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Scout Report: Stoke City - Changing Systems, Hughes Doubts & Fan Frustration

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Things are far from rosy for Mark Hughes. Stoke have won just one of their last six league games and have conceded 11 goals in their last three away fixtures. The fans are getting restless. Can Sunderland take advantage and earn a much-needed win? Here's all that you need to know about Stoke ahead of tomorrow's game.

Stoke City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

What Happened Last Time?

Sunderland were second best from start to end as Stoke earned a first league win of the season with a 2-0 victory. Joe Allen profited from non-existent defending to net a headed opener before firing through a sea of bodies just before half time, leaving the Lads firmly routed to the bottom of the table after eight games.

What Has Happened Since Then?

Stoke have won five, drawn three and lost four since the teams last met. 18 points from 12 games is really not a bad record, but Stoke's return belies the turmoil and uncertainty going on behind the scenes. Questions have been raised over Mark Hughes' ability to take Stoke any further, with some suggesting that he has 'lost the dressing room' following last weekend's FA Cup defeat to Wolves.

Owner and chairman Peter Coates has backed Hughes in the transfer market (see below for a financial breakdown from uMAXit Football), and while his signings had an initial impact, the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and Giannelli Imbula are really struggling to make one now.

These players haven't come cheaply, either. The problem for teams like Stoke (and indeed Sunderland) is that they are, more often than not, in the market for players who have failed to make an impact at bigger clubs. They have an inflated ego, and therefore think that their 'name value' means that they don't have to work hard for the team. At least that's my take on it. Hughes has failed to find the balance between flair and graft, with many fans suggesting that Tony Pulis' players (ie the ones that they should have moved on from) are the key to making Stoke, well, Stoke again. Some are even longing for the days of Rory Delap and Mamady Sidibe.

User upthefud writes on Oatcake Fanzine:

We've got the most talented and richly assembled squad in our history, we've come 9th 3 consecutive years in a row yet suddenly there's an emptiness. The blokes we've got couldn't give any less of a shit about us, they couldn't be any further away from the working class area people they are supposed to represent.

Ouch. A win on Saturday could see Stoke climb to 9th in the table. But the fans clearly aren't happy. Now seems like the perfect time for Sunderland to capitalise.

Tactics

Predicting how Stoke will look to play has been tough. It seems that Hughes himself has no idea on how to get them going again. The gaffer has switched from 4-at-the-back to 3-at-the-back...and back again, in recent weeks with little success. Stoke are in a rut and Hughes seems like he is struggling to get out of it.

The fans themselves aren't sure what Hughes' game-plan is:

It's the one bugbear at the moment. We're swapping from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3 to 3-4-1-2. Inside out, back to front... He hasn't got the foggiest idea of what his best side is, what system he wants to use and there is no wonder there is a lack of a pattern to our play.

For as much as I hated the football that the previous manager used to play, you could at least see what he was trying to do. With Hughes I haven't got a clue.

theonlooker

The last three Premier League games have seen Stoke play with a 3-4-3 set-up, with varying results. Heavy defeats to Liverpool and Chelsea were followed by a 2-0 win against Watford. Hughes reverted back to a four-man defence for the defeat against Wolves, so on the basis of the last two results, we predict that Stoke will line up in a 3-4-3.

They've conceded 11 goals in their last three away games, and while this seems contradictory considering that eight of those were conceded with this system, the 3-4-3, in theory, should provide them with more solidity. And let's be honest, Sunderland are hardly Liverpool or Chelsea. But we do carry a few threats, most notably in in Jermain Defoe, Adnan Januzaj and Patrick van Aanholt.

Stoke City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Playing 3-4-3 should help to nullify these. For a start, Defoe will be left one against three - a physically imposing three at that. And while Januzaj is likely to float between the lines, the three man defence will have the protection of two midfielders in front of them. Sunderland's midfield is far from the most ambitious in the league, although Jack Rodwell has tried to change that in recent games, so there's likely to be a defensive overload in Stoke's final third.

