The Season So Far
Stoke City’s seen has been okay. In the Premier League these days, ‘okay’ perhaps isn’t quite valued enough – there’s always the temptation to be left wanting more, arguing that pre-season hopes for a European push were well-founded, that something greater could have been achieved with just a little more spending or a slightly better manager. There’s certainly an element of truth to those arguments with this Stoke team, but at least they haven’t gone the way of Everton, West Ham or Crystal Palace, clubs of similar stature who have made a total mess of their campaigns for various reasons. Fans of those sides would change places with the Potters, six points clear of the drop zone if a bit bored and drifting, in a heartbeat.
The undisputed high of the season so far was the home win over Arsenal, in which Stoke absolutely Stoked it and Arsenal well and truly Arsenalled it. The lows are slightly harder to pick out, for there have been many: defeats against Newcastle, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace were all rotten, while failing to beat the likes of West Brom and Brighton isn’t a good look for an established Premier League team aiming to consolidate its status, and getting thwacked by Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool has underlined just how far Stoke are behind the big boys.
The performances of Xherdan Shaqiri, however, have been reason enough to keep one eye on Stoke at all times. The nimble, powerful Swiss has magic in his boots and is capable of anything at any time. Not for nothing has he played for Bayern Munich and Internazionale, and if he keeps playing like this then Shaqiri will soon find himself back at that level again. Also worth noting have been Kurt Zouma, quietly impressing on loan from Chelsea, Joe Allen, resurgent in a more dynamic midfield role, and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who has added another much-needed string to Stoke’s bow going forward.
The Season Ahead
Relegation has already been all-but avoided and mid-table security for another year should, in theory, have placated the Potters faithful. A decent Cup run and perhaps a trip to Wembley – well, a trip to Wembley besides this one – should, in theory, add up to a good season. Theory and practice don’t always match up, however, and there is reason for fans to be unhappy: a record of four wins from fifteen games is hardly the most eye-catching, especially given their record against sides of similar stature, and Stoke fans will hope that they simply start winning the games they should win more often.
Furthermore, there are questions hanging over the manager’s future, as ever. Due to the ever faster hire-and-fire culture of English football, Mark Hughes is now the Premier League’s fourth longest-serving manager, and yet after four-and-a-half years at the Britannia, we’re still no clearer to understanding Hughes’ grand plan for Stoke, if there is one at all. That may not sound like it matters that much given the simplicity of his remit – keep us mid-table, give the fans reasons to come to the ground – but in an age in which joined-up thinking on a tactical and technical level and the existence and successful implementation of a philosophy see clubs quickly jumping up the table, Hughes looks a little old hat by comparison.
There is no shortage of potential replacements, with the likes of Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche have achieved more than Hughes in the last few years and have done so with less in the way of resources. Marco Silva would probably listen to what Stoke have to offer in May. Outside the Premier League is a wealth of more modern, more progressive, more ambitious managers capable of doing what Hughes cannot, and no-one would blame Stoke for making an obvious upgrade when the right time comes.
Hughes has never been one to make things complicated, and Stoke’s current system is a simple, reactive 3-4-2-1 in which the Potters absorb pressure, defend their box and spring forward on the counter. Their primary threat is the pace and ingenuity of Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting, and they’re also handy from set plays. Their defensive system is sound enough on paper, with three giant centre-backs protecting their box and clearing away everything that comes into it, but their lack of dynamism and their vulnerability at transitions is notable.
Hughes has routinely exposed himself as a manager who can come up with the basics of a good idea but whose lack of thoroughness gets his teams exposed on match-day, with his needlessly gung-ho Manchester City side the epitome of this arrogance, and it looks like his Stoke side is going the same way. There are weaknesses in key areas, as we’ll see later, but a better manager would have this team producing more than he does.
The obvious strength is Xherdan Shaqiri: he has taken 2.1 shots per game, created 2.4 chances per game, made 1.2 dribbles per game and contributed four goals and five assists so far this season, and his creativity in open play is matched by his delivery from dead balls. If Stoke threaten at all here, it will almost certainly be through him.
As previously mentioned, their Plan B is to attack via set plays: only four Premier League sides have created more chances from free-kicks this season, and only six have created more chances from corners. This is partly because of their aerial dominance, long a trademark of Stoke City: 21.9 aerials won per game is the second highest average in division.
At the back their defence largely does its job: only two sides have blocked more crosses this season and only two sides have made more interceptions. A back three of Kurt Zouma, Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi is startlingly complete and wouldn’t look out of place at several bigger clubs.
Their biggest weakness is their lack of dynamism and their inability to react well enough to fluid situations – two things which Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham side excels at. This alone is reason to think Spurs’ bad run of form will come to a spectacular end here.
Stoke may be an unashamedly counter-attacking side which doesn’t aim to have a great deal of the ball, but their carelessness in possession does cost them. They have one of the lowest averages in the division and an alarmingly bad 74.2% pass accuracy, which means their defence is overworked and their midfield incapable of relieving them by holding onto the ball for any length of time. Only two sides have been pickpocketed on the ball more than Stoke’s 178 so far this season, and this means they’re often caught out of position when they appear to be comfortable and unthreatened.
Then we have the basic problem of personnel in key areas. It’s not that there’s no quality in show here - their back three is arguably good enough for a Champions League side, while Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting wouldn’t look out of place at a higher level and Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen have vast experience and obvious ability – but when you’re playing a 3-4-2-1 you need high quality, creative, technically able wing-backs, and Stoke have Mame Biram Diouf and Erik Pieters. In any lone-striker system you need an all-round number nine, capable of going long, coming short, linking up play, pulling wide and creating as well as scoring, and Stoke have no-one who can do all of those things while still actually scoring goals on a regular basis.
The overriding feeling is this Stoke team is just too average: not really good enough at anything to go beyond their obvious limits, and bad enough at plenty of things to be made to look silly – by say, losing against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth.
There is a doubt over the fitness of Bruno Martins-Indi and should the Dutchman be unable to make it, he’ll be replaced by Kevin Wimmer, formerly of Spurs of course. There is always a question mark over who Stoke will play up front – five different players have started as the number nine in fifteen games – and it’s really anyone’s guess at the moment.
Tottenham should return to form with a win here. Stoke are far from horrendous and it won’t be easy, but their weaknesses are Spurs’ strengths and the gap in quality is just too big to bridge.