There we go, five months of Nathan Jones and it was…well, it probably wasn’t everything we had all hoped it to be. Stoke stumbled to a 16th placed finish and results wise Jones failed to improve on Rowett’s abject failure. But for some reason I, and I believe a relatively significant proportion of the rest of the fan base, are hopeful for the future.
Nathan Jones believes things are going in the right direction:
“Whether people can see that or not, there is a fluency coming to the team and I can see that, I can see it on the training pitches and it is only going to become more and more evident as we move forward.
“There is a hard working-ness to the group, there is a resilience about them and an honesty about the team now – there really, really is.”
Jones’ entire tenure at the club should be asterisked for a variety of reasons, from a miserable attack Jones played little role in recruiting, to an inability to play his preferred 442 diamond with the personnel he had at his disposal. After initially experimenting with the system in the early weeks, Jones eventually abandoned it for a more traditional 4231. In the final month or so of the season Jones has trialled his diamond in a much more defensive system, sacrificing a striker for an extra defender providing stability to allow the freedom wing backs need in Jones’ system.
The system has led to two major positives, a defence verging on monstrousness and the use of Tom Edwards as a true wing back. Despite these successes, the 541 diamond has failed to solve the pre-existing attacking problems Jones inherited from Rowett.
Stoke’s all-new nasty defence
There has been one clear improvement under Jones, the defence. Stoke’s defence has stepped up a gear to give away the second lowest xG per game figure (0.93) since Jones’ first game away at Brentford. Under Rowett Stoke were not exactly poor defensively, giving up only 1.17 xG per game but the shift under Jones has seen Stoke move from matching the defences of play-off hopefuls like Bristol City (1.20 xGA per game) to those of the automatic candidates such as Leeds (0.88 xGA per game). This hardening of an already tough defence could be pivotal to any future promotion push. Take, for example, Aston Villa this season who have outscored Sheffield United xG wise but the Blades’ superior defence (1.19 xGA vs 0.89 xGA per game) has led to their greater success and ultimately promotion.
This graph from Swans Analytics indicates how solid the defence has become under Jones:
The unique 46 game format of the EFL rewards the ability to turn simply good to outstanding more than any other. Whilst Luton attract plaudits for their attacking brilliance the underlying numbers suggest their dominant defence more than played its role in their success (https://t.co/cbI5SniDwt). Jones’ ability to solidify the defence through one excellent recruit (Danny Batth for non-Stoke fans) and his work on the training ground should not be downplayed as it shows positive signs for improving the rest of the squad.
For as good as Stoke’s defence has been under Jones the attack has been as equally poor. 14 goals in 19 games is simply unacceptable for a side who are seeking promotion. Whilst the Potters have slightly underperformed their xG under Jones they still rank as the 3rd worst in that metric in the time Jones has been at the helm.
But this is not a case of Jones making the attack worse nor is it one of sacrificing attack to perfect the defence. The problems at the top of the pitch pre-exist Jones, under Rowett Stoke only mustered 31 goals in 27 games and Jones has been significantly let down by his star attackers. Under Rowett the three leading scorers in the side, Afobe (6), Ince (6) and Allen (5), combined for 17 goals; under Jones they have combined for 3 goals, with Ince failing to trouble the goalscorer charts.
Despite the disappointing season Stoke City have had going forward, if you dig under the headline stats there is evidence that should give Stoke fans faith. Vokes’ 3 goals in 12 appearances see him top score for Jones and finish the season with the highest goals per 90 minutes of any Stoke player. Alongside this, there has been a considerable improvement in the wing back positions as well as from set pieces.
Real life wing backs
Jones’ back three system seems to be focused upon trying to give Stoke’s wing backs the confidence to push as far forward as they will need to do so in the upcoming season. The defensive solidity has seen McClean and Edwards/Bauer take up much more advanced positions in the end of season run-in than the full backs initially did in Jones’ first games.
The wing backs will be pivotal to any success next season but in Jones’ system. It is such a specialist role that it could not be picked up without a proper pre-season.
The shift to a back three has also allowed individuals the freedom to grapple with the extreme attacking demands of a jones wingback. An example of this freedom is James McClean, whose shift to wing back which has had the almost contradictory effect of leading to the Irishman’s best run of attacking performances.
And then, of course, there is Tom Edwards. Edwards has looked a different beast going forward since Jones’ appointment, culminating in his stunning MOTM performance against Norwich. Edwards has bought into the system and the Norwich game saw the truest understanding of the complete role fullbacks play under the Welshman. Comparing Edwards’ heatmaps from the Brentford (left) and Norwich (right) games demonstrate the development of his understanding of the role Jones want from his fullbacks.
Edwards is a lot less constrained to the touchline, drifting inside to become more involved in build-up play and counter-pressing. In his performance against Norwich, we saw two crucial examples of this. The first leads to an excellent chance for Afobe (who ultimately fluffs his line) Edwards times his moment to press perfectly forcing the Norwich player into a closing channel. He does similar for his goal and finishes excellently.
Set-Pieces (don’t mention penalties)
Stoke have had a woeful season from dead ball situations, that little dot 12 yards from the goal line is akin to Dracula in the Potteries plaguing the villagers, making children cry, etc. Stoke have racked up 6 goals from non-penalty set pieces this season, the 2nd lowest total behind Wigan’s 5. Under Rowett Stoke scored 2 corners in 28 games (3 if you include McClean’s goal against Hull which I don’t).
If anyone has watched that compilation of Luton goals, you will see just an abundance of goals from corners. Whilst Jones hasn’t been able to fully deliver on reforming the set-pieces, he has expressed a disappointment himself in the squad failing to convert from these chances, there has been a slight shift in recent weeks.
Two goals from corners in three games, both coming against the automatically promoted sides, suggests Jones is starting to be able to implement his plans from dead ball scenarios. It is not surprising a manager who was thrown into a hectic schedule has struggled to work on corners and free-kicks but a recent uptake in them as the fixture list became less congested suggests Stoke could be a real threat with a full preseason behind them.
Defence stay good, attack get less bad?
The solution is simple, if not slightly reductive. Make the attack better without compromising on the increased quality of the defence. Jones will be looking to recruit and train a side to be able to deliver and push Stoke to the top end of the table. The Welshman has exuded a faith in his pre-season plans and recruitment strategy that has verged on a cocksure confidence (I direct that at non-Stoke fans reading this as those of the red and white faith will have found it impossible to miss Jones’ near daily interviews).
Stoke’s recruitment is looking livelier than it ever has for mid-May. Lee Gregory looks sure to sign on a free from Millwall, his work-rate certainly aligns with Jones’ plans but his poor finishing likely means he cannot be relied upon to solve the attacking problems on his own.
Links with Powell from Wigan, Davies from Barnsley and Burns from Fleetwood show a shift in policy but Stoke shouldn’t turn their noses up at this focus on recruitment from below.
Jones’ record suggests that he knows how to turn things around. 60 wins and 213 goals in 118 league games with Luton after an initial period of settling in is what earned Nathan Jones his chance at Stoke City.
Jones appears to have a faith that the settling in period he has had since January has allowed him to adequately assess the squad and identify what it needs, much as he did at the aforementioned Luton, and that is enough for me.
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