Love or loathe their style, Stoke’s start to the season has put them in a position to achieve their best ever campaign in the top flight yet. Their already mean defence has this season tightened up even further and they can boast a league high of 8 clean sheets. At home they are particularly formidable, conceding just two goals and unbeaten at the Britannia since February which after us is the longest unbeaten home record in the top flight.
Stoke: A gradual evolution of playing style?
Their clear threat is in the air where they have won the highest percentage of aerials (58%) in the top flight. In Begovic they have the biggest kicker in the division and he will instigate most Stoke attacks. Moyes looked to combat this last season by telling Jelavic to stand on the Serbian’s toes when he had the ball and force him to kick out of his hands (and not of the floor) meaning he can generate less distance on the ball. Fellaini was positioned in a deeper role to assist the centre backs in winning the ball from the kick outs or hovering up the second balls which is a trademark of the Belgian. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Fellaini swopped roles with Osman especially when we didn’t have the ball. The tactic worked to an extent, however Stoke’s most frequent passing combination was still Begovic to Crouch, a combination which took place 8 times.
Unsurprisingly, Stoke have the worst disciplinary record in the top flight with the most fouls per game (14.1) leading to 32 yellows and 2 reds with serial clogger Dean Whitehead the dirtiest in the league with 5 yellow and 1 red despite starting just 6 games. As long as the free kicks conceded are outside the box it won’t bother Stoke as they are so well drilled in defending set plays.
Passing wise, Reading’s arrival in the top flight means Stoke now have just the second worst average share of the ball (42%) and second worst pass completion (71%). Passing is focused down the right wing which will mean Pienaar will need to be a bit more defensively focused. Charlie Adam was brought in to develop their play and has been deployed in the advanced number 10 role since arriving which has yielded a few goals and assists. Adam is decent if you let him play on his left so we need to press him and keep him on his right. Generally they have struggled for goals and have not scored more than two in a game in their last 41 matches.
Moyes conundrum is deciding how much he wants to modify our expansive game to deal with the specific threats Stoke pose. For example, Anichebe is always selected against Stoke, usually in a wider role away from the centre backs. It’s a given that we will have 60% of the ball but Stoke will be happy with this. Like Pulis, Moyes approach is all about territory and less about dominating the ball and Moyes will look to defend high up the pitch, pushing Stoke’s strikers away from goal meaning their wide men can’t get into good crossing positions in the final third. When Moyes has tinkered too much or been forced to deploy square pegs in round holes this season we have invariably struggled to establish a rhythm on the ball with our key threats reduced. Whereas we are usually happy to invite the crosses and pack the 18 yard box, this tactics doesn’t work against Stoke as they showed the season before last when Kenwyne Jones scored from an Etherington delivery with little pressure on the ball from Neville.
At the back, Huth and Shawcross live and breathe defending crosses into the box and both possess the full repertoire of blocking runs, elbows and anything else that will give them an advantage. Last season, Stoke well and truly did a number on us in the fixture at Goodison in the kind of game that makes self-harm seem an appealing option. We had 33 crosses with none leading to an attempt on goal with a lack of movement in the box from us the key flaw. If we are to cross they will need to be drilled / pulled back to the near post for Jelavic or stood up to the back post onto their less aerially equipped full backs for Fellaini to attack. What the lumbering duo of Huth and Shawcross don’t like is quick feet running at them with pace which is why the loss of Mirallas is a hammer blow. The speed and movement of players of that ilk is crucial against well organised sides as they can expose gaps before defensive shape is restored in counter attack situations. When Stoke do have the ball in the attacking third its vital that we break at pace with Gibson looking to start quick attacking 2 v 1 transitions with his long range pings from central to wide areas.
Selection wise, with Anichebe out, the only real options Moyes has to tweak aerially is Apostolos Velios. The Greek was well and truly schooled by Huth in last season’s fixture and I’d doubt Moyes will start him again here. Mirallas is out for a few weeks and Hibbert is unlikely to feature until the new year so Naismith will start in the only change from last week. For Stoke, Crouch and Adam should return for Jones and Whitehead whilst Ryan Shotton is suspended.
If you don’t bet your xmas shopping money on this being a draw you need to ask yourself some serious questions. Stoke and Everton are the league’s draw specialists with 50% of their games this season ending all square with the games between the two sides always tight. Simply everything about this one points to a draw. With our last 12 games featuring an efc goal and no clean sheet the 1-1 at 11/2 with willie hills looks decent. There has been just six goals in the last four meetings between the clubs and BetVictor will offer you 4/6 on under 2.5 goals. If you are confident we can eek out a win you can get 33/10 with ladbrokes for us to win by 1 goal.