Connect in the back of the net

Stoke City manager Mark Hughes thinks it may be snobbery keeping Ryan Shawcross out of Roy Hodgson’s England squad. He was nodding towards the negative perception that is commonly held towards Stoke players and hinted that Hodgson may have to move on before his star defender receives a long-awaited second cap.

However that argument may be simplistic. That first cap, as Hodgson and many others surely haven’t forgotten, came in England’s 4-2 thrashing at the hands of Sweden back in the November of 2012 when Zlatan Ibrahimović scored all four for the Scandinavians.

The Stoke defender was only a 74th minute substitute in that game, replacing Steven Caulker, but Ibrahimović helped himself to three during the 16 minutes he was on the pitch. At fault for the first of them he followed it up by conceding the free-kick from which the Swede got his third.

It was a harrowing introduction to international football and one that Hodgson was not willing to forgive quickly; on the eve of last summer’s World Cup, in June 2014, Shawcross revealed that the England manager had not spoken to him at all since the debacle in Solna 20 months previous.

About the same length of time has passed since then and Hodgson is preparing to guide England to France next summer with John Stones, Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling firmly in his plans, but with Phil Jagielka ageing and Phil Jones repeatedly injured, a slot is available as the likely-fourth centre-half in next May’s 23-man squad. Southampton’s Caulker may hold ambitions to take that spot, as will Callum Chambers at Arsenal, but neither are playing regularly for their clubs.

However Shawcross is, and he’s doing it very well.


Rock at the back

After missing the start of the season after back surgery, the 28 year old has played seven games for Stoke and seen just one goal, Loic Remy’s 90th minute equaliser for Chelsea in the League Cup, breach his defence.

What has followed that is six clean sheets, the defeat at Sunderland involved two goals arriving after Shawcross had been controversially sent-off in the 48th minute, as he has struck up a rock-solid partnership with Philipp Wollscheid, the German who is continuing to make the £2.75 million that Stoke purchased him from Bayer Leverkusen with look like daylight robbery.

Shawcross though is the senior member in that duo, Stoke’s captain, and you have to trawl back to Steven Gerrard’s irrelevant footnote in the 6-1 mauling Liverpool received at the Britannia Stadium back in May for the last league goal that Shawcross go into his net.

The excellent Jack Butland has contributed greatly to Stoke’s extraordinary run of only four goals conceded in their past nine games, but Shawcross’s return, in tandem with the superb form of Wollscheid, has been the main factor.


Standing out as a leader amidst the summer sales

Stoke lost Asmir Begovic and Steven N’Zonzi in the summer, two significant members of the spine of their team, and it was no surprise that the Potters got off to a slow start to the season when they lost Shawcross to injury.

The likes of Ibrahim Afellay, Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic and Bojan Krkic have gelled together in attack to fire Stoke up to eleventh in the league as well as into the semi-finals of the League Cup, but Shawcross’s leadership and committed defending has built the rock solid foundation on which their talented attack can thrive.

None of them managed to carve a breakthrough at West Ham on Saturday but Shawcross and co. remained sturdy at the back to ensure Hughes’s team came back from London with a point, the captain outstanding as he kept Andy Carroll quiet by winning the majority of his aerial duels against the physical striker and making it 497 minutes since he last conceded a league goal.

An old-fashioned mix of brawn, intelligence and full-blooded committal to his team’s cause, the 6ft 3 inch defender has won 13 of 21 aerial duels across his six league games in total while making 8 blocks and losing out with just one of his 12 attempted tackles.

Having registered a 66% pass completion rate from just 129 attempted passes, it suggests his game will never be about the composed building from the back that Hughes entrusts to Wollscheid and full-backs Marc Muniesa and Erik Pieters, but he is the vital rock that has remained unmovable during Stoke’s gentrification into a more aesthetic unit under Hughes.


Can Hodgson continue to overlook the Stoke skipper?

Even considering that night in Sweden and Hodgson’s natural reluctance to take risks, one wonders just how long the England coach can overlook Shawcross’s form.

He still harbours hopes of breaking into the squad for next summer’s European Championships and for good reason, England would definitely be bolstered if they have the Stoke captain’s resilience, organisation and focussed defending to call upon in reserve.

If not, then he could switch allegiance to Wales as the Sweden game was only a friendly. The draw for next year’s tournament will then present Shawcross with a first-hand chance to prove England and Hodgson wrong and that he is international class after all.

The Stoke defender will surely not be thinking that far ahead however, instead focussing on his next clean sheet as the durable force behind Stoke’s evolution.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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