Preston v Stoke – A Tactical Preview of Stoke

Preston North End v Stoke City – A Tactical Overview of Stoke

Stoke head into this game without a league win this season and at the bottom of the league after three games. However, it’s not time to panic yet for the Potters.

So far this season, manager Nathan Jones has opted for 4-1-2-1-2 in every league game. Lining up narrow, they have been reliant upon their full backs pushing forward and providing the width, whilst the three across the midfield have looked to link play between centre halves and full backs. The reliance on the full backs to provide the width in the three games so far is shown below on the influence maps, highlighting the narrow nature of the Stoke midfield. The choice of Smith, McClean and Ward as full backs shows the style that Jones is looking to implement, with all having a high work rate, as well as a willingness to cross the ball.

QPR (H) 1-2:

Charlton (A) 1-3:

Derby (H) 2-2:

In the last two games, Ryan Woods has been to provide the link between defence and midfield, allowing Clucas and Allen to play further forward. His competence on the ball is particularly impressive. So far this season, he has averaged 55.5 passes a game, with a success rate of 92%. His ability on the ball allows Stoke to play from the back, and have a strong base to start attacks from. Clucas and Allen also possess decent passing statistics in the opening games, with Clucas averaging 48 per game and Allen 45, both around the 80% completion mark, showing how comfortable on the ball their midfield is.

Against Derby, Woods’ and Allen’s link up play with Smith formed the basis of a lot of their attacks. The passing combinations of Woods and Smith, and Allen and Smith were 4 out of 5 of the most used on the pitch. This works with Woods receiving the ball deep before laying it out to Woods. He will then find one of Woods or Allen before running on down the wing, looking to receive the ball higher up the pitch from one or the other. Furthermore, Woods only passed Allen 4 times in the game, showing the reliance upon using the full back to pass around any pressing players.

These combinations led to the creation of a number of Stoke’s opportunities. Not afraid to put the ball in the box, Stoke often looked to get down both wings and put crosses in the box. In total, they attempted 35 crosses against Derby (shown on the left below), whilst against QPR and Charlton they saw similar patterns, attempting 21 and 29 respectively. This shows a clear reliance upon wing play and the importance of the link play between full backs and midfield are for Stoke. The influence of the full backs is also shown by the number of passes they complete in the final third, in particular Smith once again, who completed 19 passes in the final third. Preston will look to break these passing patterns, potentially by forcing the full backs further back and making it hard for them to push up, so don’t be surprised to see pacey wingers such as Andre Green start in an attempt to implement this, as well as their own full backs trying to push on and expose the narrow Stoke set up.  

However, the most interesting statistic heading into this game is Stoke’s XG stats (courtesy of Infogol). Against Derby, their XG was 2.56 to Derby’s 1.63 (which included a penalty). Against Charlton, it was 1.15 to to Charlton’s 0.26 (and conceded 3!). The result against QPR appears to be fairer, with an XG of 1.03 to QPR’s 1.57. What this shows is that Stoke are creating plenty of chances and expecting to score in all games, but not putting them away, whilst their defence is conceding more than is expected. The XG maps below (from Infogol) show the Charlton game on the left and Derby game on the right.

Stoke are averaging 15 shots per game, and although this can often be misleading, it is backed up by the XG that they should be converting more of their opportunities. In particular against Derby, Stoke had 21 shots on goal, and although they did manage to convert two of their chances, they should’ve put the game to bed earlier than they did. In an emotional post-match interview (taken from the Football League Paper), Jones said “I am distraught that we couldn’t get one more goal than the opposition because we created twice as many chances. I am sick and tired of us missing chances because this has cost us today. We should have six points, and instead we have one”.

One particular issue is who the chances are currently falling to. Sam Clucas, Liam Lindsay and Stephen Ward lead the way for chances per game in the side, rather than the strikers. In particular against Derby, Lindsay had five shots on goal, and although he did score one of these chances, it is not ideal to have a centre half dominating the shooting statistics. Gregory is a more than capable goal scorer at this level with 20 goals in last two seasons, so if they can find away to find him or Hogan with more of the crosses, they should be able to capitalise on their chances.

So going forward there is at least one clear plan. Transition the ball through midfield using Woods, Allen and Clucas before moving it out wide for one of the full backs to cross. They do have a plan B in their attacking midfielder, who in the opening games has been Tom Ince. He is only averaging 21 passes per game, however these are nearly all in the opponents half, and for example against Derby he had a 100% pass accuracy. His ability on the ball cannot be underestimated, and in him, and Mark Duffy off the bench, Stoke have players with the ability to unlock a defence, and in that role it can often be quality over quantity of passes. Stoke could still look to get him on the ball more given his quality, and this could be done by giving him more of a free role to drift out wide. Given the congestion in the middle of the three centre midfielders and two strikers, if Ince is able to drift out wide, he will be able to find more space and have even more influence on the game. Keeping that in mind, it would be expected that Pearson or Gallagher will pick him up from Preston’s point of view. Both highly competent midfielders when it comes to defending, he will be key to keeping one occupied. So although he may not have any direct involvement at times, his positioning and movement will be key to keeping them occupied, and if he can draw them away from the box, it will help create overloads in the box from midfielders running from deep.

However, Stoke’s defence is currently an issue, and their tactics do leave them open down the wings. Although the XG of other sides is showing that they have been unlucky to concede the amount of goals they have, it is worth noting that silly mistakes have been their downfall. Butland, arguably the best goalkeeper in the league, made uncharacteristic errors against QPR and Charlton, whilst young centre back Collins was beaten too easily for Eze’s winner for QPR. Two goals from crosses (shown below) against Charlton and Derby also shows their susceptibility to wide play.

If Stoke can cut out the silly mistakes, they are creating enough going forward to suggest their luck will turn. Preston will be a tough task on Wednesday, but as the players and manager have been saying in the press this week, a win in the league is coming, and a good opportunity awaits them on Wednesday.

All diagrams from StatsZone unless stated (@StatsZone)

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