The Story So Far
If you were asked to choose one word that best represents Mark Hughes' Stoke City side, then consistency would be a leading contender. With three consecutive 9th place finishes, Hughes transformed a solid, if unspectacular team under Tony Pulis into a side that was both successful and easy on the eye.
Until this season, that is. Instead of kicking on, despite the arrivals of Joe Allen, Wilfried Bony and Bruno Martins Indi, Stoke have failed to win any of their first seven Premier League games and find themselves one place off the bottom of the table. An opening day draw at Middlesbrough was followed by four consecutive defeats, in which the Potters conceded 13 goals, before a late Salomon Rondon goal for West Brom denied them a first win of the season. An improved performance at Old Trafford last time out saw Stoke leave Manchester with a point, and with The Lads heading their way on Saturday, Hughes will view this match up as a great opportunity to secure that elusive first victory.
The Manager - Mark Hughes
It seemed unthinkable that Hughes would be one of the favourites to lose his job after just six Premier League games in the 2016-17 season. After all, he had improved on the great work done by Tony Pulis, delivering three consecutive 9th place finishes to The Potteries, while transforming the team into one that people actually found enjoyable to watch. But after Pulis came back to haunt Stoke in that 1-1 draw with West Brom, Hughes found himself under pressure, with chairman Peter Coates heavily criticising the team. A win against Sunderland will ease some of that pressure.
Key Player - Marko Arnautovic
The Austrian winger enjoyed a prolific season last time out, equaling the club record total of league goals since promotion with 11 and providing six assists. Standing at 6 foot 4, Arnautovic combines pace and power and possesses the technical ability to go both inside and outside of his full back. While his start to this campaign has been far from ideal, the enigmatic Austrian has the ability to burst into life at any time and will target the porous Sunderland defence to kick start his season.
With their poor start to the season, it's hard to find strengths in the Stoke team. They look a shadow of the side that we have seen over the past three seasons. Although Tony Pulis has long departed the Bet365 Stadium and Hughes has worked hard to change their style, the Stoke team still possesses characteristics that would be more closely associated with the now West Brom boss. With all four members of their likely back four standing at over 6 foot tall, it's no surprise that Stoke win 20 aerial duels per game, the third highest total in the league. And while results have been far from desirable, Stoke remain a combative side, making 21.1 tackles per game.
In Arnautovic, Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Giannelli Imbula, Stoke have players with pace and power who are capable of beating a defender. Wilfried Bony and Mame Biram Diouf also combine pace and power up front, and while neither have scored a goal this season, they will surely fancy their chances against the Sunderland defence.
Stoke struggle to keep the ball. Their averages of 46.5% possession and 74.4% pass accuracy per game are at the lower end of the Premier League scale. While Stoke do make 21.1 tackles per game, their tendency to press the ball and reliance on tackling leaves space in behind their midfielders. A fourth lowest total of 11 interceptions per game suggests that they struggle to cut out balls played into space, and with the likes of Patrick van Aanholt, Jermain Defoe and Duncan Watmore looking to run into space in behind the defence, this may be an area in which David Moyes can target.
Stoke have concended 16 goals in just seven games, with only West Ham conceding more. Mark Hughes' side also struggle to score goals, with only five scored so far. Two of those have come via midfielder Joe Allen, who will miss Saturday's game with injury. Stoke have failed to score any of those five goals before half time. In fact, the average time that their first goal is scored is the 72nd minute. In contrast, they concede first, on average, in the 41st minute. Scoring first and frustrating the hosts should be one of Moyes' key aims on Saturday.
With Stoke struggling to keep the ball and conceding at an alarming rate, Hughes has opted for a 433 set-up in the last few games. Presumably, the aim was to make his side more solid and harder to break down, particularly in the midfield area, and to his credit, they did look to be an improved side at Old Trafford. With David Moyes' struggling side heading their way on Saturday however, Hughes may return to the 4231 set-up that has brought them success over the last three seasons.
In that case, it is likely that Bojan will return to the starting line-up to play off Bony, with Arnautovic and Shaqiri providing width. Imbula, who averages 3.5 successful dribbles per game, will look to break and start attacks from deeper areas.
Sunderland moved out of the relegation zone with just their third win of the season after defeating ten man Stoke 2-0 in November 2015. Ryan Shawcross had been sent off for Stoke, but Hughes' side looked to be holding on for a point before two late goals from van Aanholt and Watmore secured victory for Sam Allardyce. In the return fixture, a 94th minute Defoe penalty rescued a vital point in the fight against relegation. Arnautovic had put the hosts in front five minutes after half time, but Defoe stepped up after tangling with Geoff Cameron in the box to head back to Wearside with a draw.