The Season So Far
To the untrained eye, 2014-15 would look like any other Stoke City campaign. At the start of April, the Potters sit 10th in the Premier League table, completely untroubled by relegation worries and in no danger of qualifying for European football. They’ve recorded wins over Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham, but they’ve also lost to Leicester, Sunderland and Burnley. Their problems are the same as ever: they’re averaging a measly 1.13 goals per game and losing as often as they win, while a fairly threadbare squad is being pushed to the limit by injuries.
Look closer, however, and it’s clear that this has not been just another typical Stoke season. What the statistics and results don’t record is the clear progress Mark Hughes’ side has made in its post-Pulis evolution from unwatchable gang of hoofball merchants to eye-catching and competent modern football team.
Gone are the days of Rory Delap hurling throw-ins into the penalty area while a crowd of 6’4" galoots barge their opponents out of the way, scrambling to bundle the ball over the line. Now they boast the trickery and guile of Bojan Krkić, Victor Moses and Stephen Ireland, while Steven N’Zonzi and Glenn Whelan have expanded their ball-playing repertoires to resemble intelligent, adaptable midfielders instead of bloodthirsty hatchet men. This is a team that’s increasingly difficult to dislike.
This probably hasn’t been the most memorable campaign in Stoke’s history, but it’s been an important one nonetheless. For the second season in a row, Hughes has achieved his stated goal of overhauling the team’s style of play without radically changing the squad or suffering a calamitous drop-off in performance and results. Indeed, if they sustain their average of 1.4 points per game until the end of the season, Stoke will record their highest ever Premier League points total.
The fact that Hughes was last week rewarded with a new contract, running until 2019, shows that he and the club’s owners feel that the job is only half done. Chairman Peter Coates recently told the Guardian that he wants Stoke to end up where Southampton are, and to do so with as much home-grown talent as possible. If the club keeps going about its business as tidily as it has done this season, they could be there sooner than we expect.
Tony Pulis has been gone for a couple of years now, but his influence undeniably remains. In attack, Stoke work the ball down the wings and look to get it into the penalty area with crosses from wide areas. In defence, they usually assemble in two banks of four behind the ball and defend their box. They’re still extremely strong in the air and unashamedly physical without it.
Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Hughes has sought to change things incrementally. There’s an obvious logic to his plan: having Peter Crouch, Ryan Shawcross and Asmir Begović in his squad means that aerial domination will always be easy to achieve, so focusing on crosses at one end while inviting them at the other makes perfect sense. Keeping the core of Pulis’ squad together has also benefitted team spirit and kept the fans onside.
Although the basic strategies are largely the same as in the Pulis era, the method of moving the ball has changed a lot: in short, they have a midfield now. Under Pulis, Stoke routinely bypassed their two-man midfield, playing the highest number of long balls per game as well as the lowest number of short passes. This season, Stoke have added a third man to their midfield and the stats show the effect it has had: only six teams have averaged fewer long passes than Stoke and the Potters sit firmly in the middle of the rankings for short pass figures.
If we were being overly critical – and in this case we will be – we could say that they’re still a tad on the conservative side: they tend to focus on a good defensive shape, therefore building a platform for their more talented individuals to express themselves. This can give the impression that they’re a bit of a broken team – eight men behind the ball with two runners trying to weave their way through the other team, while one striker waits to pounce – but in their best performances this season, they have found a perfect balance. Perhaps worryingly for Chelsea, these showings have come when Stoke have been clear underdogs.
First and foremost, they’re great in the air. No team has won more aerial duels per game than Stoke’s 25.3, and when they have to they put the ball up in the air as often as they can. Only three teams play more crosses per game and few forwards are as reliable in the air as Crouch.
As ever, few teams work as hard as Stoke. Having kept the core of the Pulis team together, Hughes has also preserved their "us against the world" attitude. Players like Shawcross, Whelan and Jon Walters seem to genuinely believe that the world hates Stoke and wants them to fail, and that belief motivates them like nothing else. Stoke’s performance at the Etihad at the start of the season – in terms of conditions, the closest parallel we can draw to playing at Stamford Bridge – was awe-inspiring in its resolute refusal to allow Manchester City through.
Although they do struggle to make good chances at times, they have plenty of individuals capable of producing a moment of genius that turns a game on its head: this season they have relied on Bojan and Victor Moses to provide those magic pieces of skill, but both will be unavailable on Saturday. Walters and Charlie Adam may be the more senior players, but given the importance of ingenuity in the absence of the club’s two most creative players, it would be more logical to play Stephen Ireland in the number ten role.
The fact that Stoke sometimes play as a broken team means that opposition attacks are rarely stopped by the attackers, and so the defence finds itself under a lot of pressure. This means they give away a lot of fouls – only two teams commit more than Stoke’s 12.2 fouls per game, and a good proportion of them are made in dangerous positions near their box. A lot of fouls means a lot of cards: only the permanently dysfunctional Sunderland have received more yellow cards than Stoke’s 65 – however, the Potters are one of two sides yet to have received a red card this season.
Promisingly for Chelsea, there has been a clear decline in their effectiveness when defending set pieces – in particular, corners that get flicked on to the back post. This is unlike the Stoke sides of recent years and also unlike typical Mark Hughes teams, so it’s hard to explain why this weakness has developed, but Chelsea won’t concern themselves with that – they should just focus on winning as many corners as possible and putting them into the right areas.
While Stoke have always struggled to score goals in the Premier League, this season’s shooting numbers are awful even by their standards. They’ve taken an average of 12.9 shots per game, which is perfectly respectable, but they’ve only hit the target with 3.3, a figure that puts them 17th in the Premier League shooting accuracy table. This is probably due to the number of shots they take from distance – nearly half of their efforts on goal come from outside the box.
Hughes has a number of difficult choices to make when selecting his line-up for this game. A good seven of his final eleven seems set in stone, but it is difficult to tell what he will do with his third band with Bojan and Moses unavailable. He essentially has five players – Jon Walters, Charlie Adam, Stephen Ireland, Mame Biram Diouf and Marko Arnautović – vying for three spots. It’s also up in the air as to whether he’ll pick Marc Wilson or Philipp Wollscheid alongside Ryan Shawcross.
As for Chelsea, it would be nice to see some squad rotation, especially after an international break, but it seems like a long shot. Expect the same starting eleven as usual.
Chelsea have won their last eight home games against Stoke and haven’t conceded in the last seven. The Blues should extend those records without breaking a sweat. However, they’ve been making hard work of easy pickings of late, so the margin of victory will probably be a single goal.
Oh, and one other prediction: Chelsea will get a penalty.