Stoke City are the focus of this week’s article and there’s a lot of things that I want to look at. I want to focus briefly on why Joe Allen is doing well, look at their other key attacking players including Arnautovic and Shaqiri, assess their defensive chances and then look at their next opponents to try and draw some conclusions about Stoke’s FPL chances over the next set of gameweeks.
Whilst Joe Allen’s good run of form is vital to Stoke’s progress, hence making him a solid bet, at the present time he appears to be the only Stoke player I would recommend in the next few gameweeks, although gambling on Xherdan Shaqiri or Ryan Shawcross could pay dividends, given that Stoke have a very nice run of fixtures. Grant offers a cheap bench goalkeeper option, given Butland is not likely to play this side of Christmas.
Joe Allen has scored four goals in his last three games for Stoke, propelling himself towards the top of the FPL midfielders table with 43 points, above Lallana, Hazard and Dele Alli. Yet Allen has scored a grand total of seven league goals in his whole Swansea career and only four Premier League goals when playing for Liverpool. This was in over two hundred combined appearances. What has been the cause of this sudden shift in Allen’s goal-scoring prowess?
Well part of it is simply time on the pitch. For Liverpool, over a third of his league appearances were as a substitute, indeed he only completed ninety minutes three times for Liverpool last season. But the biggest reason that Allen is suddenly now being pushed into prominence as a goalscorer is his playing position.
Allen has spent the majority, if not all of his career playing as part of a two in a 4-2-3-1, or, often at Swansea, as part of a midfield three. It’s rare that Allen would play as an attacking midfielder for either Liverpool or Swansea, and when he did he was rarely able to get into the box and cause the opposition defence problems.
However, Allen is playing much further forward for Stoke, especially in the last three games in which he has scored his four goals. Against West Brom he was “technically” playing as part of a three man midfield, but was definitely the most attacking of the three midfielders and against both Man United and Sunderland he was playing as an attacking midfielder.
If we watch the highlights of Allen’s Stoke debut you can see he had plenty of action in the box indicating Allen’s positioning was part of Hughes’ master plan when bringing Allen to Stoke this summer.
Its this time in the opponents box which is important. All of Allen’s goals have come from inside the box, with two of them coming inside the six yard box, which indicates he is getting further up the pitch. This correlates with his average position in the last three games, during which he has been the closest midfielder to striker Wilfred Bony.
Moreover, we can see that his overall effect on play in an attacking sense has improved, as a result of his positioning and possibly his confidence, which will have been bolstered both by Mark Hughes’ confidence in him, and by his performances. Allen managed just three shots in his first five games, none of them on target and all from at least twenty five yards from goal, but has had seven shots in his last three, all of them inside the box, five on target, of which four resulted in goals. So we can see that Allen’s shot output, creativity output and goal output have all been improved by pushing him up the field.
Its not all sunshine and roses though. Hughes is capable of adjusting his formations and his use of players depending on the opponents. Against Spurs, a game that Stoke comfortably lost, Allen was given far less opportunity to influence the play and his average position was much deeper. However it is worth noting that Allen played four key passes in that Spurs defeat, compared to the five that he made in the other four games he’s played at CM for Stoke this season (with two of those coming in the West Brom game).
Another concern is that 4 goals in 3 games is fairly amazing. Not even Aguero or Suarez scored at that rate. So he’ll probably not continue to score goals at the current rate, but he’ll certainly continue to be a critical player for Stoke and is priced cheaply in FPL.
Stoke’s Attacking Options
Only Stoke could collect exciting players like Arnautovic, Shaquiri, Bony and Bojan..and have Joe Allen as their best attacking threat
— Seán Gormley (@Seananigen) October 15, 2016
Stoke’s other main attacking options are Arnautovic, Shaqiri and Bony, with others flitting in and around the team. For sake of space, I’m going to focus on their two starting wingers and striker, given that based on their current team, those are the three who will play the majority of the games that we’re looking at over the next set of game weeks.
Starting with Arnautovic then and his shooting stats are genuinely appalling. He has had eighteen shots, with eleven of them coming inside the box. Despite that, he has scored just one goal, and the reason for that is that he has only hit the target three times, with only one of his eleven shots inside the box testing the goalkeeper. Moreover, he’s only averaging one key pass per game, which has resulted in just one assist for him.
