who have play-off aspirations of their own. Here are the talking points from a wet and windy bet365 Stadium.
No fluke in that clean sheet
The game might have been played almost entirely in Stoke’s half but rarely did Stoke look like losing, rarely did Blackburn actually get into the penalty area.
The fact that Michael O’Neill has overseen 23 clean sheets in 46 league and cup games in 2020 – the highest number in English football – is no fluke. It’s a Stoke squad with a plan to actually defend as a team. It’s disciplined, brave and calm.
There are only two years in the club’s long history that have featured more clean sheets; 25 from 59 games in 1994 and 24 from 68 games in 1971.
It has had to be patched up at times but the players who have come in have given everything, clearly well organised on the training ground as well as by James Chester on the pitch.
Nick Powell’s head boy
Nick Powell’s knee was bandaged up when he hobbled off after another match-winning performance, on and off the ball. It might have been sensible to wrap him in cotton wool.
He is ever more Stoke’s talisman in the absence of Tyrese Campbell. He sets the tone with his pressing, he has the deft touch to open up a defence and he has the work rate to track back and make vital interceptions and tackles.
And he is one of the best players in the division in the air. This was a fine flying header to latch onto Morgan Fox’s cross for his fifth of the season, he links the play and he’s a nuisance. Stoke need him.
Jordan Cousins and Josh Tymon dig in
You would have got long odds back in pre-season on Stoke’s central midfield heading into Christmas being Josh Tymon and Jordan Cousins.
Injuries have opened the door but they’re in on merit as two screening players who put the team above themselves.
“It wasn’t just the starting XI, it was the subs who came on and did their job,” said Cousins at full-time in an interview for the club website. “It’s a sign of our togetherness that we got three points.
“You’ve seen we’ve kept a few clean sheets now… it’s everyone understanding their roles and keeping it tight. It’s something we work on. We know we can be better in possession but we showed the other side of it.
“It’s not just the back four and the midfielders, it’s everyone as a collective keeping it tight and pressing and doing all the nitty gritty stuff.”
He added: “We’ve got a good squad and I know anyone can come in and play. I know I’ve got to keep the levels of my performances high. We have to do all the right things, all the one per cents, and that’s what I’m doing and the boys are doing.”
The Tyrese Campbell magic
For all the hard work, Stoke have been a much better team in 2020 with Tyrese Campbell on the pitch.
Of course they have been. He changes the dynamic of play, forcing opponents deeper just by giving defences something to constantly think about. It’s the acceleration, brain, power, skill, finishing and presence of an increasingly all-round package.
It is not going to be easy to replace that for such a long period, even if there was no Financial Fair Play casting a shadow over everything in January.
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A team that could do with a hand
Several Stoke players dropped to their knees on the full-time whistle.
The final 25 minutes were played out in a storm as Blackburn went (even more) gung-ho in search of an equaliser. It was a fitting metaphor for such a tough first half of the season.
They have played every weekend and mid-week since late August barring international breaks, they have been plagued by injuries but have kept their focus and fought for every point as if they were still battling relegation. That is no mean feat when there are no supporters.
The fixture list will ease up a little in the New Year and players are expected to slowly start returning from the treatment room. Just a little bit of room to manoeuvre in the transfer window will help too.
Stoke are in with a fighting chance and the fine lines, a little bit of magic – whether it comes from Joe Allen, Thibaud Verlinden or the mystery box – might make all the difference.