Playing a high line enables us to impact where the long balls are coming from i.e. if Stoke are allowed to get within 10 yards of our 18 yard line the cross will be potent given the quality they have in the wing berths. If we keep our line higher the opponent gets the ball further from goal and the threat of the delivery is reduced. By playing higher upfield it pushes Stoke’s defence back and makes long balls to Crouch come shorter up the pitch. The graphic below shows this nicely…..
The risk is that it leaves more space in behind our backline but like us, Stoke aren’t blessed with bags of pace so it’s a risk worth taking. One aspect which will need to change from our normal game is in terms of where we press. We usually press high upfield onto opposition’s fullbacks –this being the key factor in us spending a higher % of time in the opposition half of the field at home than any side in the league. Against Stoke though, there is little point in pressing Wilkinson and Higginbotham – neither are selected for marauding runs or for their distribution skills.
‘Moyes men have conceded the fewest shots per game (11) at home whilst Stoke have averaged just 2.3 shots on target per game on their travels – comfortably the lowest in the top flight’
Sorensen will pump balls up to Crouch with the defence/midfield zones bypassed so there is no opportunity to press at Stoke’s defensive line. The alternative is to drop off and keep things tight between our back four and midfield 5.
2. Flood the midfield
It’s a given we will have more possession than our visitors on Sunday; Stoke have posted the lowest possession (41.4%) and lowest pass completion (70.2%) per game in the top flight. Baines will play level with the midfield meaning we will outnumber Stoke in this area. Stoke play quite a flat midfield 4 (although Walters can sometimes drop to pick up the opposing side’s anchor man) so if we deploy 4-2-3-1 we will get some joy in between the lines and hopefully move the ball around the Stoke midfield.
We struggle to break down organised sides who sit deep due to our poor incision in the final third – for the record we’ve scored just once in our last 270 minutes against Stoke. Patience will be key then, as it was against Bolton last week. Our visitors have shipped 10 in their last 3 away games so we are not dealing with a water tight rearguard. Remember also that this season 3 of every 4 goals we have scored have come in the last 15 minutes of games.
3. Good movement
Good movement is always a key factor in breaking down a stubborn opponent. Stoke will set up with 2 centre backs screened by two defensive midfielders players . Fullback’s Higginbotham and Wilkinson will tuck inside close to their centre backs.
To get through this wall we will need to move the defenders about to create space. Against Bolton when we broke we were quite rigid with attacking runs often in straight lines. For this reason (and his obvious height) Velios could be a starter on Sunday. Moyes has shown before with his preference to fit Anichebe into his line-up against Stoke that he is conscious of their aerial onslaught (especially if Distin is again ruled out with injury) and Velios movement in the box is tidy. Check out the screenshot below of his multi run approach against Wigan; making one run for the centre back, then stopping and making a second diverted run to bash home Hibbert’s cross.
4. Deal with the long ball
Direct Balls into the box are Stoke’s key weapon; they have recorded the highest % of long passes (22%) in the league. They certainly play to their strengths having won the most aerial duels per game (15) in the league. Due to this they have the highest – by some distance – % of goal attempts from inside the opposition 6 yard box (17%) In total, 61% of their goals this season have come from dead ball situations.
Enter ‘The Delap-idator’. This phenomenon has waned in terms of its effectiveness but still brings back nightmares for Tim Howard and co from our first meeting at The Britannia when it caused havoc and created both Stoke goals on the day. The above image shows how we defended them last season. I’d stick with this and try to turn the tables and look to use it against Stoke through quick counter-attacks as soon as we win the ball back to expose Stoke over committing players. It can be dangerous but the opposition then has to think about marking our players.
5. Long Shot?
Defensively, Stoke will show you out to the flanks, wanting you to cross the ball safe in the knowledge they have a team physically capable of repelling any balls into their box. The chalkboard from their defeat at Swansea shows that whilst Swansea had all the ball they found it incredibly hard to penetrate Stoke’s 18 yard box zone.
Enter Plan B. Away from home, 57% of the goals Stoke have conceded have come from long distance – the highest in the top flight. Shooting from further out then will become an option. Saha and Rodwell are our most frequent long range shooters from open play and if selected the pair could play a prominent role on Sunday.
Patience will be key on Sunday. I can see us winning but it won’t be pretty. Both sides are in the league’s top 5 in terms of fouls conceded so the game will unquestionably be scrappy. If we can keep our composure I’d take us to sneak it 1-0 with a goal in the last 15 minutes.