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Fan Focus: The Stoke Opinion From TEAMtalk's Mark Holmes

Ahead of this Monday's crunch game against Stoke, we again caught up with TEAMtalk and Sky Sports writer Mark Holmes to tell us more about his beloved Potters.

Michael Regan

Stoke's run of form in the second half of the season must've been extremely worrying. Where do you think things have gone wrong this year?

Mark Holmes: A lot of mistakes have been made at Stoke over the past two seasons, all of which contributed to the bad run, but probably the biggest reason for the sudden dip in form was that the team stopped keeping clean sheets.

Stoke have never scored many goals under Tony Pulis in the Premier League, but their defensive record has always been good, and in the first half of this season it was outstanding. It's not as though Stoke were beating teams three and four-nil when they were doing well; it's just that one goal was often enough for a win.
Suddenly, clean sheets became harder to come by and the defence began to look more and more disorganised. Losing Marc Wilson to injury and a lot of different people playing at full-back didn't help matters - but Stoke fans will tell you it's the manager's fault for not strengthening in those areas over the summer.

To me, mistakes made in the transfer market have been the biggest problem: as well as full-backs, Stoke also badly needed wingers to replace Jermaine Pennant and compete with Matty Etherington, but Michael Kightly has been hit and miss, while Brek Shea was signed in January but deemed not ready for the first team.

Pulis also has to take a lot of the blame for sticking with the same players when clearly out of form. Peter Crouch, for instance, had a terrible few months yet continued to be picked ahead of Kenwyne Jones, who had looked dangerous every time he came off the bench. The same applies to the likes of Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters, who were persisted with no matter how badly they played. With plenty of good players sitting on the bench, there was no excuse for Pulis not to freshen up the team more than he did.

Speaking of Pulis, he has come under a lot of pressure over the last few months. Even though Stoke are pretty much safe now, do you think he's perhaps taken the team as far as he can, and that a change in manager is needed?

MH: The biggest problem with Pulis is that he makes the same mistakes over and over again but seemingly doesn't learn from them. With the right signings over the summer, less of a reliance on certain players and a few subtle changes to the style of play Stoke could start improving again, but these changes have needed to be made for a while now and supporters are questioning whether Pulis can or will make them.

I would be in favour of a change if the right manager became available, but I certainly don't advocate change for the sake of it. My preference - and what is likely to happen - is that Pulis is given one more season to solve the problems in the team and introduce a less defensive style of play. If he cannot do that, then he will have to go.

Asmir Begovic has really stood out for Stoke this season, but with Jack Butland coming in in January, there's been a lot of talk that he'll be off this summer. How do you rate your chances of keeping him?

MH: Stoke don't need to sell Begovic, and it's questionable whether Butland is ready to be first choice for a Premier League team. However, if a good bid comes in for Begovic it would make sense for Stoke to take the money to help improve the team in other areas. I expect Begovic himself will want to go if a bigger club does come in for him, but only if he is guaranteed first-team football. I don't think he'd go to sit on Chelsea's bench, for example. My inkling is that Begovic will stay for now.

Moving onto Sunderland, it's been a bit of a mixed start to Paolo Di Canio's reign as manager. How do you rate his chances of success at the club?

MH: It was a risky appointment by Sunderland, but it's certainly had the desired short-term effect. Those back-to-back wins will keep you up this season.

Going forward, it will be tougher for him, but I've been impressed by the tactical changes he's made since taking over and like what he has to say about the game. His temperament is a potential weakness, though. He's been known to fall out with players in the past, and it shouldn't be underestimated what effect a split dressing room can have on performances. It also remains to be seen whether Di Canio is capable of altering his tactics for different games - he's kept it extremely simple so far - but overall I think Sunderland fans should feel optimistic about the future with him in charge.

Where do Stoke major weaknesses lie ahead of next Monday, and how can Sunderland look to exploit them?

MH: As already mentioned, Stoke are weak at full-back. The likelihood is that Andy Wilkinson will play at left-back, pitting him against Sunderland's most dangerous forward player in Adam Johnson. That battle could be key in determining the outcome of the game.

Vice versa, where are the weak areas in Sunderland's line-up you think Stoke could take advantage of?

MH: Sunderland's defence isn't particularly quick, and Stoke have been starting with Cameron Jerome in attack recently. If he can isolate himself against John O'Shea or one of the full-backs that could get Stoke up the pitch - usually, teams find it easy to defend high against us when Peter Crouch starts up front.

Finally, do you have a prediction for next Monday?

MH: Di Canio strikes me as a manager that will be good at getting a response out of his players after a poor result. If I wasn't a Stoke fan, I would tip Sunderland to win by the odd goal.

However, I am a Stoke fan and have been pleased with the way the team has played in the last two games so I'll plump for a 1-1 draw.

Many thanks to Mark for giving his time to talk to us. If you'd like to read more of his work, you can find it over at TEAMtalk.

You can also follow Mark on Twitter HERE.

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