Hughes has made the odd decision to play Mame Biram Diouf at right wing back in recent games. And while this strikes us as odd, the forward's pace would have been perfect to counteract that of van Aanholt. Diouf, though, is on international duty with Senegal, which means that Glen Johnson may be moved from his centre back position (we did say that Stoke fans have suggested that Hughes is losing the plot) to the wing back slot.

Most of their play is likely to come through central areas - 30% of their attacks through the middle represents the third most in the league - despite the width that the set-up provides. Arnautovic and Shaqiri have combined for just four goals and two assists, and expressive wing play may not be the best idea considering Stoke's fragile situation. They need to keep things simple, and playing the two as inside forwards in a 3-4-3, rather than out-and-out wingers, is likely to help with this. This will also allow them to get closer to Crouch and take advantage of the knockdowns that the beanpole striker will inevitably provide. The likes of Shaqiri have been criticised for a lack of work-rate and it has been suggested that they can't be trusted defensively - this will surely help with that.

Posters on the Oatcake seem to think that playing a 4-4-1-1 will be better for Stoke. But truthfully, if Hughes doesn't have a clue what he wants to do, then what hope do we have? We tried our best, though!

Strengths

As you'd expect from a Stoke side, they're still very competitive in aerial situations. 21.1 aerial duels won per game represents the third best in the league, and while this has yet to translate to a significant goal return (they've scored just three from headers), there's always a threat when Stoke, and Peter Crouch in particular, come into town. The fact that Sunderland have conceded 10 goals to headers may help them.

They also remain a relatively combative side, with 18.3 tackles per game easily in the top ten numbers in the league. They're relatively smart, or 'safe', in how they tackle too. An average of just 10 fouls per game sees Stoke top the league, while they're well in the lower half in terms of cards awarded.

32 goals conceded seems unusually high for Stoke, but their 4.2 shot blocks per game (the fourth best in the league) has helped to prevent that number from increasing.

Weaknesses

Stoke may win a high number of aerial duels, but they've still conceded 12 headed goals - an unusually high number for the Potters. The good news for them is that Sunderland are yet to score from a header this season.

Stoke City v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Hughes has generally been regarded as somebody who has changed the way in which Stoke play, with a greater focus on retaining possession and passing the ball along the ground. He’s made Stoke more 'sexy' to watch. Well, until this season, at least.

They're averaging 3% less possession per game and are making almost 60 less passes each game. While they make just one more long pass per game than last season, suggesting that he hasn't abandoned his style, Stoke are making 52 less short passes. Getting on the ball has proven to be more of a struggle for them and they seem pressured when they do have it - 14.3 unsuccessful touches per game is the league's third worst.

And while Stoke make a high number of tackles, 12 interceptions and 5.8 pass blocks per game represent the league's third worst and worst numbers respectively. They're evidently good at winning the ball in the first phase, but struggle when it is played beyond them.

By this stage last season, Stoke had conceded just 21 goals. They've conceded 32 this time around, and it's not much of a surprise when you consider that they allow 14.3 shots per game, the fifth worst in the league. Interestingly, they've scored three more goals at this stage of the season than they did last time around, but they're not giving themselves a great chance of scoring with just 3.7 shots on target per game.

Key Player - Joe Allen

The Welshman's goals may have dried up, but Allen remains one of, if not the most important player in the Stoke squad. Hughes has struggled to find a balance between flair and graft, but luckily for him, Allen provides a bit of both. Classy on the ball and tenacious in the tackle, the £13M man has proven to be an outstanding signing for the Potters.

Allen leads the team in goals (5) and assists (2), while ranking high in tackles (2.9 per game) and interceptions (1.8 per game). His partnership with Glenn Whelan will be vital to Stoke winning the midfield battle.

Match Facts

  • Sunderland are unbeaten in their last 14 home games against Stoke (W9, D5)
  • Sunderland haven't lost to Stoke twice in the same season since 1993/94
  • Stoke have only managed to score more than one goal at Sunderland once in their last 20 league visits
  • Sunderland have lost just one of their last five home games under David Moyes
  • Stoke have lost three consecutive away league games, conceding 11 goals in the process

Likely Line-Up

Stoke - Football tactics and formations