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Friday 22 November 2013

Talking tactics: Stakes high at Britannia Stadium

Adrian Clarke's latest column looks at Saturday's fixture between Stoke City and Sunderland

  • Pic 1: It's important that both sets of wide attacking players support the lone striker

  • Pic 2: Steven N’Zonzi's passes against West Brom

  • Pic 3: Against Swansea, Geoff Cameron showed how much he enjoys pushing forward

  • Pic 4: Steven Ireland touches v Southampton

Bringing fresh styles and new ideas is one thing but Barclays Premier League survival is the No 1 priority for Mark Hughes and Gus Poyet as they approach the critical winter months.

Tomorrow the two managers lock horns at the Britannia Stadium in a fixture that could shape Stoke City and Sunderland's seasons. It is early days, but the stakes are undeniably high. Let's examine which areas could be most decisive on Saturday afternoon…

Risk and reward

This match will be tight. It always is. The two clubs have never been separated by more than one goal at the Britannia Stadium during the Barclays Premier League era and it is a contest where scoring opportunities are usually at a premium. To emphasise this, although Sunderland have claimed four points from their last two visits to the Potteries, they did so after manufacturing one shot on target in 180 minutes of football.  

  Past BPL meetings at Stoke

Stoke 0-0 Sunderland
Stoke 0-1 Sunderland
Stoke 3-2 Sunderland
Stoke 1-0 Sunderland
Stoke 1-0 Sunderland

Despite tweaking their styles, neither outfit has yet discovered their creative joie de vivre. Each averaging around 11 shots per match (16th and 17th in the rankings) their search for a productive attacking formula is proving elusive. If isolated up front, Peter Crouch and Steven Fletcher will struggle to be effective and that has been an issue.

In a results business like football, it is understandable that both managers have urged defensive discipline, demanding their attacking players fill in without the ball, but the potency of their respective forward lines is suffering as a result. (See Table 1 below)

Jonathan Walters and Marko Arnautovic, for Stoke, and Emmanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson, for Sunderland, are not being selected because they track back diligently. They are picked to do what they do best: to create and score goals in the opposition penalty area. Therefore, once possession is regained they need to come in off the flanks more often, and make well-timed runs in support of, or even beyond, their strikers.

Whether it is latching on to a knockdown, a flick, filling the box from a cross, or even being slipped in directly by a midfielder, this desire and positive movement could make all the difference.

When two similar systems are deployed in a high-stakes match such as this, it is easy for the two teams to cancel one another out. The side that is most willing to break free from their defensive shackles is most likely to prevail.

Table 1
Stoke City
Mins per goal
Goals Shots Shots on target
Chances created
480 1
2 7
1 12 6 9
Amautovic 572 1 18 6 6
267 2
3 4
Giaccherini 295 2 10 4 5
Johnson 866 0 12 3 18

Three key duels

Steven N'Zonzi and Jack Colback are revelling in the new regimes and whoever dominates their match-up is likely to influence the outcome.

Hughes, the Stoke manager, tends to prefer three ball-playing men, Stephen Ireland, Charlie Adam and N’Zonzi, in the engine room (sometimes he goes with Wilson Palacios or Glenn Whelan but these guys have played the most minutes by far). N'Zonzi has excelled in the early weeks. At the hub of everything Stoke City now do, the 24-year-old Frenchman has increased the passes he makes per game from 45 to 61 this season, raising his accuracy levels dramatically, too. Although big and strong, it is his assurance on the ball that has made him the heartbeat of his side’s new passing philosophy. (See Picture 2 above)

Stoke are keeping the ball better this season, but Sunderland are in 20th place when it comes to possession. Jack Colback is their best and most efficient passer, and since switching from left-back to his favoured midfield berth under Poyet the side has fared better. The Black Cats player was outstanding against Newcastle United and Manchester City and, if he can impose himself on N'Zonzi in the same manner, their head-to-head will be fascinating. As the stats in Table 2 below show, despite his smaller stature, Colback is the more aggressive and robust defensive midfielder of the two.

Table 2
  Passes Pass Accuracy Duels won Interceptions Clearances Chances Created
N'Zonzi 668 88% 52.8% 15 6 13
Colback 384 85.2% 55% 16 18 7

It is also worth keeping a close eye on how Sunderland's left-winger Adam Johnson fares in his battle with Stoke's impressive US right-back Geoff Cameron.

Most sides go forward down the left, right and centre in relatively equal measure, but Sunderland and Stoke distinctly prefer to attack on the side of the pitch these two players occupy (40% of Stoke's moves are made down the right, 40% of Sunderland's on the left) so whoever is able to push the other backwards is likely to enjoy a profitable afternoon.

Johnson, 26, is the only natural winger set to start the match and the most talented crosser of the ball on show but Cameron has proven to be a dynamic full-back in his own right, piling forward on overlaps all season in support of Jonathan Walters, who likes to drift inside. (See Picture 3 above)

Neither man will enjoy being pegged back in his own half for too long, so watch out for which team, and which of these two players, grasp the ascendency.

Table 3
  Passing Accuracy in Opp Half Crosses Cross Success Tackles Won Duels Won
Cameron 63.4% 30 10% 61.3% 57.3%
Johnson 58.2% 44 25% 66.7% 51.5%

Gus Poyet, who is shorn of suspended captain Lee Cattermole, asked Ki Sung-Yeung to fill in as a deep-lying playmaker against Manchester City, and the Korean did a terrific job.

Naturally a creative attacking midfielder, Ki has a sharp football brain, but he will be hoping to enjoy a steady, slow-paced and unflustered 90 minutes at the Britannia Stadium. This is why, from Stoke's perspective, it is important that Ireland gives him headaches. (See Picture 4 above)

If Ireland can be a busy presence, mobile and always on the move, angling to receive the ball between the lines, or in space behind the Sunderland back four, it will be a serious test of Ki's ability to track runners and perform that more diligent and conservative duty.

On the flip side, if Ireland sits deep and plays safety-first football, Ki and his Sunderland team-mates should have an easy ride.

Table 4
  Passes Pass Accuracy Tackles Won Interceptions Chances Created
Ireland 196 81.1% 70% 9 9
Ki 232 88.8% 83.3% 3 3

Final thought

In previous seasons Stoke's aerial power and Sunderland's full-blooded style would have dominated tactical previews of this fixture, but both clubs are in transition when it comes to their philosophies.

Surprisingly the Potters have yet to score a header in the league all season, while both teams are sure to focus harder on playing patient passing football than the percentage game on Saturday.

Stoke have only scored twice in open play at home all season, with Sunderland snatching just one on their travels, so the odds point towards a low-scoring affair.

All of which begs the question: who will be brave enough to show that little extra attacking ambition?

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