Can Michael O’Neill make the wing-back system work in defence and attack?
Can a midfield trio that complements each other on paper click on the pitch? Are there too many distractions for Stoke City with so many players in the stands?
Here are the talking points from the bet365 Stadium defeat to Bristol City.
How can Stoke increase goal threat with this system?
Gudjon Thordarson had Stoke fans chanting, “4-4-2!” when he stuck with the wing-back system.
It was a formation that saw Mark Hughes digging a bigger hole for himself as he tried to squeeze players into unfamiliar positions.
Now Michael O’Neill is going forward with this 3-5-2 come 5-3-2. Wish him luck.
It is, however, the system that helped Stoke claw their way to Championship safety in July.
The manager introduced it away at Leeds but tweaked it to get two up front in the following game, a six-pointer at home to Birmingham. That was the start of three wins from four to end the season with a bang. This time it helped secure clean sheets at Millwall and Wolves but, for whatever reason, Stoke just never clicked at home to Bristol City. It was a draining afternoon.
At the very least, this approach with three strong banks of three should be solid and imposing but there were moments of sloppiness and individual mistakes. Bristol City’s furious start seemed to throw everyone. Andi Weimann was too quick and slippery.
But going forward, where are Stoke’s goals going to come from?
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Yes, not all teams will defend set pieces as well as Bristol City and Stoke look a threat from corners. But how about open play? There is a need for Nick Powell and Sam Clucas to really come to the party as attacking forces. More on those two later.
Then the focus is on the wing-backs themselves to contribute from wide.
O’Neill has three options on the left in Morgan Fox, Josh Tymon and James McClean and has hopes that Fox, having brought him in this summer, can deliver a lot more going forward. Tymon and McClean will be waiting in the, well, wings, hoping to prove they can do that right now.
Tommy Smith currently seems like the only one in the plans on the right. He did chip in with six crosses against Bristol City.
It is the big challenge, the big box to tick. O’Neill has to make it work – and he has made it clear over the past few months that he won’t be afraid to try something else if it doesn’t.
Jacob Brown and Steven Fletcher have given glimpses of what they might offer. We’ll see how quickly that turns into goals.
Making that midfield trio spark
The post-match chatter was whether Nick Powell can be the same Nick Powell as a number eight rather than a number 10.
He’s being used next to Sam Clucas here rather than up behind the front two, where he pulled strings and set the tempo in the second half of 2019/20. Clucas himself was Stoke’s biggest danger for large parts of last season too.
Together they were a major reason why only Leeds and Brentford score more than Stoke after O’Neill was appointed last season.
On paper, they should complement each other and John Obi Mikel, sitting a little deeper. There is energy, creativity and discipline.
When should it be judged? Perhaps only when Mikel is back to full speed, having not played since March.
At the moment it feels a bit like a work in progress – and, in the meantime, the Carabao Cup turns of Tymon, Jordan Thompson and Tashan Oakley-Boothe will make O’Neill less inclined to be patient.
Too many distractions
Another Jack Butland rumour on Sunday morning. James McClean, as you’d expect, clearly not happy about not being involved. A big group of players in the stands or at home rather than even the dug out: Tom Ince, Liam Lindsay, Tom Edwards, Lee Gregory, not to mention Kevin Wimmer, Moritz Bauer and Badou Ndiaye.
Some still have a role to play this season and some will have a big role.
But at the moment, there are so many who clearly don’t who are taking time away from what the club and the manager need to focus on. O’Neill cannot enjoy consistently being asked about people who are not in his plans.
As Mike Pejic said in his column on Saturday: “Let’s hope that Michael O’Neill is given a hand over the next few weeks before deadline day to trim the squad. It only takes one player to start bringing others down.
“We have to get players like Kevin Wimmer, Moritz Bauer and Badou Ndiaye out of the club – as well a few others who don’t look like they’re anywhere near.
“Dealing with those situations takes a lot of energy away from what you should be working on – and, having already performed a minor miracle so far, there is so much good work still to be done.”