EFL Team in Focus: can Stoke turn a corner?

Rarely, with a team bottom of the table, do fans respond to a victory by singing the manager’s name – but that is what happened when Stoke City triumphed 2-1 at high-flying Swansea thanks to a last-minute goal.

There is a lot of work ahead for the Potters to climb out of the relegation zone, let alone get their season back on track – but could Scott Hogan’s winner yet be remembered as a pivotal moment in their season?

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) discusses why it might just be.

Strong performances

Stoke have certainly not been found wanting for effort or creativity.

They average 13.5 shots per game – the joint-seventh most in the Championship – they average 7.5 shots from inside the penalty box per game, again the seventh-most and have mustered the ninth most shots on target per game at 3.7.

They allow their opponents 10.6 shots per game, the eighth fewest in the division.

All these details point to a team that are putting in performances worthy of top half form – and yet they remain 24th.

Of course, there are factors as to why generally strong performances had not been converted into a league victory until Saturday, some of which were within Stoke’s control.

Fundamentally, though, they have been getting a lot of things right and maybe they are due a bit more fortune.

Jones’ diamond

Early in the season, Nathan Jones has received a lot of criticism for being very loyal to his favoured diamond system, which worked very well for him at Luton.

There are suggestions that Stoke’s current squad does not suit the diamond.

However, nobody can dispute that the quartet worked very well last time out.

Badou Ndiaye was the midfield engine room, charging down opponents like a pit-bull – we saw his tenacity and determination to sprint back, even for the first-minute goal Stoke conceded.

Ndiaye’s work allows Oghenekaro Etebo to use his energy with a freer reign, Joe Allen presses from the tip of the diamond while Sam Clucas brings flexibility from the left.

Clucas, 29, has played in seven different leagues and possibly up to six positions in his career, so he is able to adapt to new circumstances and slot into any system with minimal fuss, making him the ideal utility player.

Federici over Butland

It is understandable that Jones stayed loyal to Butland, who has been capped nine times by England and was among the best goalkeepers in the Championship last season.

In truth, though, the one-time Birmingham City academy graduate has made too many calamitous errors to maintain his place in Stoke’s starting XI and perhaps needs some time out of the limelight.

There was a moment, with scores level, at Swansea in which Wayne Routledge dug out a low drive aimed inside the near-post in a rare attack for the hosts.

It is tempting to conclude that, had this season’s version of Butland been in goal for that shot, the typical scenario would be that it might have squirmed under his arm.

By contrast, Adam Federici got down low to make a smart save and, although he made an unfortunate parry when conceding the opener, he did not let that affect his confidence too much and always looked agile when called upon.

The only time Federici has conceded more than two goals in a game this season was the 3-0 defeat against Leeds – and he was arguably the team’s best player in that one.

While the former Reading stopper is by no means perfect, he may deserve to keep his place; despite the potential financial benefits of Butland rediscovering his form.

Hogan next to Gregory?

Nathan Jones seems to like Lee Gregory for his pressing, stamina and work off the ball.

The 31-year-old, though, has only scored six goals in his last 34 league appearances, going back to the tail-end of his time at Millwall.

Gregory is not particularly quick, so Jones paired him last time out with Tyrese Campbell, who has that ability to run in behind – but Campbell is somewhat raw and unpolished.

Stoke can rely on their midfield, full-backs Tommy Smith and Bruno Martins Indi plus Gregory to do enough of the spade work to create chances without needing another striker that involves himself heavily in general play – so maybe they can get away with starting a pure poacher like Hogan?

The former Brentford striker is 66/1 with SkyBet to be the Championship’s top goalscorer; intriguing, considering that only two players in the division possess a superior goals per minute ratio when playing up top.

Top half finish plausible?

Stoke’s pre-season target was a top six finish, but they are 15 points off that part of the table.

If approximately 75 points are required to achieve that objective, then Stoke will need 70 points from 35 games – two points per game on average, almost the consistency of title-winners Norwich last season.

More realistically, the Potters will look to attain the 62 points they need for a top half finish; 1.6 points per game.

They look capable of that return and, once they get some momentum, SkyBet’s current offering of 10/3 on Stoke to make the top half may look good value.


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