The Season So Far
All things considered, Stoke City’s season has gone pretty well. Despite almost never having had their full-strength eleven to put on the pitch, and despite routinely getting absolutely battered, they sit in 9th place, having avoided the relegation battle completely and, perhaps more importantly, having beaten some big teams and had some great days out in the process. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have all been humbled at the Britannia Stadium, and a thrilling 4-3 win at Everton featured an incisive counter-attack finished with a physics-defying chip by Xherdan Shaqiri – surely the best goal Stoke have scored since they got promoted in 2008.
Shaqiri has added genuine star quality to a team which has relied heavily on Bojan Krkić to do so in the past, while Ibrahim Afellay has come good in the centre of midfield and club record signing Giannelli Imbula looks like a real find. Above all, Marko Arnautović has had the season of his life, scoring eleven goals in all competitions and generally making big contributions when they’ve been most necessary.
That said, it hasn’t all been positive: the defence has been shockingly porous for most of the season, perhaps due to the amount of injuries they’ve had, and the attack hasn’t delivered quite as much as it’s promised. No team in the top half of the table has scored fewer goals or conceded more.
The Season Ahead
Stoke’s injury worries haven’t eased up, so the rest of the campaign will be more-or-less the same as what came before: just get eleven bodies out onto the pitch, come up with a plan to get the job done, hope for the best. The best case scenario is that Imbula, Afellay and Shaqiri continue the good form they’ve found in recent weeks, and that Bojan keeps banging in goals after his long absence through injury. The real icing on the cake would be Arnautović agreeing to a new deal and committing his future to the club.
One goal they’ll definitely have in mind is protecting leads: the recent collapse at home to Swansea was typical of this uneven outfit, and Mark Hughes’ bid to impose a clear identity on the group has to be his key long-term goal if this side is to find consistency and achieve real success.
Hughes is a manager who likes to keep things simple and he hasn’t varied his team’s approach much at all this season. Mostly, they’ve played the same system as most other teams in the Premier League: a 4-2-3-1 with one attacking full-back and one sitting, two disciplined all-rounders in central midfield and a freer trio of creative types behind a workmanlike striker. They reverted to 4-3-3 to bolster midfield a while back, but that experiment seems to have been abandoned.
Last season the likeable Bojan was almost laughably central to their attacking approach, but Shaqiri’s arrival and Arnautović’s emergence has spread the responsibility around, while Afellay and Imbula have started contributing heavily from midfield. Spurs have been notably excellent at preventing their opposition exploiting the space between defence and midfield, but if they make a mistake against Stoke and allow them time in that zone it could prove costly.
The clear flaw in this tactical setup, however, it is that the attacking ideas are entirely based on the three creative players producing moments of genius on demand. There’s no obvious plan so to speak: they just give the ball to those guys and let them get on with it. Total improvisation is an increasingly bad idea in this era of constant player churn, and any kind of basic organisation tends to neutralise and then overcome hopeful ad-libbing. Spurs’ ultra-organised and efficient system could make mince-meat out of Stoke’s more laissez-faire setup.
Stoke’s most obvious 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 figure things out, like some kind of latter-day improvisational jazz trio that benefits from having as little direction as possible, is somewhat rudimentary, but as far as rudimentary plans go it’s a pretty good one.
That’s actually about it. Really, it is.
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. As well as not defending, they also turn it over with alarming regularity too: only three sides lose the ball due to bad touches more often than Stoke.
Although their front four is obviously talented, they’re far from productive. Only six sides have taken fewer shots than Stoke’s 362 this season and only seven have a lower conversion rate than their 8.7%. The good news for Stoke fans is that earlier in the season they had far worse, even laughably low figures, which have regressed to the mean in some sense. That said, they’re still really bad and when a team so often looks as badly broken as this one, attacking metrics usually remain this poor in the long-term.
They’re just as mediocre at the other end. Regularly affording acres of space in midfield to Premier League opposition is categorically A Very Bad Idea and as such Stoke’s defence is breached with spectacular regularity. For a team that generally plays without the ball and counters, the defensive action figures of 18.4 tackles per game, 15.5 interceptions and 10.9 are on the low side. Only two teams make fewer clearances per game than Stoke, and only two teams block fewer passes. On the plus side, no team catches their opposition offside more than Stoke: 2.8 offsides won per game are comfortably more than anyone else’s figure. But the point stands regardless: they can be horribly disjointed and easy to play through and this has obvious effects.
Only five teams have allowed more than Stoke’s figure of 450 shots on their own goal. Jack Butland’s undoubtable excellence as a pure shot-stopper has prevented his team being embarrassed on more than one occasion. Indeed, they’ve conceded 150 shots on target this season, of which only 43 have gone in. While the save rate of 72.8% is only marginally above the league average, and he hasn’t really had much of an effect on Expected Goals Against, that’s still an absolute f**ktonne of Butland saves.
Worst of all – or best of all, from a Tottenham perspective – Butland is a long-term absentee after breaking his ankle during the Germany-England game, so Jakob Haugaard will be between the sticks. Based on last weekend’s outing at Liverpool, a cardboard cutout of Butland would do better. If Spurs pepper Haugaard’s goal with shots they will win.
There are injuries and niggles and doubts throughout the Stoke team, so it’s very difficult to guess exactly what the line-up will be. The best-case scenario is probably this.
Spurs look irresistible at the moment, and given Stoke’s lack of a goalkeeper it’s almost impossible to see anything other than an away win. That said, if Shaqiri, Bojan and Arnautović turn up…