Alex Neil’s Stoke City roll into Norfolk tomorrow seemingly still deciding what kind of team they’re going to be.
Having made a much-questioned move from an upwardly mobile Sunderland to the terminally moribund Potters during last season, Neil has finally had the ability to move some players in and out and put his own stamp on the team.
A dream opening day saw Stoke thump Rotherham 4-1 at the BettingCompaniesSuck Stadium and they followed it up with another home win in the League Cup against WBA. They then went down 2-0 in Suffolk against the de facto Champions, before winning another home game 1-0 against a dismal Watford.
So it depends on whether you’re a glass-half-full or half-empty type as to how you view Stoke ahead of tomorrow’s clash. Our last game was a loss to a Rotherham team that Stoke have obliterated 10-2 over two games, which doesn’t bode well.
An away loss against Millwall was then followed by a 6-1 trouncing of Rotherham, again in the League Cup, and they went into the international break with a 2-0 home loss to Preston.
However, if you’re looking for positives, they’ve played twice on the road so far, lost both games, and haven’t scored a goal.
The Potters have yet to settle upon a consistent formation with 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 3-5-2 having all been utilised thus far. Given that the 3-5-2 saw two consecutive defeats, it’s likely that Neil will stick with the 4-2-3-1 that has been his most successful, albeit, it saw his first home defeat against Preston last time out.
In goal, Bournemouth loanee Mark Travers has been the main man and is reportedly playing very well.
At right-back, Wolves loanee Ki-Jana Hoever has been the starter so far, although Stoke swooped on deadline day to bring in League Two Young Player of the Season, Junior Tchamadeu from Colchester, to add competition. Another new man, Lynden Gooch from Sunderland, is also a utility option as he plays in a variety of positions.
At left-back, former Sheffield United stalwart Enda Stevens is another experiencing a solid start for his new club.
At centre-back, Stoke picked up the experienced Scot Michael Rose on a free from Coventry in pre-season and also Luke McNally on loan from Burnley who spent the second half of last season on loan with Rose at Coventry. Those two have split time with the ever-present Ben Wilmot. My guess would be that they’re likely to go with Wilmot and McNally.
In midfield, it’s been far less settled, with Bell-End Ben Pearson, former Reading box-to-box man Josh Laurent, Daniel Johnson (who is still only 30 despite having seemingly been at Preston since the miners’ strike), and Northern Irishman Jordan Thompson having all had game time. For the last two games, marquee summer signing Dutchman Wouter Burger has started having recovered his fitness.
If Stoke do play a 4-2-3-1, I expect two of Pearson, Laurent, and Burger to start with the other joining Thompson and, possibly, Johnson on the bench. Another intriguing option is 16-year-old sensation Sol Sidibe who had a start in the League Cup and has been getting Championship minutes off the bench.
In the attacking midfield, look for Johnson or Laurent to be in the 10 position, with the always-quality, often-injured Tyrese Campbell likely to start on the left. Algerian international Mehdi Leris has started the last two games on the right having arrived from Sampdoria.
Andre Vidigal, who with a brace against Rotherham and a nomination for Championship Player of the Month, announced himself upon the league in exciting fashion following his summer move from Maritimo, is now back in training having missed the last couple of games due to injury, and will compete for the wide roles.
Vidigal can also play up front in a two if required. Other options are recent Korean acquisition Bae Jun-Ho, who is more of a central attacking midfield option and is being given some time to acclimate to English football, and recently acquired Serbian winger Nikola Jojic.
Up front, the starters have been former Aston Villa expensive flop Wesley, and Moroccan international Ryan Mmaee. Dwight Gayle, one of our ghosts of transfer deadline days past, is also still knocking about, albeit mainly from the bench, where he is guaranteed to come on and score, like he always does against us.
We know Alex Neil is a capable manager at this level, and it feels like he is building something slowly at Stoke, but it’s not going to be an overnight improvement. With a big summer turnover of players, Neil is trying to make the pieces fit together, and he’ll have benefitted as much as anyone from having a week without Championship games to work with the bulk of his squad who didn’t go on international duty.
I’m expecting a full-blooded game at Carrow Road, especially if Pearson turns up with his bag of underhand tricks, but City’s quality should be enough to get the victory.
Although we said that against Rotherham…