Image Courtesy of BBC Sport
For Stoke City to improve on their promising finish to the last campaign, disappointing defeats against fellow mid-table sides like Crystal Palace and draws at West Ham need to be converted into victories. Especially after creating a hat full of clear chances in these games and demolishing title chasers Manchester City earlier in the month at the Britannia. Xherdan Shaqiri had arguably his finest performance in a Stoke shirt opening up the away side’s rearguard like a knife through butter at almost every opportunity. Throughout the first half the Swiss forward was more often than not able to telepathically find his teammate Marko Arnautovic in dangerous areas. However, despite dominating the play and looking a class above their opponents only a 2-0 win was registered.
More of a statement should have been made with a bigger margin of victory, which would have sent tremors throughout the league that the Potters mean business. Consistency within games (in front of goal) is just as important as consistency from game to game, as a failure to be more ruthless against teams could eventually cost Stoke the vital points needed to achieve their ambitions of a higher league finish compared to the last two previous seasons. All the flair and creativity that should now be associated with the Potters won’t mean anything if the record as the league’s joint lowest scorers isn’t lost.
Nobody, even the loud and proud Stoke fans, could have possibly envisaged the positive transformation in away results and performances over the last few seasons under the guidance of the ex-Manchester United forward Mark Hughes. The new and exciting style of play definitely suits expansive counter-attacking football, showcased superbly at Swansea and Southampton. This gives creative players the licence to roam in the attacking third, wreaking havoc in their opponents’ defence in the process. At both those difficult away grounds Bojan Krkic was the beneficiary, scoring goals to secure two tidy 1-0 triumphs. A key feature of this season for Stoke has been solidity at the back, where Potters captain Ryan Shawcross has only conceded two goals when playing. If he can be kept fit the record on the road is likely to stay strong.
Now that Stoke are able to pick up more points away from the Britannia, it is important home form remains consistent. Keeping large amounts of possession can sometimes be the downfall at home, where Stoke get fatally punished if they fail to take advantage of their superiority. With the diverse attacking options in the ranks you would hope more goals will come sooner rather than later, but in recent times scoring enough goals against so called lesser opposition has been a weakness.
In the last few games Hughes has opted for a 4-3-3 formation with the false number nine, Arnautovic and Shaqiri being used on either flank to supplement Bojan as the spear. A workable option this has proved, but my feeling is a frontman who will guarantee at least 15 to 20 league goals a season would offer a better long term solution. At home especially this would provide a better chance of killing teams off. Despite the power and penetrative movement of forwards like Mame Biram Diouf up top, there still isn’t an out and out striker who will tuck away most chances he is presented with.
With the second half of the 2015-16 season just round the corner, the next four fixtures over the busy festive period could be crucial in determining the fortunes of Stoke City come the end of the season. Away trips to Everton and West Bromich Albion inbetween today’s home visit from Manchester United and Liverpool in the first leg of the league cup semi-final under the lights at the Brit are games that Stoke are now capable of winning. Mark Hughes will certainly feel confident that his side can maintain their impressive run of form and enter the new year on a high.
If everything can fall into place in the early stages of the new year, Stoke fans will have even more to cheer about in 2016. As despite my critical thoughts on the progress being made so far this season, let’s face it it certainly has been a good year for the Staffordshire club. Form in the league has been steadily on the rise, a decent cup run has given a realistic chance of lifting silverware for only the second time in the club’s history and players with the biggest potential are starting to hit top form. If the star players perform consistently week in week out there’s no reason the Stoke faithful can’t dare to dream just a little bit more. Over the next few weeks performing practically day in day out is what will be required given the hefty amount of points up for grabs for everybody. To compete in the upper reaches of the premier league keeping up with the rest goes without saying.