Opposition Scouting Report: Stoke City

An analytical piece on Bristol City’s next opponents, Stoke City.

First of all, I’ve taken a look at Stoke’s last game before the first international break of the season, a 2-1 defeat away to Birmingham City.

BIRMINGHAM 2-1 STOKE CITY

Here’s how they lined up:

Perhaps surprisingly, Nathan Jones opted for the 4-1-4-1 formation for this game, despite using his trusted 4-4-2 diamond for the first four league games, and then a 3-5-1-1 against Leeds the week before this fixture.

During this game, the fullbacks played very wide allowing wingers James McClean and in particular Tom Ince to drift inside and take up more central positions. Ince was the most advanced of the whole of the midfield, playing closest to the lone striker Gregory. There were times, though, when Ince looked to drop deep to pick up the ball and then turn and run at the Birmingham defence.

THE MATCH

To be honest the game lacked real quality from both sides, especially from Stoke. They created very few real chances, and had just 2 attempts on goal in the first 45 minutes.

There were some noticeable themes in this game, however. Joe Allen was bursting forward from midfield to support Gregory, Ince was given licence to roam from the right flank and looked to get into central and more threatening areas whilst Tommy Smith was bombing forward to provide the width down the right when Ince vacated his position. On the left-hand-side, McClean was also looking to come inside and take players on (he attempted the most dribbles in the match), and left-back Stephen Ward played extremely wide – like Smith – but not as high up the pitch as the right-back.

Despite all of this, Stoke really struggled to create any proper chances. In the first 45 especially they often had to resort to long, hopeful balls up to Gregory or McClean because they just couldn’t build-up any attacks against Birmingham’s compact 4-4-2 shape. Centre-backs Danny Batth and Liam Lindsay attempted 20 long passes in the first half, compared to the 11 from their counterparts Harlee Dean and Marc Roberts which helps show how much they struggled to build from the back at St Andrews.

After a dull first half, Stoke’s first big chance of the game came five minutes into the second half. Clucas played a one-two with Etebo and then threaded a nicely weighted ball through to Gregory who hit the post with his one-on-one effort. The ball rebounded to Allen who, again, had bursted forward and with the goal at his mercy he somehow fired wide. It was the first time in the match Stoke increased the tempo (thanks to Clucas’ short burst of pace and one-two) and they managed to create a big chance from it.

There’s not too much to say about the first two goals in this match from a Stoke City point-of-view to be honest. Liam Lindsay opened the scoring for Stoke nodding home from a deep free-kick, but this was then cancelled out by a trademark Jutkiewicz header at the back post following a well worked Birmingham move, started off by Dan Crowley. The Potters just didn’t get tight enough to the opposition at multiple times in the build-up to this goal and Jutkiewicz vs Smith at the back post was a mismatch.

Birmingham’s winner came just a few minutes later from teenager Bellingham whose weak shot from the edge of the box took a huge deflection and rolled into the net. Perhaps this goal perfectly highlights Stoke’s bad luck defensively. Their xGA (expected goals against) is at 8.21 so far this season, but they’ve conceded 15 goals – the most in the league. You could argue this is mainly down to a mixture of bad luck (like Bellingham’s deflected goal) and bad errors (most notably from Jack Butland in goal earlier in the season – who’s now seemed to have been dropped for Adam Federici).

With just over ten minutes left and chasing the game, Nathan Jones ditched the 4-1-4-1 for his trusted diamond, bringing on Scott Hogan for Stephen Ward, and it showed a glimpse of its effectiveness straight away. Clucas played a vertical pass to Gregory whose back-heel sent through Ince – now playing at the tip of the diamond and even closer to the forwards – and his shot forced a good save from Lee Camp but that was about as good as it got towards the end of the game.

Due to how disappointing Stoke were in this game, I’ll be shocked if they stick with the 4-1-4-1 on Saturday. I expect them to revert back to the diamond and, because of this, I’ve also taken a look at their game against Derby County on 17th August – the last time they used this formation at home.

STOKE CITY 2-2 DERBY COUNTY

Here’s how they lined up against Derby:

As I said above, Stoke played a diamond in this match, as they did in their first four league matches of this season as well as for the majority of last season after Nathan Jones took over. Hogan partnered Gregory upfront, Ryan Woods sat in front of the defence and Smith & McClean provided the width from full-back. Tom Ince, at the tip of the diamond, looked to receive the ball to feet and run with it just like against Birmingham, and Clucas & especially Allen were regularly trying to get into the box for potential crosses from out wide.

THE MATCH

Derby took the lead almost instantly, and this goal came about due to Stoke’s failed counter-press.