What’s worrying is that Arnautovic’s performance is not significantly improving along with Stoke’s, as in his last three games has had six shots, just one of those on target and whilst he has picked up in terms of key passes, with four in three compared to four in five, and one of those being an assist in their last game, there is no evidence that Arnautovic is going to be a big player on FPL.
Moving onto Shaqiri, whose shooting stats are not significantly better than Arnautovic’s. Shaqiri has played just four matches, half as many as his teammate, and has accrued eleven shots, with just two hitting the target. However, unlike Arnautovic, just four of those eleven shots have come inside the box, although Shaqiri has failed to hit the target with any of those efforts; like Arnautovic his only goal of the season came from outside the box.
In terms of key passes, Shaqiri fares better than his fellow winger, with seven key passes notched up in just four games, although he is yet to register an assist. Moreover it’s rather telling that Stoke have lost every game when Shaqiri hasn’t played, but are yet to lose with him on the field; his return to the side corresponding with their run of form.
And finally let’s briefly look at Bony, who despite racking up five straight league starts for Stoke, is yet to get off the mark in a red and white shirt. And his shooting stats are not so much worrying for Stoke fans as downright alarming. Bony has had ten shots this season, with only five of them coming inside the box. Of these ten shots, only two have hit the target and both of those have come from outside the box. Of Bony’s efforts inside the box, three have missed the target and two blocked.
It gets worse, as in two of Bony’s five games he had no shots at all, and against Crystal Palace he wasted Stoke’s only “great” chance with a poor effort. Bony is not a player who is getting into positions to score regularly, and when he is his finishing has been poor. Bony hasn’t been playing or scoring regularly in the Premier League for almost two years and his ability and confidence levels look shot. The excellent blog StatsBomb suggests this is due to Bony being a right footer but not getting the ball to his right foot, and there could be some merit in this given the build up play in the videos above.
Só falta o gol. Partidaça do Bony. pic.twitter.com/P6g0WYnL6e
— Ex-Laterna (@StokeCityDepre) October 15, 2016
Overall, none of these three are players that I can recommend on current form. Of the three, Shaqiri fares the best in terms of likeliness to contribute in the coming weeks, with Bony looking horribly out of touch and Arnautovic having had a dreadful season so far.
Stoke’s Defensive Options
So let’s look briefly at Stoke’s defensive options to see whether any of them are likely to be viable players to have over the next few gameweeks. Stoke kept their first clean sheet of the season at the weekend against Sunderland, handing points out to those who played in it. Part of Stoke’s problem this season defensively has been a lack of a settled back line, with Ryan Shawcross the only ever-present.
However, since he has developed a partnership with Bruno Martins Indi and Erik Pieters has come back into the side at left back, Stoke have looked more solid defensively. Against Sunderland and West Brom they conceded just nine shots inside the penalty area, a collective amount that they conceded at least, if not more in all of their other league games this season apart from the opening day against Boro, when they conceded eight. Moreover, they didn’t concede any great chances in either of those games.
So does that mean that Stoke are a side that we can look to in recent weeks defensively? And if so, are there any individuals that stand out?
Well yes and no. There are certainly definite signs of improvement from Stoke defensively, conceding just two goals in their last three games and keeping their first clean sheet defensively. This could be due to the introduction goalkeeper Grant on loan from Derby has made a difference. In the last 3 games where Grant has played, Stoke have conceded 2 goals, blocked 5 shots and allowed only 3 great chances per game, using stats from Stratbet. In the 5 games before Grant’s arrival, Stoke conceded 14 goals, blocked only 12 shots and conceded 7 great chances. So the number of goals per 90 minutes has dropped, the number of blocked shots per 90 minutes has increased and the number of chances per 90 minutes has decreased since Grant arrived – although this is a small sample size.
But on the other hand, it could also be because Stoke were unfathomably bad before Grant arrived, against Crystal Palace in particular, so the only way for their defence to go was up and Grant got lucky, for example, Grant only had to make just one save against Sunderland and two against WBA, suggesting that an improved defence coudl be the main reason for Stoke’s defensive upturn.
So other than Grant, there are no stand out individuals in the Stoke defence. None of their defenders have notched a goal or an assist yet this season, or have a history of repeatedly scoring or grabbing assists, although Ryan Shawcross can be dangerous from set pieces. Grant is probably worth a punt for his price.
