The Season Just Gone
Stoke City’s 2015-16 season was something of a triumph against the odds. Mark Hughes almost never had a full-strength eleven to put on the pitch, and even though they never managed to put together a coherent system or stem the tide of shots on their goal – no team in the top half of the table scored fewer goals or conceded more – they finished in 9th, avoided the relegation battle completely and bloodied the noses of some of the Premier League’s big boys to boot.
Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United were all beaten at the Britannia Stadium, while the addition of Xherdan Shaqiri was a huge statement of intent and further proof that Stoke have established themselves as a Premier League side. Shaqiri added genuine star quality to a team which had relied heavily on Bojan Krkić to produce the spectacular in the past, while big Austrian Marko Arnautović had the season of his life, scoring twelve goals in all competitions and generally putting the ball in the net when his team really needed him to.
It wasn’t all positive, but all things considered, it was way more than Stoke could reasonably have hoped for.
The Season Ahead
Instead of kicking on and cementing their place in mid-table with performances that match results, Stoke have so far been even worse than last season and their first few results haven’t promised much. Getting thumped by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is nothing to be embarrassed about – most Premier League teams will suffer that fate this season – but getting absolutely destroyed by Everton and struggling to break down newly promoted Middlesbrough doesn’t do much to fill one with confidence.
Admittedly, Hughes’ rotten luck with injuries has continued in the same vein as last season. Shaqiri hasn’t featured since the opening day, while injuries to his first choice strikers and goalkeeper mean that Peter Crouch (35) and Shay Given (40) have seen rather more action than expected, while Jonathan Walters (32) keeps getting minutes under his belt from the bench.
There remains the hope that one day Stoke will click and produce the spectacular football they’re so obviously capable of, but under Hughes it’s hard to shake the feeling that they’ll forever remain maddeningly mediocre and oddly easy to beat.
In recent weeks, Hughes has used a 4-3-3 formation in a bid to beef up the midfield and give his side a platform on which to build. They’re pretty poor at keeping the ball, so the idea seems to be to pack the centre and make it hard for the other team to progress up the pitch. It hasn’t really worked for them so far – in the last three games using this system, Stoke have received 46 shots on their own goal. No wonder they’ve only picked up a solitary point in that time.
On the plus side, the 4-3-3 gives a lot of space to the freewheeling midfielder Giannelli Imbula, who has so far racked up an astonishing 4.7 dribbles per game this season. Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama will have to be wary of Stoke’s record signing taking the ball on the half-turn and Yaya-ing his way up the pitch in the blink of an eye. If Shaqiri and Bojan feature, they will add further technical quality and invention in the final third.
Most of Stoke’s strengths are pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They remain mighty in the air: 23 aerial duels won is the third highest average in the league, and although Tony Pulis is long gone, Stoke retain the look of a team built by the evil Welshman: eleven of their players are 6’1" or taller and it’s no surprise they remain so strong in the air.
Additionally, they’re as physically committed as ever: 21.3 tackles per game is relatively a high figure, while 5 shots blocked per game is a very high figure (albeit not one that any good team would ever aspire to – prevention is better than cure and all that). Basically, they’re not that good but what they lack in quality they make up for in bravery and concentration.
On a more positive (and bizarre) note, 14.3 dribbles per game is the league’s third highest figure so far, mostly due to Imbula’s box-to-box heroics. They’ve also been fouled 14.7 times per game, a very high number indeed. Given the constant physical harrying of Tottenham’s pressing, and Dier and Wanyama’s inability to not flatten their opponents, Spurs may well give away a fair few free-kicks in promising positions.
This is where Spurs can take encouragement: Stoke’s shot figures are basically atrocious. 9.3 shots per game taken is one of the league’s lowest figures, while 1.7 shots on target per game and a massive total of 0 taken from inside the six-yard box so far this season are genuinely embarrassing. In short: Stoke can’t make chances or finish them. To compound matters, they’ve allowed 15 shots per game and 5.7 of them have ended up on target. It’s very difficult to get so comprehensively outshot and do anything other than lose.
One reason that Stoke give away so many chances is that they can’t keep the ball or win it back: 76.6% pass completion is one of the league’s lower averages, while 10.7 interceptions and 4.7 passes blocked per game are low numbers and show how badly they’re doing at competing in the middle third.
When you’re giving away that many shots, you need your keeper to bail you out. Last season Jack Butland did a very good job of that, but in his absence the decrepit Shay Given has been rather worse. His 64.7% save percentage is below the league average and Spurs should be encouraged to work Given as much as possible. Butland can’t return soon enough.
Stoke should give Wilfried Bony a home debut and Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen should be wary of his movement and quick thinking in front of goal. The big Ivorian should be the solution to the Potters' goalscoring problems, providing they figure out a decent and reliable way of giving him service.
As for Tottenham, Danny Rose is out and Erik Lamela seems set to be benched. The two have been among Spurs' brightest performers so far this season so it will be interesting to see how Ben Davies and whoever replaces Lamela - be it Son Heung-Min, Moussa Sissoko or A.N. Other - fit in and how the team dynamic changes.
In any case, Spurs should be considered favourites.
If I were reading way too much into the stats, I’d be predicting another thumping win for Spurs at the Britannia. As Mauricio Pochettino’s men seem to be stuck in second gear at the moment, it’s hard to see anything bar another single-goal victory.