Following the drama of last week’s pulsating derby comes one of the less eye catching fixtures of the season as Mark ‘Ambition’ Hughes and his Stoke troops lumber into L4 looking to puncture the bubbling toffee feel good factor in a fixture which could see us go joint 2nd in the table.
Hughes is one of the least popular ex toffee players due largely to his conduct over the Lescott ‘transfer wrangle’ from the summer of 2009. This situation was documented earlier this summer when he polled 0% in the fans poll for prospective Moyes replacements.
Even Steve Round got 1%.
Hughes enjoyed relative success at Blackburn and Fulham either side of an ill fated stint at Man City whilst his QPR reign was emphatically calamitous. Like Martinez, he has looked to harness the key strengths he inherited at the back and supplement it with a more aesthetically pleasing passing style. He is also trying to restructure an expensively assembled squad lacking in options, saleable assets and youthful exuberance – all things central to the thinking of new technical director Mark Cartwright.
On the field, passing share and completion figures are both up, although there has been relatively minimal difference in terms of goals scored, conceded or points accrued compared to last season’s figures. The length of their average pass has gone down, albeit only by 1m, from 21 to 20. At the back they have just one clean sheet on the road and one win – both accrued in the same game at west ham – but have performed admirably at Old Trafford and Swansea and most of their games have been familiarly tight with few goals, particularly at home.
Likely Line-up Appraisal
A. Begovic – Towering keeper, great catcher and imposing shot stopper who unexpectedly remained at the club this summer following the arrival of the much coveted Butland. Despite a tweak to Stoke’s style under Hughes, it was Begovic’s combination with Crouch that was Stoke’s most prolific passing linkage in their last away game at Swansea.
E. Pieters – Left back who can at a push play centre half. Much more adventurous than the pulis identikit full back i.e he will cross the halfway line and can pass the ball. His defensive capability is sure to be tested against the likes of Kevin ‘Bite yer legs’ Mirallas and / or Deulofeu.
G.Cameron – Competent right footed American full back who offers versatility and can play full back or central defence.
R.Shawcross – Dummy headed defensive beaut. Has usually been in the thick of the action in past meetings as a result of his sparring duels with Fellaini but will be much less comfortable against tricky ginkers running in and around him like Mirallas, Barkley and Pienaar.
R.Huth – Battle of the bulge foot soldier who scored the winning goal in this fixture 2 years ago. A solid and consistent performer with few weak spots. Stoke have surprisingly conceded the most headed goals in the league this season – bizarre given the aerial prowess that Huth and shawcross bring to the party.
S.Nzonzi – Physically imposing right footed midfielder who was once a target of the Moyes regime. Very good in the air will most likely pick up young Barkley.
G. Whelan – Irishman is known in the dressing room as ‘the archbishop of banterbury’ for hilarious bantz related pranks including the kenwyne jones pigs head incident. Statistically the 12th best passer in the league, he posted 100% completion from his 63 passes last week and has decent dead ball prowess. Has been fighting it out with Wilson Palacios for a spot alongside Nzonzi this season.
M. Arnautovic- 6.3 wide forward with power,pace and who is technically great with two good feet – he can also boast Inter and Bremen in his back catalogue of former clubs. Is very direct and will look to shoot from outside the box at every opportunity and also takes a decent dead ball.
C.Adam- Sugar puff teethed, tinned hotdog eating goon who boasts the biggest collection of g star raw merchandise in the outer Hebrides. His vacant facial expression masks decent long range capability and a quality left peg but he is defensively suspect can be caught in possession when put under pressure. Top scorer this season with 3. Currently has the edge on fellow washed up groc Stephen Ireland for the role ‘in the hole’.
J. Walters -Birkenhead born midfielder cum forward, toffeeman and Irish international . Reminiscent of a post 2009 Tim Cahill in that he’s good in the air, will put in a shift, wins plenty of free kicks but doesn’t score many and isn’t great on the ball. Never scored against his boyhood idols.
P.Crouch – Harry Redknapp’s elephant man will look to receive long and link play with the wide midfielders who will tuck in whilst the ball is in the air. Has no goals this seaosn but has bagged 3 assists in his last 2 games. His career figures against us total 4 goals in 18 games.
Our key dilemma surrounds who replaces the sidelined Leighton Baines. His understudy Bryan Oviedo would be the obvious choice although the Costa Rican hasn’t had a sniff of first team action barring inconclusive run outs at Fulham and West ham. Barry showed last week that he can ‘do a job’ there whilst Distin could shift to left back and allow fit again Alcaraz to come in at left sided centre back should we need him.
Whilst Oviedo would mean less change elsewhere, the emphasis for this game needs to be on picking a team that will suitably pull apart Stokes rigid shape. For this reason I’d go with Pienaar (left) Mirallas (central)and Deulofeu (right) behind Lukaku with a midfield base of Barkley and McCarthy with Barry at left back.
We’ve struggled to edge out teams like Palace and West Brom who have ‘parked the bus’ and one goal may be enough to see off an improving albeit middle of the road Stoke side. The last three games between the clubs at L4 have ended 1-0 and despite new direction at both clubs each side’s key strength still reside at the back so I’m going for us to edge it 1-0.