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Scout Report: Stoke City

Still no football, but in a concerted effort to keep myself sane, I'll be reviewing our final nine opponents just in case the season ever does restart. Which is more than unlikely, especially with teams in the form portrayed here.

At the turn of the year, Stoke changed from a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) to a 4-2-3-1. Jordan Cousins, who had been the holding player throughout December, lost favour to Nick Powell playing behind the striker. Clucas and Allen in midfield dropped a little deeper, although they're still involved offensively. Up top Tyrese Campbell has forced his way into the side over the likes of more old fashioned figures of Sam Vokes and Lee Gregory.

There's been a lot of change at the back. Stephen Ward's injury meant Bruno Martins Indi moved out to the left, and James Chester's arrival on loan from Aston Villa meant there's no space for Liam Lindsay.



There are clearly areas of improvement defensively for a team who have shipped four goals on two occasions this year alone.

Butland has not had a good season. The man between the sticks seems to panic when the ball when there are men around him, and his decision making has been poor. Even routine saves are not necessarily straightforward. Given that he was named the club's player of the season last year it's obvious there's still a good keeper there; maybe some time away from the game is exactly what he needs.

Batth has been the one constant among centre back pairings. He likes to step out from the defensive line and put pressure on attackers in front of him. That can lead to him getting caught out, but he's the master of the tactical foul. He's 6th on the list of most fouls given away by CBs (min 10 apps). The main weakness centrally seems to be one of a lack of agility and acceleration. All of Stoke's options lack a yard of pace to make up for mistakes. Crucially, if a centre back steps out but doesn't win the ball, they have no hope of recovering.

Brunos Martin Indi makes the tackle, but there were players over if Dack had got the pass away.

The fullbacks defend narrow, often relying on the wingers to get back and close down players in wide positions. They can get too narrow at times; dragged to the centre of the pitch with players overloading outside them. Ince, McClean, and Powell are not the most diligent of defenders, so can find themselves out of position, but their effort often can't be faulted.

Against Preston, it was a pair of corners that were The Potters downfall. And, although they managed to turn it round in stoppage time, the same issue arose against Sheffield Wednesday. Away at Huddersfield they won 5-2 but conceded from a corner and a free-kick.

If you look at the stats, Stoke actually rank among the better teams at defending from set-pieces, and there are mitigating circumstances for their poor games. Wednesday was Shawcross' first full game since an injury pre-season, Huddersfield saw Linday back in the team after sitting out for a couple, and Chester started his first match in the defeat to Preston. Perhaps it was just a case of misunderstanding roles.

Just after a corner, Stoke leave Eze and Samuel one-on-one with Martins Indi and Batth. Allen's shot is blocked, and Eze draws a good save at the other end on the counter.

The midfield duo of Clucas and Allen are surprisingly forwarded-minded, given the roles they occupy. That can lead to getting caught on the counter, as QPR showed to great effect. That's not to say they do no defensive work. Allen is an absolute nuisance to players with the ball. The one thing Stoke seem intent not to give opposition players is time on the ball.

When Powell plays at 10, he drifts mercurially around the pitch, helping on either wing in the build-up, before getting himself into the box. He was moved to the left after McClean's injury, but the only thing that really changed is his starting position. He still looks to score when the ball is on the right, and he's not looking to get to the byline in the same way McClean does. Powell is one of the big successes of O'Neill's tenure so far, alongside Campbell.

James McClean was actually the main creative output when on the pitch when fit. His role is almost simply just to beat his man and cross into the box. Clucas acts as the support player, often underlapping the Irishman, as Martins Indi doesn't tend to go forward - although he does offer the ability to cross from deep should it be needed. On the other side Ince, or occasionally Campbell, cuts inside onto his stronger left foot. That gives Smith the opportunity to overlap, and he's picked up a pair of assists in his last two matches.

Powell notices that Morrison isn't switched on to the danger around him, and forces a bad touch with the press.

The focus is on progressing the ball quickly to the final third. There's a clear target with Vokes up top. Powell runs beyond him, and the midfield duo look for knockdowns. With Campbell, it's more about working the ball into the channels, or over the top of the opposition defence. Allen and Clucas are bypassed a lot of the time in favour of getting the ball forward. Whether Stoke keep possession is almost of secondary importance, because if not the press often causes errors in opposition defences. Allen and Powell are particularly astute at punishing poor touches, or lapses of concentration.

Pearce is busy worrying about Ince, and doesn't see Powell behind him until it's too late. He ends up turning it home inside the six yard box, level with the near post.

Stoke are clinical with low balls into the box. Powell often gets beyond Campbell and makes a run to the near post which opens space toward the penalty spot if the run is picked up, or allows him to finish himself if not. If it does get worked to Campbell he has a seemingly natural ability to finish; combined with his strength and speed he's a real handful.

So to try to sum up Stoke's style:

  • Defend Narrow
  • Press throughout the pitch
  • Get ball forward quickly into the channel, or over the top of the defence
  • RW cuts inside onto stronger foot, RB overlaps
  • A high number of low crosses into the box, with near post runners and a man on the penalty spot
  • The midfield duo support attacks from the edge of the box and use technical ability to recycle possession
Positives:
  • Dangerous on counter-attack
  • Campbell is an excellent finisher
  • Press causes mistakes
Negatives:
  • Keeper in poor form
  • Centre backs lack pace
  • Full backs can become too narrow, leaving space to attack

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