A Clean (International) Break: How Rowett Can Fix Stoke

This was supposed to be about Joe Allen. I had a series of gifs with some proper MNF lines and circles going on them, but I’ve revaluated mine and Joe’s relationship and decided it is a toxic one and it only gets worse the more I feed it; so this isn’t going to be about Joe Allen.

Instead I’m going to try and offer up the best fan analysis of Stoke City’s woes you’ve seen and then try and guess/propose some solutions to our problems. Before getting into this we need to acknowledge that our start has been one of the hardest in the league so far (with only Boro, Millwall and Reading’s opponents having an average higher position than ours).

 

Stoke have come up against three sides who can be considered well-oiled units who’ve been playing together under the same manager for at least a season and then came up against two over performers in Leeds and Dwight Gayle. I’m not trying to excuse our start, merely trying to paint the picture that we’ve had a difficult start which was always going to expose the frailties in our preparation for this season.

Gary Rowett is not an innocent party in our poor start. Rowett betrayed his own philosophies 45 minutes into the season. He abandoned the 433 shape we had worked on throughout the entirety of preseason, as a well drilled Marcelo Bielsa side dominated our midfield and leaving Afobe isolated. The shift away from 433 has continued all season as has Rowett’s general shift away from how he initially wanted us to play.

Our pressing from the front has been relatively non-existent. Nothing displays this better than James McClean’s our defensive output stats. When we signed the Ireland international I stated that it was a fairly obvious move underpinned by McClean’s work rate out of possession. McClean’s outputs this season are way down on his past few seasons at West Brom.

He is completing 1.4 tackles p90 (only 2.1 attempted p90) compared to his fairly consistent average of about 3 tackles p90 (just above 5 attempted p90) in his three seasons at West Brom. It’s a similar story with his interceptions (down from just above 1 p90 to 0.7) and even the fouls McClean concedes (down from around 2 p90 to 0.5). This isn’t a criticism of McClean, his injury has come at a time when he had begun to show what he could add in attack, but instead an indicator of the total lack of pressing going on at the minute.

After the Preston game Gary Rowett proclaimed that despite his success from the bench Peter Crouch was not his preferred option, fast forward to now and he’s started our last two games. Crouch’s inclusion is indicative of Rowett’s failings in his first month of competitive football at the club. Crouch cannot contribute to the press, ground breaking analysis that a 37-year-old cannot press I know, yet Rowett selected him for WBA after a poor performance against Wigan.

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In just two games we see how Crouch prevents his fellow attacks from actively contributing to pressing the opposition. As previously mentioned Rowett has openly admitted Crouch is not the man he sees leading the line, so why on earth continue with this? Rowett needs to actually back his own philosophy and have move away from the inclusion of old hands who’ve shown to be ever so good at letting the club down. So first up he needs to dump Crouch, who has mustered a whopping two shots in his past two starts, and bring in Afobe. Then Rowett has a multitude of options to try and get his game style implemented.

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Another area of concern will be the lack of James McClean and how Rowett chooses to fix that issue. We could quite likely see Diouf shifted over to the left side of the pitch, although this would be quite a negative move. This system would suggest Rowett still lacks faith in certain players, especially the defence, and will likely prevent effective pressing from the front again. An alternative could be shifting Berahino to a wider position and replacing him with Bojan if Rowett prefers the 4231 system we have opted for the majority of this season.

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Any success that could come with moving Berahino into an inside forward role would be based on whether or not Pieters is replaced by Clucas. Pieters cannot provide the wide overlapping option that would be necessary to give Berahino the freedom to drift into the half spaces. Only nine left backs have played every minute of football in the Championship so far and Erik Pieters is the only one of these to not create a single chance (Andrew Hughes of Preston is the next lowest with three chances created). It is not just a matter of Pieters being unlucky, he has attempted the least crosses of any of these nine players (8 with not one being successful). Dropping down a division has not solved the technical problems that have been at the heart of Erik Pieters’ rapid decline.

During his time playing on the left, chiefly as winger occasionally as a wing back, Clucas has averaged around 3.5 attempted crosses p90 with this creating 1.4 chances. So he clearly seems to be a solution to the problem, even if Clucas wasn’t brought in to fulfil this role it appears it is calling out for him.

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I started by discussing my toxic relationship with Joe Allen and watching his performance against Ireland I decided to call him the ultimate luxury player, a luxury midfielder would probably be better. Allen excelled in the game mainly because he was not required to deliver. This was due to the presence of Ampadu doing the dog work behind him and Ramsey being more creative ahead of him.

So could this midfield three be the best way to imitate that? Woods clearing up, Etebo creating Allen left to-well to just be Joe Allen. This is the system Rowett came in wanting to implement as it provided us with an easy way to control the game. Alongside this, be prepared for some more ground-breaking analysis, the 433 allows us to press more effectively from the front as three is more than two. A front two is easily passed via switching the play (see Spain and Croatia v England) and all of the best pressing sides are predicated on an aggressive front three harrying the oppositions defenders and goalkeeper (see Leeds and Brentford v us).

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A final shape I’d propose as a solution is an unlikely one. Rowett did switch his Derby side to such a shape at the end of last season but I can’t really see it happening here. Mainly because this would likely necessitate the dropping of Shawcross (I’m not really prepared to get into that discussion here) meaning a full back, Martina maybe even Pieters, or Souttar would have to come in.

The benefits of this system are that it allows Rowett to drop Allen if he feels he does not warrant a place in the side. It provides more cover for Clucas being utilised at left wing back. And will allow the two wide attackers to drift inside giving us more options to control possession and create chances.

We have not started the season well and time is running out for us to kick on and finally sort ourselves out. But things are not all doom and gloom, the international break will have provided Rowett with a good opportunity to step away from things and gain a new perspective. Any successful solution will depend on our manager reverting to his own principles and forcing the side to play how he wants them to.

Tom Thrower

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