How Stoke will exploit Manchester City's weak link

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the FREE FourFourTwo/Opta StatsZone app to analyse Man City's tricky-looking cup tie at Stoke... 

The dreaded visit to Stoke – irrespective of day and weather conditions – has become one of the great English football clichés, the ultimate ‘difficult place to go’.

The reality of the fixture’s difficulty has actually varied significantly from year to year – a couple of seasons ago, the final ‘home’ league table showed Tony Pulis’ side in exactly the same position as in the ‘away’ league table, yet the cliché persisted.

At the moment, as it happens, Stoke actually have a very impressive home record – until their previous fixture at the Britannia Stadium, they and Manchester United were the only two Premier League sides unbeaten at home, although Chelsea’s 4-0 win - featuring a significant helping hand from Jon Walters - brought that run to a sudden halt.

Of the Premier League’s big boys, Manchester City seem to struggle more than most when making a trip to Stoke. Since the Potters’ promotion to the Premier League in 2008, City’s five league games have ended in a 1-0 defeat, followed by four consecutive 1-1 draws. There was also a 3-1 FA Cup fifth round replay defeat in 2010, after a 1-1 draw at Eastlands.

At home to Stoke in the Premier League, City have no such problems: 3-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-0, 3-0. An FA Cup final at Wembley? A 1-0 win. Clearly, it will be a nervous 40-mile coach trip down the A34 for City this weekend.

So how does Roberto Mancini prepare his troops? In all likelihood, City will play their usual game, stay true to their emphasis upon short passing football, and attempt to force Stoke back into their own half. But City will spend periods without the ball, and therefore Mancini must seek to secure his left-back zone.

Look at the data from Stoke’s previous two home meetings with City, and it’s clear they target City left-back Gael Clichy in the air – at 5’9 he’s the same height as Pablo Zabaleta, but less comfortable in aerial duels. Earlier this season, Tony Pulis used Jon Walters on the right-hand side against City, while last season he used Cameron Jerome in that position. Neither are natural wingers – although Walters does a decent job there – but they’re both perfect to get on the end of the ‘Flo ball’, as ex-Norway coach Egil Olsen used to call it: a long diagonal to a tall forward challenging a small full-back.

Here are the ‘long balls’ played by Stoke in the 1-1 draw earlier this season, and the positions of City’s aerial duels – almost always in the left-back zone, whether from long goal-kicks towards the touchlines, or more direct balls into the penalty box. In fairness, City’s success rate is reasonably high:

But Clichy certainly struggles with these balls – his own success rate was low, although he remains useful for sticking tight to wingers near the touchlines, and winning the ball cleanly:

Interestingly, once Stoke had worked the ball into wide positions, their crosses were incredibly unsuccessful. A 5% completion rate is awful (it’s interesting how many deliveries from the right are blocked by Clichy on the edge of the penalty area), but City were generally unsuccessful with their clearances, probably because Stoke are so quick to the second balls on the edge of the box:

As well as Jerome or Walters, Peter Crouch tends to drift towards that side, too. The positions of his passes received in the fixture last season shows how frequently he patrols that side of the pitch – a zone from where he scored his famous overheard kick:

And Asmir Begovic’s distribution is also interesting. If he chooses not to hit the ball long towards that side, he never passes it towards the right-back – always to left-back Marc Wilson instead. Wilson would then exchange passes with left-winger Matthew Etherington, before thumping diagonals towards the opposite side of the pitch. Although Stoke try to work the ball towards the left-back zone, they never do so with straight balls from their own right-back zone.

This approach has caused problems in two consecutive seasons. So will Mancini adapt? As it happens, he seems to have a selection crisis on the opposite side – Maicon and Micah Richards are both out injured, but Zabaleta should be fit to return after hobbling off against Fulham last weekend. Either way, there’s no chance of Zabaleta switching to the left.

But how about putting Joleon Lescott at left-back? Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastastic is Mancini’s first-choice centre-back partnership, but Lescott would offer more aerial power, and has played that position many times for Everton, City and even England. Mancini will be reluctant to change too much against an inferior side, but with previous meetings in mind, this might be a decent opportunity to rest Clichy.

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