Michael O’Neill hopes he has more than a Plan A and a Plan B for Stoke City this season – even if he’s not letting on which is which.
It has been clear since long before the manager arrived at Stoke last November that he had a preference for some form of 4-3-3 when he sent out his team.
At Stoke that evolved to New Year’s Day and a pivotal trip to Huddersfield Town, when attacking midfielder Nick Powell was thrown into the starting XI in place of defensive midfielder Jordan Cousins and that little tweak set the side on a roll.
But in the re-start, O’Neill experimented with a three or five-man defence instead – and stuck with it after it came, well, unstuck in a trying second half at Leeds United.
And wing-backs worked: three wins and a draw in the final four matches. It got a run out again in a 5-1 friendly win over Shrewsbury on Tuesday – after Stoke had looked a little blunt in a 4-2-3-1 against Burton last Saturday.
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It remains to be seen what system will be chosen today against Blackpool, whether it’s the same at full-time as it was at kick-off… and whether it will be the same when the Championship gets going at Millwall in a fortnight.
O’Neill was asked which one of the two he was leaning towards and said: “I hope I’ve got more than two!
“There are many ways we can play although you can only really play with three at the back or four at the back. It’s what we do in front of that which is important; what we do with midfield and whether we play wide players.
“Playing with three at the back certainly suited us towards the end of last season and sometimes you have to build a team which is suited to the players you have in the building rather than just build a team you would necessarily want.
“We have to be mindful of that and get the best out of the playing squad we have – then over time the team will evolve, there’s no doubt about that.
“At this minute in time I think we’re comfortable in either system.
“I think we have certain things with three-at-the-back which give us a different plan, so to speak, in how we play.
“But people only really wonder if you have a Plan A, B or C when you’re losing and we haven’t played yet so let’s just get Plan A up and running, hopefully that works and we don’t have to worry about Plan B.”
Stoke City’s options in central defence
O’Neill has Bruno Martins Indi to slot in on the left side of a back three – and has pointed out that Morgan Fox can do that too.
James Chester and Danny Batth were first choices in the other two positions – or a back four – during the re-start while Nathan Collins is coming more to the fore and Harry Souttar is back from a loan spell at Fleetwood Town.
Ryan Shawcross is getting back to fitness after groin surgery earlier this summer, playing 45 minutes against Shrewsbury on Tuesday.
Will Forrester is hoping to step up his progress as well this season.
Stoke’s options on the left
There are plenty of options too – even before Sam Clucas or James McClean are asked to pull on their utility man capes and cover at some point over the next few months.
O’Neill said: “Yeah, the left side of the pitch we’re comfortable. I think we’ve got the right personnel to allow us to play in both systems.
“Bruno (Martins Indi) is very strong as a left-sided centre-back and we know he can play at left-back. Morgan can play either at centre-back, left wing-back or left-back. Josh Tymon can play in either of the two wide positions and James (McClean) can play either as a wing-back or higher up on the left in a 4-3-3 as well.
“We’re well covered on that side and the profile of the players is good. It’s good that Josh Tymon has made a real push and his versatility on that side is a big bonus for us as well.”