The Season So Far
It’s been a slightly strange campaign for Stoke City, a club now accustomed to Premier League football and aspiring to get considerably more than 40 points each season. As is their wont, they’ve bloodied the noses of a few established powers along the way, beating Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United at home – comprehensively, in the latter two cases – but they’ve also surrendered rather too meekly against teams they would’ve wanted to beat, somehow losing to West Brom (twice), Sunderland, Watford and Crystal Palace.
That they’re currently 7th in the table despite having a negative goal difference says it all: this is a formidable team, capable of beating any Premier League side on its day, but a very inconsistent one that remains a work in progress. Manager Mark Hughes has been repeatedly commended for the work he’s done in incrementally evolving Stoke’s playing style while still keeping them competitive and retaining the familiar spine of the team, but until his players stop going missing for weeks at a time, it’s hard to see Hughes being considered for the bigger jobs he rather too obviously sees himself as a candidate for.
The Season Ahead
Heading into the home straight, Stoke have a relatively friendly fixture list, no Cup distractions and a decent run of momentum built up to help them through the more testing moments. Their last three games have seen nine points taken from nine available when anything less would’ve been underachievement, and the manner of those wins was highly encouraging. Perhaps they didn’t hit the heights expected in the last match against Newcastle, but there’s a lot to be said for having your big players pull out wondergoals (and wondersaves, for that matter) to make the difference when your luck seems to be out.
Injuries have hampered Stoke all season, with captain Ryan Shawcross having played less than half than the possible number of minutes, Bojan Krkic scraping 51.3% and other would-be regulars Geoff Cameron, Charlie Adam and Marc Muniesa all missing large chunks of the campaign. Hughes’ main hope, above all else, will be to get through the rest of the season with his strongest available eleven completing as many games as possible. Should that come to pass, his team should be able to secure a very respectable final position.
Like most teams these days, Stoke have spent most of the season playing a 4-2-3-1 with fairly common configurations: one attacking full-back and one more defensive minded; two disciplined all-rounders in central midfield; a (much, much, much) freer trio of creative players behind a hard-running, workmanlike striker. Of late, however, Hughes has rejigged things slightly, playing a 4-3-3 with a designated anchorman, for reasons that will be addressed in a couple of paragraphs’ time.
Under Tony Pulis, Stoke became renowned for bypassing the midfield, but now almost everything starts deep, builds slowly and goes through one of the three mavericks with licence to do what they want, which works quite well: Shaqiri is capable of absolutely anything from the wide right position, while both Bojan and Ibrahim Afellay have a bit more maturity and composure flitting around in the middle, and Marko Arnautović has had the season of his life cutting in from the left.
This trust in their third band made them rather more predictable than is desirable, however, and simply giving the ball to one of the three and letting them improvise their way towards goal had its obvious drawbacks. Even worse was that the attacking trio didn’t defend a great deal. It's perfectly logical that Hughes has chosen to cut one of them in favour of flooding the midfield and adding steel in the middle to balance the sparkle up front. Afellay's maturity and all-round game has seen him favoured over Bojan and moved back into central midfield, with the energy and athleticism of new signing Giannelli Imbula key to this tactical reshuffle.
It’s pretty obvious that Jack Butland has been Stoke’s player of the season. 75.6% is the fifth highest save percentage in the league. That said, it would be nice to see his organisational skills and aerial presence develop to such an extent that he wasn’t needed to bail his team out so often. As it is there’s a touch of the Shay Givens about him: excellent at somehow keeping shots out from point blank range, but so unable to do the other stuff that he ends up overworked.
As previously stated, their big strength in attack is the high level of individual ability throughout their frontline. Frankly, Stoke’s attacking figures are abominable, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that there’s the talent in this team to score just about any kind of goal at just about any moment. The recent move to 4-3-3 has seen them become a far more rounded unit, and it may mean that many of the weaknesses listed below may be eradicated over time.
Also, after a few years in which Pulis’s Stoke became a byword for senseless violence and over the top aggression, Hughes seems to have got them playing nice: only two Premier League teams have received fewer yellow cards this season (that said, none have received more reds, so perhaps there are a few lines of Pulis’ code that just can’t be erased).
Their big problems have been making chances and scoring goals: for such an attack-heavy team, their Total Shot Ratio is an embarrassing 42.8%, with only 88 shots on target over the course of the entire season – the league’s third lowest figure. They’ve only taken 150 shots from inside the opposition box, the EPL’s second lowest figure, and their conversion rate of 8.0% is below the league average (9.1%). Simply put, they’re allowing way more shots on their goal than they’re taking at the other team’s, and they’re shooting from bad areas and doing so badly on top of that.
Also, for a team that has averaged exactly 50% possession over the season, they’ve performed a very low number of preventative defensive actions: 18.4 is the fifth lowest number of tackles per game, 15.6 the sixth lowest number of interceptions per game, 7.5 is the second lowest number of passes blocked per game, 21.1 is the second lowest number of clearances per game, while 10.8 is a bang average number of fouls per game.
This is a side that stops attacks at the very last moment, by accident or design (given the obvious and inevitable lack of defensive work from certain players in the team, it’s probably the latter). They make high numbers of blocks (3.9 shots blocked per game, sixth highest) and saves (3.3, second highest). In short, if the centre-backs don’t recover in time to block the shot or Butland isn’t at the races, it’s going to be a goal, and you can probably score a lot more of them.
This is when the Premier League teams will start to rotate at will, so really it’s anyone’s guess.
Chelsea can’t keep a clean sheet, Stoke have won their last three. Therefore, it’ll be 2-0 to Chelsea.