Why Stoke will get stronger

A concerning start for Stoke City

Stoke City have had on paper a concerning start to their Championship campaign, with two defeats in their opening two matches – and against teams in QPR and Charlton that are likely to be in the bottom half.

The results mean Nathan Jones’ record as manager is three wins in 23 games in all competitions – although it should be recognized that 11 of those matches resulted in draws with a group of players that are not his own.

Given the amount of money that Stoke have spent over the last 15 months, it is understandable that some fans feel they should be getting better results – and yes, the manager comes under scrutiny for that for that.

However, we see reason to think results will improve. Here’s why.

Jones can be a top manager

Without Jones, there is little chance that Luton Town would be playing Stoke in the Championship this season.

After the John Still regime went somewhat stale, the fiery Welshman breathed life into the club with his drive, determination and innovative ideas.

And yet, the return of 113 points from his first 67 league games in charge nothing ground-breaking – just decent and enough for a Play-Off berth in his first full season at the helm, which was the minimum expectation.

What got fans on board with Jones at that point was not necessarily the results, but the standards he set, the culture he created, the football he tried to get his team playing.

In 2017-18, Luton comfortably won promotion from League Two – they became the first team to score seven or more goals in three different home games in an EFL season.

Jones then led them towards the top of League One the following season, before leaving for the Potteries.

Stoke still have one of the best managers in the EFL – show faith and he’ll get the team rolling.

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Strong first hour at the Valley

Granted, Stoke did not produce the desired levels in their opening day 2-1 home loss to QPR, although even in that game they doubled their visitors’ number of shots due to a late rally.

In Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at Charlton, they should have been out of sight by the second half’s midway point.

As well as Tom Ince’s equalizer from outside the box, Stoke hit the post, they hit the bar, they fired off target from numerous very good openings through impressive combination play and penned their hosts in for long spells.

Ultimately, it was a case of them scoring one of their 10 chances and Charlton scoring three in four – yes, the marking needed to be tighter for the last two goals but the general performance merited more.

Right midfield quartet found

The QPR game raised questions over whether Jones’ diamond system could work with the current squad, but there were signs in South London that the right blend has been found.

Ryan Woods dictated play at the base of the diamond with the kind of ease that we saw during his time at Shrewsbury and Brentford, while the dynamism of Joe Allen and Sam Clucas makes them suited to the wide midfield roles, handing Ince free reign at the tip.

The performance dipped when Woods was replaced by Mark Duffy – Allen lacked the discipline to deputize at the base while Ince and Duffy in the same midfield imbalanced the side somewhat – and Jones should take responsibility for not making the correct changes.

However, finding the correct midfield blend is a valuable early lesson that they can take into forthcoming games.

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Etebo is back

Jones has faced criticism for being too loyal to Joe Allen based on his compatriot’s reputation, rather than performances – although there is a reasonable argument to say Allen was one of Stoke’s better players last season.

Still, further competition comes in the return of Ogkenekaro Etebo, who has been granted an extended rest after a busy summer with Nigeria – who came third at the African Cup of Nations – and a busy 15 months for the midfielder in general.

Etebo has re-joined club training in the last seven days and, based on his performances in the second half of last season, could make a key contribution when fresh.

The 23-year-old could be perfect for one of the wide midfield positions in the diamond, due to his tenacity, relentless energy and willingness to support the press.

Butland will improve

Jack Butland was one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship last season.

Had he been able to reach even a fraction of his 2018-19 form in the first two games of this campaign, we could be looking at two different results for Stoke.

First, the Birmingham academy graduate prematurely rushed out into the left channel in the lead-up to QPR’s opener on week one, then inexplicably allowed Lyle Taylor’s basic first half shot to seemingly fly through him on week two.

Butland has played nine games for England and is normally an excellent shot stopper – so while he may make mistakes now and again, we should see these two early blunders as anomalies rather than signs of things to come.

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Signings bedding in

Stoke have made 11 new signings this summer on loan and permanent deals combined.

Widespread changes to the squad were essential, because results and performance data in 2018-19 was well-below the expected standard – and that was under Gary Rowett as well as Jones – there were even problems going back to the tail-end of Mark Hughes’ regime.

However, it is a lot to expect all these new players – as well as a new system – to all click seamlessly straight away.

Last Saturday was the first time Jones had every recruit available to him – and four of the new signings had arrived late in the week and thus had little time to prepare, so Scott Hogan was the only one of the incoming quartet to start.

The Gregory and Hogan combo

The other positive Stoke can take from the defeat at Charlton is the link-up play between Hogan and Lee Gregory.

There already seems to be a direct correlation between Gregory’s presence and Stoke playing their better football – he made a positive impact from the bench against QPR – so Jones will be keen to give the Millwall recruit 90 minutes for the first time this week.

Additionally, Hogan’s finishing was not quite on point but he seems to offer more mobility than Benik Afobe, who was loaned out to Bristol City and Sam Vokes, who partnered the later last week.

The partnership of Gregory and Hogan could really develop over the next few weeks.

So could Stoke, who were 6/4 with SkyBet for a top six finish before day one and are now as big as 11/4 with the same bookmaker.

Don’t expect the Potters’ early season struggles to last.

By Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab)

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