However, we need to factor in Stoke’s next set of six opponents, which is what I intend to do now, when assessing their FPL chances, both in attack and defence.
So Stoke have a very nice run of fixtures coming up. Here are Stoke’s next six games, along with some facts about their opposition:
- Hull (A) – Scored 8 – Conceded 20 – Position 16th
- Swansea (H) – Scored 8 – Conceded 15 – Position 19th
- West Ham (A) – Scored 9 – Conceded 17 – Position 15th
- Bournemouth (H) – Scored 12 – Conceded 12 – Position 11th
- Watford (A) – Scored 13 – Conceded 13 – Position 10th
- Burnley (H) – Scored 6 – Conceded 12 – Position 14th
These teams on average so far this season have scored just 1.17 goals per game, and conceded 1.85 goals per game, with an average position of 14th. So on paper, a very nice run for Stoke. If you’re considering investing in a Stoke player, then these stats will be very encouraging.
So before I summarise Stoke’s chances over the next six game weeks, I want to try and dissect the weaknesses of these six teams and how Stoke might best exploit them, starting at the beginning.
Hull in game week 9
Hull haven’t won a home game since the opening day of the season, and since they beat Leicester 2-1 they’ve lost at home to Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea, with an aggregate score of 7-1. Moreover, off the back of their 6-1 mauling at the hands of Bournemouth, it seems that Hull at the moment cannot buy a clean sheet, and are defensively a shambles. Picking a weakness for Hull is difficult given that their stats are painful to read defensively. They’ve conceded the most goals, the most shots per game (23), the most penalties (5), the ball has spent more time in their own third than any other team in the league (38%); they conceded the most red cards (the only team to have 2), the most key entries (251) and the most shots on target (56).
All of this makes grim reading, but two of the key stats are that the most concerning are the “shots conceded centrally” (72%) and “shots conceded outside the box” (48%, the 3rd highest in the league). These stats, compounded by the performance against Bournemouth, indicate that Hull tend to defend very deep and don’t put much pressure on the ball when opponents are attacking: which frees up Stoke’s long range shot specialists, Shaqiri and Arnautovic to cut inside and take lots of shots from in and around the edge of the box in order to put goalkeeper David Marshall under pressure. Hull have conceded the joint highest goals from outside the box with 3, and there’s ample opportunity for Stoke to add to that tally, or get Joe Allen or Wilfried Bony to game and feed off the scraps from the long range shots of Shaqiri and Arnautovic.
Another viable tactic for Stoke to utilise with the players at their disposal is crosses, as they have Crouch available to replace the woeful Bony, and Hull have the lowest aerial balls won tally in the league with 10.9 per game, and Stoke have won the third most with 19.3, and moreover have Peter Crouch at their disposal, who is 13cm taller than Hull’s central defensive pairing of Maguire and Davies.
Swansea in game week 10
Swansea are another side that defensively are all over the place. Worryingly for them, they’ve conceded comfortably the most great chances in the league with twenty-one conceded, compared to the next highest which is Burnley on thirteen. Part of the reason for that is that 63% of the shots they concede are inside the box and 8% are inside the six yard box, a percentage bettered by only Stoke themselves. Part of this is because Swansea have had a tough run of games, losing their last three to Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal, as well as a 2-2 draw with Chelsea, but nevertheless, they are far too open defensively.
And part of this problem is the lack of a proper holding midfield player. Neither Leroy Fer nor Leon Britton are defensive minded players and so that role has fallen to Jack Cork, a player who doesn’t have the intensity levels to be a proper Premier League defensive midfielder. Another part of the puzzle is that Swansea lack a replacement for Ashley Williams, who did so much sterling defensive work for them last season.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) October 20, 2016
For Stoke to hurt Swansea, they need an attacking midfielder who can get in between the lines of attack and defence and break into the box, which is exactly where Joe Allen will prove useful. Another way that they can hurt Swansea is off set pieces, where Swansea have conceded three goals this season, and defensively their organisation against Arsenal was all over the place.
