As Will Grigg rolled in the penalty that put Wigan into a three-goal lead, those of a red and white allegiance experienced an odd kind of unified despair that is unique to football. Who can blame us? Stoke fans had witnessed just under an hour of absolute dross and many had quite appropriately decided that this was going to be the story of our season.
Nothing summarised this more than the midfield. Fletcher and Allen chased the shadows of players who had only three months ago, and I mean no offence towards them, been playing in the third tier of English football. It appeared that the failure to replace the gritty figure of Glenn Whelan was once more going to consign Stoke to a third consecutive botched season.
Three days later, our messiah arrived. Woods has been Stoke’s player of the season so far, there is no discussion to be had about that. How on earth, though, can you display just how good he is? You could start with him being the captain of the side in 50% of the games he’s started despite being at the club for little over a month, a stat which speaks volumes about the effect Woods has had on the club in general.
The defensive issues have taken much deserved headlines away from just how well Woods has performed. He is a different type of leader to Shawcross, who can be defined as a leader by example – ensuring that he was always willing to give everything he could to the side. Instead, Woods is an extension of Rowett and his coaching staff on the pitch, managing players’ positioning and involvement in the game, and can be imagined quite literally as a quarterback.
Woods has been essential to the successful implementation of the 4-3-3 Rowett is so keen for Stoke to play. Woods’ solidity and constant presence in the middle of the pitch is key to ensuring the side plays with balance both vertically and horizontally. Without Woods being a perpetual option in the middle of the park the two more advanced midfielders would become isolated, resulting in the long ball game Stoke often resorted to before Woods came into the side.
Whilst Woods does make some vertical passes mostly he switches the play across the defence to the opposite full back he received the ball from. This allows for Stoke to be patient in searching for space which tends to be the signal for Stoke to bomb a significant number of players forward, in an effort to overload the opposition. This is displayed by Stoke completing the 4th most short passes in the league per 90, and 6th most overall passes in the league.
The improvements in others also go some way to explaining the mystical brilliance of Woods. Allen is the biggest winner in Woods’ inclusion at the base of the midfield. Before the side had a competent holding midfielder, Allen’s work rate and urge to win back the ball ended up being a deficit. He lacks the positional discipline to be a truly deep-lying midfielder and often left other players exposed as he sought out to win the ball. With Woods as a foil for the defence, Allen, the top tackler by volume in the Championship, can go out and aggressively seek the ball without leaving the defence exposed.
Allen has also been able to have more of an effect at the other end of the pitch, doubling his shots from 4 in the games before Woods came into the side, to 8 in the games where the former Brentford man has started. The entire team are shooting more often with Woods in the side. Before Woods’ first start Stoke had managed 62 shots in total (circa 10 per game, 19th best in the league) but this has risen to 78 in our past six games (13 per game, 10th best in the league).
Bojan is also seemingly crafting out a place in our midfield and it’s hard to imagine that this would’ve been the case without Woods. This is not just good for the fanbase’s deification of the lovely Catalan, Bojan actually makes Stoke better as well. The reason Bolton struggled for large patches of the game was because Stoke just dominated the game and our midfield three were key to this. Bojan’s absence stuck out like a sore thumb at Norwich and Stoke could barely string 3 passes together, although the side displayed a defensive toughness that has quite rightly been praised.
A balanced and secure presence in front of them has also seen the back four improve. Back to back clean sheets in the league is something Stoke haven’t seen since Lambert’s first two games and the last time Stoke had back to back clean sheets in back to back wins was December 2016. Christ. Erik Pieters looks to be in the best form he has displayed since he signed a contract extension and Martina is cutting a reliable figure on the right.
I feel I’ve talked a lot here about other players and not really focus on Woods himself and this is the problem: how do you quantify just how good Ryan Woods is? His own individual statistics don’t stand out. He’s averaging less than one interception, tackle and key pass per game; yes, he completes some of the most passes of any player in the league but that alone does not guarantee a good player (see for example Højbjerg of Southampton who completes a similar number to Woods but has 1 win in 7 games).
And this is why this piece has focused so much on other players; because Woods’ most significant contribution is a tactical one. His addition has allowed others in the squad to display their individual quality and this has led to a dramatic increase in the level of performance from Stoke. Stoke have improved by an extra point a game since Woods’ introduction seeing a move from 18th to 5th in the form tables.
This is coupled with a 7-goal swing in goal difference, showing how both the attack and defence have improved. The underlying xG numbers actually paint a picture of further improvement. Stoke have swung from the 7th worst xG difference in the league, after the opening 6 games, to the 3rd best in the last 6 games. On top of that, Stoke have the highest xG figure for those 6 games meaning they are creating the best chances out of any side in the league.
It is perhaps a little unfair on Rowett and his coaching staff, and the rest of the first team, to attribute our change in fortunes to Woods alone. However, I suspect they would concede that the success they’ve had on the training ground would not have transferred to competitive games without Woods.
Woods’ ability on the ball and his almost unquenchable thirst for possession of that little bag of air is something Stoke have not seen since a certain World Cup winning Frenchman. Meanwhile, his work rate and excellent positioning mean his defensive output is much stronger than his numbers suggest.
At 24, Woods has just entered the prime of his career and it would be surprising if this was not his last season in the Championship (whether that be at Stoke or not). He has the potential to move into the Premier League and follow in the long line of players who have developed through every division in the EFL. Stoke fans are pinning promotion hopes on his pivotal role and with his current performances why shouldn’t they?