The Season So Far
Stoke City’s campaign has been a bit stop-start so far. After building an exciting side high on individual flair and creativity, they went winless in their first six Premier League fixtures of the season, often looking like a bunch of strangers with no idea how to play together. They then won three in a row, before losing at home to non-scoring Watford and drawing 0-0 with a distinctly porous Newcastle United side last weekend.
Much of their poor form has been put down to the loss of captain Ryan Shawcross after back surgery, while star player Bojan missed the first few games of the season due to knee-knack and big-money signing and human ball of muscle Xherdan Shaqiri got injured shortly after making his debut for the Potters. In the Watford game, ever-present centre-back Geoff Cameron broke himself while getting skinned by Troy Deeney.
That said, injuries can only account for so much and Stoke’s obvious lack of cohesion and compactness has to be down to Mark Hughes and the work his coaches are (not) doing on the training ground. Frankly, they don’t look anything like a Hughes team and judging from his horrified expression whenever the camera cuts to him during games, he can’t quite reconcile his presence with their performance either.
The Season Ahead
Currently sitting in 14th place and with Shawcross, Bojan and Shaqiri now back in the side, Stoke would normally be thinking of beginning a steady climb up the table, but their run of fixtures until the end of the calendar year looks less than promising: after Chelsea, they have Southampton away, Sunderland away, Manchester City at home, West Ham away, Crystal Palace at home, Manchester United at home and Everton away. All of those games are extremely losable.
The hope must be that their talented players suddenly click and that they start playing more like a cohesive unit for the first time in a long time. Unless that happens, they will most probably find themselves sucked into a relegation battle, something which seemed unthinkable at the start of the 2015-16 campaign. The words ‘too good to come down’ will surely be bandied about but these days no-one’s too good to go down.
Mark Hughes is a manager who prefers to keep things uncomplicated and he hasn’t varied his team’s approach much at all this season. They play the same system as most other teams in the Premier League: a 4-2-3-1 with one attacking full-back and one sitter, two disciplined all-rounders in central midfield and a freer trio of creative types behind a striker more known for his selfless running and link-up play than his deadly finishing.
Last season the immensely enjoyable Bojan was almost laughably central to their attacking approach, but Shaqiri’s arrival has lightened his burden somewhat, while Austrian maverick Arnautović has probably been Stoke’s best player this season. Given the complete lack of protection Chelsea’s defence has had so far, all three probably fancy their chances of producing the goods.
If there is an obvious weakness in this Stoke team, however, it is that their attacking ideas are entirely based on those three players pulling rabbits out of hats. There’s no obvious plan so to speak – just give the ball to those guys and let them improvise. Improvisation is an increasingly bad idea in this era of constant player churn, and any kind of basic organisation tends to neutralise and overcome hopeful ad-libbing. What’s more, the attacking trio simply don’t defend – and that’s less than helpful.
Stoke’s big strength is the talent of their non-defending third band. From right to left, Shaqiri, Bojan and Arnautović are all capable of the sublime and they can turn a match at any moment. Stoke’s plan to give them the ball and let them play is somewhat rudimentary, but as far as rudimentary plans go it’s a pretty good one.
While those three don’t work that hard off the ball, their teammates certainly do. Only five sides have made more than Stoke’s 21.3 tackles per game this season, although this does come at the expense of making interceptions – only Everton and Norwich have made fewer than Stoke’s 12.9 per game.
It’s also worth noting their threat from set pieces. Famously a team of giants, Shaqiri, Bojan and Charlie Adam are all excellent deliverers of dead balls and Chelsea will have to be switched on at every single corner and free-kick.
As previously mentioned on more than one occasion, the glaringly obvious problem is the lack of cohesion in this team. This is a visual observation but the statistics more than support the ideas that there’s no overall attacking plan and that the attackers’ lack of effort in the defensive phase costs Stoke dear.
No side has taken fewer shots than Stoke’s 109 this season and none has a lower conversion rate than their 6.5%. On one hand these are laughably low figures that should surely regress to the mean before long, but on the other hand when a team looks as broken as this one, attacking metrics usually remain this poor in the long-term.
They’re little better at the other end. Their opposition regularly has acres of space in midfield and finds it easy to overrun the Stoke defence, which means they concede a high number of shots on goal. Jack Butland’s brilliance as a shot-stopper has stopped his team being embarrassed on more than one occasion. Indeed, they’ve conceded 58 shots on target this season, of which only 12 have gone in. That’s an absolute f**ktonne of Butland saves.
Stoke will obviously go with their strongest available eleven, though given their torpor this season and their need to get a result it would perhaps not be a surprise to see the hard-working and diligent Jon Walters play instead of one of the more spectacular dilettantes in the third band.
As for Chelsea… yeah, it’s anyone’s guess.
I get every prediction wrong at the moment so I’ll just say anything. 2-2? Yeah, why not.