West Ham in game week 11
West Ham’s biggest problem right now is confidence. Their shaky defence has been very leaky this season, but the longer that they go without conceding, the less shaky their defence looks. So the most important thing to do against West Ham is get out of the blocks early and score first to put their defence under pressure, particularly after defensive collapses against West Brom, Watford and Southampton. The other important thing to do is to keep the pressure on after scoring, as that is when West Ham are vulnerable, meaning that their defence is liable to collapse after conceding with the right amount of pressure applied.
Moreover, West Ham have the highest shots conceded inside their own box percentage in the league with 71% and have the lowest percentage of central shots conceded (58%) indicating that Stoke may once again get lots of joy down the flanks, allowing Shaqiri and Arnautovic to get in behind West Ham’s marauding wingbacks, Antonio and Cresswell and cause problems from the flanks.
Bournemouth in game week 12
Bournemouth should prove a sterner test than Hull, Swansea or West Ham, because they like to sit deep. But it’s important to note that half of their goals scored so far this season were scored in the demolition job of Hull, and their defensive stats were hit by heavy defeats to the two Manchester clubs. In terms of attacking threat, Bournemouth’s threat will come from the flanks, as at 26%, they have the lowest percentage of attacks through the centre in the league. This means that Shaqiri and Arnautovic will need to track back, but also defend on the front foot and pin back the full backs.
However, despite attacking through the wide areas, Bournemouth, like Hull, concede 72% of shots through the centre. One interesting stat on this front is that Bournemouth make the least tackles in the Premier League, which also confirms the “sitting deep” defensively statement above. So, like against Hull, Shaqiri and Arnautovic will be critical for getting between the lines and taking long shots, as a quarter of Bournemouth’s goals have been conceded from outside the box. Moreover, like Hull, aerial presence is a problem for them, winning the third least aerial battles per game this season with 12.5 compared to Stoke’s 19.3 which means that utilising Crouch as a substitute, and well executing set pieces, could be vital weapons for Stoke.
Watford in game week 13
Watford are a team who utilise a 3-5-2 system, which means that isolating and exposing the wing backs and dragging the central defenders out of position is key. This means quick transitions and players who can break in behind Holebas and Amrabat. Bournemouth failed to score because they didn’t have enough pace on the counter attack, which is where Shaqiri and Arnautovic will cause Watford problems. The wide players are key to Watford’s system, with Holebas in particular vital, given that 41% of Watford’s attacks come from the left hand side, a league high.
Once again, Joe Allen will also prove a key figure, as his ability to get in between the defensive midfield and defenders will prove crucial. Against a back three, someone like Bojan might be a better option than Bony up front, as he has the movement to get into the channels and drag defenders from side to side.
Burnley in game week 14
Burnley are a team that can very much be divided into home form and away form. Fortunately for Stoke, they play Burnley at the Bet 365, rather than at Turf Moor, as Burnley have lost all three away games this season, conceding three on each occasion and scoring just once. This is all about organisation. Burnley are used to sitting deep and letting their opponents dominatie possession, but away from home their organisation is far less secure than at Turf Moor.
In any case, Burnley will probably defend deep and the key to breaking them down will lie with Allen and Shaqiri, who are the two most adept passers in this Stoke side. Stoke are going to get a lot of possession in Burnley’s half and Allen is the most likely to pick a defence splitting pass. Again, someone like Bojan who can run into the channels and stretch defences might be a better choice than Bony.
Overall, Stoke’s chances in the next six gameweeks are very difficult to gauge. Certainly I think that Joe Allen is worth a punt, as he is critical to Stoke’s style of play and his late runs into the box will cause the likes of Hull and Swansea as much trouble as they caused Sunderland. However, it’s difficult to gauge whether any of their other attacking players will emerge as threats. Certainly Shaqiri is an educated gamble, as he has the talent to cause teams problems and will prove important to Stoke’s tactics, but Arnautovic on the other flank needs to improve quickly if he is to offer value for money.
Defensively, I would still not bet on Stoke to keep many clean sheets in the next few matches. West Ham, Bournemouth and Watford all appear dangerous enough to score against this Stoke defence, which whilst improving has still only kept one clean sheet against an inept Sunderland side, and whilst they may plausibly be a decent call for the next two weeks against Hull and Swansea, long term I worry that Stoke’s defence just won’t hold up to scrutiny. I can see quite a few 1-1 draws and 2-1 results in this next set for Stoke. Perhaps Grant for your bench, but that’s all folks.