Stoke City came out of January with a strong backbone emerging in the team.
There was Joe Bursik in goal, Phil Jagielka and Taylor Harwood-Bellis at centre-back, Lewis Baker and Joe Allen in central midfield, Nick Powell coming back from injury and Josh Maja ready to stake a claim at centre-forward, as well as top scorer Jacob Brown. Around that, Josh Tymon has had a strong season on the left, Tyrese Campbell has been getting back to full fitness, Jaden Philogene-Bidace has shown hard work off the ball and flair on it, and there was plenty to be optimistic and encouraged about going forwards.
Instead, everything has been so choppy that if you asked 25,000 Stoke fans today who would be in their best side you would struggle to pair people saying the same thing.
Where is Bursik now? He should be our number one for the future and for the here and now. Who are our best centre-backs? What is the best midfield partnership or are they supposed to play in a two or at three? Where is the front player with pace and strength? If Powell is injured, where is his number two to step up and show what he’s about? One minute we see D’Margio Wright-Philips but then he’s back with the under-23s. Campbell is back but he’s being used all over the place.
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It makes it very difficult to build functioning partnerships and get a well-oiled machine moving through the gears. That’s how you get used to each other’s play, and stability means fewer individual mistakes.
Michael O’Neill has to come up with answers. As frustrating defeats have turned into a bad run, in every game we have needed to do the basics right and go from there. You start with a clean sheet, so finish with a clean sheet and don’t leave yourself open to risk football. But that’s what we’re doing at the moment because there’s an imbalance in the team.
There is a worrying mirror image from last season, when Stoke fell away so depressingly after Christmas time. We lost nine at home and we’re on seven already this time. Last season from January to the end of March we won four, drew five and lost seven, this time it’s won two, drew five and lost seven with one to play.
I know there have been challenges but the manager should have a number one player in each position in a number one system after five transfer windows at the club.
You want a player who knows his role, knows what’s expected and you know he can do it. If the same happens across positions then you work as a unit. Your whole team knows the structure whether it’s attacking, defending or at set plays. You want second choice players who are similar in style and knowledge, ready to slot in and show what they can do if the number one player is injured. That’s how you build your solid base so there is no upheaval.
So recruitment in the first place is the key, then you go into the finer detail. You have to make sure that when you go into the transfer market, you bring in a player who will raise the standard in his position, rather than as cover. That’s how you improve the squad. I am not a big fan of the loan market. It irritates me to see Stoke players go out at the age of 19 or 20 when they should be banging on the door of the first team – and the loan players Stoke bring in should be doing likewise at their own clubs by that age.
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In terms of systems, I will keep banging the drum for a sitting midfielder. We’ve asked Joe Allen to do that role but he’s been left out of the team at times and Jordan Thompson gets praise one minute but is back on the bench if he makes a mistake. If you’re playing a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation you need that holding player to work with centre-halves to release your full-backs. Then you have a tactic that gives you a chance to use wingers and a shape in which you can either counter-attack or work possession.
When we were struggling to build from the back because Blackpool’s four front players were pressing us, for example, just play up into the attacking half and miss them out. Get it up the pitch so we can get in possession or win the ball back.
It will still come down to individuals. At Cardiff we saw Harwood-Bellis on the edge of his own area with two attacking players against him and Allen facing his own goal in front of him. He tries to play a pass through. Why is he doing it?
No matter what, you have to use your own brain. You are playing for Stoke City because you are trusted to make correct decisions, whether you’re attacking or defending, and then have the technique to make them count. You understand the trade you’re in and play what’s on. At the same time, where is the other centre-back around him? Where are the full-backs and the keeper?
The three principles you always look at are getting around a team, getting through a team or getting over a team with your passing and movement. That is the essence of the game and too often those simple theories are overlooked. Sometimes you need reminding of what really matters: don’t give the ball away to opposition strikers and try to get into positions to score goals yourself.
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