‘Early set-backs can’t mean defeat’ – Three-point plan for Stoke City to go from 15th to promotion contenders



How can Michael O’Neill take a team which has finished 16th and then 15th and turn it into a contender for promotion?

Pete Smith picks out three key factors ahead of Stoke City’s first Championship match of the season, at Millwall this afternoon (3pm).

A DEFENCE READY TO GRIND ON THE ROAD

Stoke may have won their last away match 4-1 but the point Michael O’Neill was trying to make this week was that, to do well in the Championship, you are probably going to be game for a grind when you’re on the road. It is not a division for swashbucklers.

Stoke’s away form improved under O’Neill. There were four wins out of 16 after he took charge in November. They had only won four of the previous 30 since relegation from the Premier League.

But that is still some way behind Leeds and West Brom, who both picked up more than double the number of away points of Stoke last season, winning 13 and 12 respectively – or losing just six and four.

Both outscored Stoke on their travels (37 and 33 compared to 26), but it’s the goals against column (21 and 18 compared to Stoke’s 42) that really stands out. Only two of Leeds’ away wins were by more than two goals. They kept nine clean sheets.

O’Neill knows that. One of the big things he has learned, he says, is just how difficult it is to win games in this division.

“It’s not always down to quality of play,” he said during the off-season. “Sometimes games can be a little back to front and we have to deal with that. I had to adapt and play back to front as well at times. That’s not my preferred way to play. But the most important thing I’ve learned is what you need to get results.”

So expect a back three or back five more often, expect counter attacks and, yes, expect Danny Batth-style chucking yourself in front of anything that moves.

NO ROOM FOR A SLOW START

The first 30 of Michael O’Neill’s 31 league games were described as crucial but that wasn’t just hype. “Every point was gold dust,” he said, looking back. He’d inherited a mess and it took from November until July to dig Stoke out of it.

But it won’t just be enough to better how Stoke got underway in 2019/20 – and heaven help us all if they don’t. It was no wins in 10 games and we’re still having nightmares.

To aim for the top six in the Championship you need about 74 points. That’s about 1.6 per game or eight points every five.

To aim for the top two you need 88 points. That’s 1.9 per game or 19 points every 10 games.

A slow start makes the first very difficult and the latter pretty much impossible.

A SQUAD WITH DEPTH AND CHARACTER

There is a game every about five days between now and May 8 and a final weekend trip to Bournemouth, for which at least one optimistic Stoke fan has already booked a hotel room.

There are six matches in October, eight in December.

A squad with decent depth should help Michael O’Neill, if he can juggle it well enough to keep everyone fresh, motivated and sharp.

There are likely to be opportunities for players on the fringes and, in that case, they can keep the shirt on merit. This could be the season to blast a way into the first team for Nathan Collins, Josh Tymon and Tyrese Campbell even if they don’t necessarily start at The Den.

Stoke will have to react well to set-backs that will be inevitable along the way. That should be helped by the experience down their spine.

John Obi Mikel, James Chester and Steven Fletcher shouldn’t be put out of their stride, for example, if Stoke concede an early goal – a fate which has pretty much meant defeat over the last three or four years – nor be rocked by an unfortunate defeat.

This season more than ever is going to be a war of attrition and O’Neill has been keen to make sure he can call on some warriors. Let battle commence.





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