The FourFourTwo Season Preview 2015/16: Stoke
The Premier League is more stratified than ever, with six or seven teams scrapping for a Champions League place, four or five looking wistfully towards a top-10 finish or the Europa League, and nearly half of the division desperately striving to avoid relegation. Stoke are in that middle pot. That makes ambitions hard to define, which is why the likes of Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce and Stoke’s own Mark Hughes often talk about points targets, but it means the Potters can build for the future knowing they’re safe in the present. They have ambition without the pressure it usually brings – and this season’s ambition is to infiltrate the top seven.
What the fan says
Rob Doolan of ChiefDelilah.co.uk gives us his thoughts on how the Potters will do in 2015/16.
Why they’ll do well
Unlike many teams, Stoke don’t rely on any one goalscorer. On top of that, they’re good against better sides (they had the fifth-best record against teams who finished in the top third last season), they’re disciplined (a league-low one red card) and they’re clinical (exploiting defensive errors in the 6-1 win against Liverpool). The Potters also have a useful habit of upsetting their opponents’ half-time team-talks. Last season they scored 16 goals in the 15 minutes preceding the break, which made up a whopping third of their season total, way above the league average of 18%. It’s a great time to strike: teams switch off and Stoke can either get back in the game before turning it around in the second half – the 2-1 wins over Swansea and Villa being two examples – or put the game out of reach altogether as they did in beating Arsenal 3-2.
Why they’ll do badly
Stoke don’t trouble the opposition keeper enough. The final-day demolition of Liverpool put a sheen on their ‘goals for’ column, but they lived on fine margins last season. They didn’t win a game by more than one goal until halfway through the campaign; failed to put more than three past anyone until the final day; averaged the fewest shots per game in the Premier League; and averaged very few shots on target, to boot. They also score far more goals from outside the box under Mark Hughes than under Tony Pulis: 21 in two seasons, after 13 in five. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it’s not necessarily sustainable, either. So, Stoke must create more chances. Fielding bona fide wingers instead of strikers pushed out wide could help, not least as there are several decent headers of the ball within their ranks.
The big questions...
1) Have we seen the last of the ugly old Stoke?
- Joselu (Hannover)
- Jakob Haugaard (Midtylland)
- Philipp Wollscheid (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Shay Given (Aston Villa)
- Glen Johnson (Liverpool)
- Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea)
- Ibrahim Affelay (Barcelona)
- Asmir Begovic (Chelsea)
- Steven Nzonzi (Sevilla)
- Robert Huth (Leicester)
- Thomas Sorensen (Released)
- Wilson Palacios (Released)
- Andy Wilkinson (Released)
Stoke still play aerially when necessary, albeit less as Hughes’ reign has continued. However, averaging the same possession ratio as Swansea (49.8%) shows the general evolution of their play, even if they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater with regards to set-pieces, scoring from few these days and conceding from plenty.
2) Will they miss Asmir Begovic?
They’ll miss Steven Nzonzi more. The Frenchman isn’t easy to replace, and not just because he played virtually every minute of the 2014/15 league season. He has developed from a mere destroyer into a destroyer with good feet and a penchant for attacking space, and at 26 he’s approaching his prime. Begovic, meanwhile, was at risk of losing his place to Jack Butland anyway.
3) Have they hit the Premier League’s glass ceiling?
No. Their fans should be realistic, of course, but Stoke have it in them to improve upon their best-ever finish of ninth by another place or two. Their record against better teams is already decent; they need to take more points from bottom-feeders. They did the double over two teams last season: Everton and Spurs.
Key player: Marko Arnautovic
Stoke aren’t short of options in attacking areas, so Arnautovic has found himself on the bench more often than he’d have liked. If that is to change, the Austrian needs to show Hughes that, even playing out wide, he can offer a goal threat on top of his pace and physicality. Arnautovic scored just one and set up five more in 29 appearances in 2014/15, contributing to a goal every 320 minutes he was on the pitch. Averaging three-and-a-half matches to produce a goal or assist isn’t enough for a team already lacking in both.
What we’ll be saying in May
Stoke’s third consecutive ninth-place finish is unlikely to live long in the memory, with the exception of Charlie Adam’s internet-breaking assault on a mascot, but the Potters’ progress on the pitch and in the points column is clear to see. Add a touch more quality in key positions and they could challenge for Europe.
To see where FourFourTwo think Stoke will finish – along with a bespoke two-page preview – get our special new season issue, out Saturday 1 August.