Michael O’Neill admits he has nine selection dilemmas as he returns focus to the Championship.
Stoke host Bristol City on Sunday (2pm) on the back of a goalless draw with Millwall in last weekend’s league curtain raiser and a 1-0 Carabao Cup win at Wolves with a much-changed team on Thursday – and the manager has taken positives from both games.
Steven Fletcher and Jacob Brown have also twice made positive impressions from the bench as they bid for their first starts.
There is also the option of moving to a back four for a game when Stoke are likely to have more possession, certainly than they did at Molineux.
For your latest Stoke City news sign up to our newsletter with your email in the box at the top of the page – or click here
O’Neill said: “They’ve all put themselves into contention, it’s as simple as that, but it doesn’t mean they will all start. We look at the opposition and the best starting XI to deal with that game.
“What we saw at Wolves was a really good performance with a lot of energy and youthfulness in it, which is very encouraging.
“We want to create competition for places and that’s what the young players are giving me.”
He added: “There were positives from last Saturday too and we go into the Bristol game obviously wanting to win. We will look how players, how they recover. We have to be mindful that we played on Thursday while Bristol played on Tuesday. That all comes into consideration.
“It’s a different type of game again on Sunday. We’d expect to have more of the game and we’ll have to create more and take control of the game a little bit more.
“We want to get off with a home win, start on the front foot and then build that momentum that we see happening already this season.”
The bet365 Stadium form has been transformed since O’Neill took charge last November. Only Brentford, Fulham and Leeds have had better returns in the Championship in that time.
In fact, Stoke are on a run of four clean sheets in a row in home games – three in the league at the end of last term and then one to start this in the cup against Blackpool.
O’Neill has been focused on turning around the away record too – but not at the expense of how they shape up at headquarters.
He said: “We were good at home last season and certainly the system (three centre-backs) has helped us away, post-lockdown and already this season, as well as winning at Newcastle in pre-season.
“On Sunday we’re up against a good team that has aspirations themselves this season, with a new manager, so our focus is on trying to maintain that form and try to get three points.”
It is Stoke’s longest run without conceding at home (388 minutes) since late 2012 (462 minutes) and the first time they have opened the season with three successive clean sheets since 2011.
O’Neill said: “We’ve put work into it but I think we saw the signs of it (in July). When we played with a back three then we lost two goals, both off set pieces, which was a little bit unfortunate. We’ve not lost many goals from open play with that system.
“The challenge of the system is how you create as well and we’re improving that all the time as players understand what we’re wanting from them.
“If you keep clean sheets you’ve got a chance of winning games.”