There are a few players who are catching my eye at Stoke City so far this season but Nick Powell, in a team that if fully functioning, is the intriguing one.
John Obi Mikel is clearly Michael O’Neill’s main man. I remember Tony Pulis saying at Middlesbrough that if you can keep him on the pitch every match then you’re onto a winner and so it’s proving. He’s been there and done it and he’s passing on his experience.
I’m glad to see James McClean back in and firing on the left and Danny Batth at the back as well. Don’t forget that Batth was part of that Wolves team that won promotion not all that long ago and his influence shouldn’t be underestimated.
Tyrese Campbell is playing well, making and scoring goals. Steven Fletcher too, and more on him later.
But Powell is the interesting one to watch. Keep him in the game in those advanced central areas when the team is well drilled and he can be the big difference, in games and in the league table.
If the team isn’t well organised he can start to drift into areas where he doesn’t need to be and he isn’t as effective. That’s why a strong and stable back three or four, with a steady midfield two are so important as back-up behind him.
It’s good that McClean is back to his best because it was a shame to lose Powell to a wide left position. In the middle he can link up with McClean, Campbell and Fletcher.
He’s got all the attributes. He’s a clever thinker so you need to keep him focused to make the most of it. He upsets opposing players and he’s cheeky with it. He’s got a bit of devilment about him. He’s always niggling and gets defenders to lose their concentration.
So keep feeding him, make sure you never give him a second’s rest while he’s on the pitch. Keep him switched on and he’ll make the correct decisions, creating for himself and others.
He has to keep finding space, exploiting gaps – and if defenders follow him, drag them out of position to make a hole for one of his teammates.
If you had to compare him with someone you’re looking at Teddy Sheringham, who had a knack of getting in those little pockets. A creative player, an artist.
There aren’t many of his type around, a flair player with physicality, and to have him in the Championship is a good find for Stoke.
Fletcher is a good target man, quite mobile and smart himself. He’s good at finding space off centre-backs’ shoulders whether he pins them with his body and strength or gets across or in behind. He’s good at finding that crucial yardage in the penalty area.
You have pace and trickery in wide areas with McClean and Campbell and the can come inside too, on or off the ball. It’s a handy balance, not rigid in the old two wide, one up and one off. It’s a good mix and combination.
That’s helped Stoke win about half their games so far in the league and if they carry on at that rate, they’ll get to about 69 points, which is around the play-offs and a whole load better than we were talking about this time last year.
They’ve scored 15 goals in all and with eight on their travels, they’re the sixth highest scorers in the Championship away from home.
There are creative players that make it seem like the team’s always got a goal in it and there has been a decent number of clean sheets.
We’ve played two of the teams up at the top already this month in Watford and Reading and it’s an interesting few weeks to follow, with Huddersfield – only relegated from the Premier League in 2019 – and Norwich, fresh down.
Then it’s a trip to Sheffield Wednesday under a new manager, a humdinger of a game that I wish fans could be in to watch.
I wish fans could be in to watch them all, of course, but the biggest consolation is that when we’re allowed back, Stoke will be in a much better position than when were last there. That’s a thought to keep us going.
O’Neill has been laying the foundations. We’re on a sound footing and the squad is capable. It’s got unity, balance and good players. If he needs to tweak a system before or during a match he can and he will. Every manager would love to be in that position.
Roll on the next few weeks.