In the first picture above, Stoke had just lost the ball and then pressed urgently to try and win it back immediately. As you can see, Woods, Allen, Clucas and Ince (i.e. their whole midfield) are surrounding Tom Lawrence. The problem is, they failed to win the ball back, thus leaving them wide open defensively. A few passes later, the ball gets played to Tom Huddlestone (in the second picture) and again, there are three players around him as well as Clucas behind him – who is now effectively out of the game because Derby managed to play through the press.

Seconds later, the ball was in the back of Stoke’s net since they were far too open due to this failed press basically taking out 75% of their midfield. If they try this against City, they could get punished in a similar way due to the technical ability of our midfield – in particular Adam Nagy (who might be fit enough to start) who’s capable of beating the press.

Despite the poor start, Stoke were much more impressive compared to Birmingham away.

One of the positive features I noticed of this system was that, in the transitions, the striker who was on the same side of the pitch as the ball drifted wide and linked with the wide CM and the full-back to try and create an overload down the flank. This gave Stoke an additional passing option and ensured the shape wasn’t too narrow all the time. One of the times this worked effectively is shown below:

Here, Scott Hogan drifted towards the left-hand-side and made himself available for the pass. He then waited for the onrushing wide central midfielder, Sam Clucas, to make an overlapping run which created a 2v1 situation before the 2nd Derby defender was able to come across and support Richard Keogh. A better cut-back from Clucas and Stoke may well have scored.

Although, the strikers only really pulled out wide in the transitional phases of play. When Stoke had control of the ball in the final third, the strikers would get closer together and stay in the box. This was sometimes an issue for Stoke, as it meant the whole attack was too narrow and often the only passing option was out to the full-backs, as highlighted below:

Here, Allen has the ball in the middle of the pitch. The three players ahead of him are all in line with the six yard box and none of them are available for the pass. Allen has to therefore check-back onto his right foot and play it out to the right-back whose cross comes to nothing.

Because at times they are the only players who are available to pass to, Stoke’s full-backs do cross a lot of the time. James McClean has attempted the most crosses per 90 in the league so far (6.8) and Tommy Smith has attempted the 2nd most for a right-back, and the 17th most overall. Perhaps this is something City need to be aware of, having already conceded from crosses against Leeds, Birmingham and Middlesbrough this season.

James McClean tops the crossing charts

Another theme of this match was Stoke’s backline’s willingness to play long balls into the channels for the willing-runners Gregory and Hogan to chase. Since Gregory is superb at bringing his teammates into play, this turned out to be an effective outlet for the Potters. Their second goal (below) is a good example of when this worked well, and this time Butland is the one playing the long ball over the top (as opposed to one of the back four). Yes, you could argue it was a very poor goal to concede from a Derby point of view, but it does highlight one of the features of Stoke’s game when they play with two strikers.

As you may have noticed I’ve skipped Stoke’s equaliser (another set-piece goal from Liam Lindsay) so at this point they’re leading Derby by 2 goals to 1.

Now we get onto Derby’s equaliser, which came from the penalty spot. The manner in which Stoke conceded the penalty was pretty shocking really. Kelle Roos launched a goal kick towards the right-hand touchline (Stoke’s left) and Liam Lindsay came all the way over to try and head it away but ended up making a mess of it, meaning he was then well out of position.

The ball fell to Max Lowe’s feet, and George Evans exploited the space vacated by Lindsay with a darting run which was able to go unchallenged since Joe Allen lost his man completely, and Ryan Woods was ball-watching (picture below). Lowe slipped the ball through to Evans who was eventually tripped and then Waghorn tucked home the penalty. Perhaps the alertness (or lack-of) of Stoke’s midfield is something City can exploit on Saturday with late midfield runs from Brownhill or Palmer? Having said that, Ryan Woods has been left out of Stoke’s last two games, with Jones preferring the more defensively capable Jordan Cousins and Sam Clucas as his holding midfielders against Leeds and Birmingham respectively.

You can even see Nathan Jones in the bottom left corner trying to warn his midfield of the danger behind them!

TO CONCLUDE

Even though I think Nathan Jones will go back to his favoured diamond formation on Saturday, it’s nearly impossible to second guess the Welshman as he’s already started matches with four different formations so far this season (4-4-2 diamond, 3-5-1-1, 4-1-4-1 and 3-5-2 in the League Cup). Their starting XI is just as hard to predict too – Stoke have started 22 different players in their first six league games as Jones tries desperately to find his winning formula.

If Stoke don’t play a 4-4-2 diamond, they will most likely set-up in a 3-5-2 formation. This’ll work similar to the diamond, but with an extra centre-back instead of a DM which should give their back line more solidity – and perhaps ensure they avoid recreating the penalty they conceded against Derby.

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