It’s back to the Championship for Stoke City this weekend as they head into the second half of the season with an away trip to Blackburn Rovers.
Michael O’Neill has been looking ahead to that match and the transfer window, where he has already been able to bring in three new signings.
Stoke and Blackburn both lost in FA Cup – both keen to bounce back?
Michael O’Neill: I don’t think the cup really plays a factor in the game to be honest.
We obviously had a very difficult game against a top side and we struggled in the latter part of that game. I felt 4-0 was a bit harsh on us but equally Leicester showed their quality.
I think Blackburn made a few changes to their team and they’ll be disappointed to lose to a team from a division below (Doncaster).
But you can re-focus again when the league comes around and I don’t think either of those results will have a bearing on what happens on Saturday.
Have you used this week to work on creativity, possession or being more progressive?
We work on that consistently but we can’t work on that with the players that are injured, obviously, and we’ve had three or four strikers injured. That hasn’t helped us in recent weeks on that side of things.
We’re consistently looking at that. We haven’t been scoring of late and we have to address that.
We have tried to do that with players we’ve brought in so far in the window as well. It’s a consistent job each week to make sure we improve in that area of the pitch.
We had a good meeting today with the players. We’ve been able to reflect on the first half of the season, where we’ve been good and areas that we feel we need to improve on.
Those areas will be key in terms of what second half of the season we have. We have to aspire to improve on even what we’ve done in the first half of the season to give ourselves a chance of a top six position.
Matondo, Norrington-Davies, Clarke add more pace? Better suited to 4-3-3? Not all in starting XI on Saturday?
Well, I don’t know. I might pick a different team than you, Angela (Smith, Knot FM and Radio Stoke)!
The boys have trained today. We obviously had Rabbi in last week. There is a period of that (settling in) and they’re young players as well, we have to be mindful of that.
The three players, I think, are all 20 years old. They bring pace and a bit of freshness, which we felt at this time would help us going forward in the second half of the season.
They also come with a point to prove, which is important for young players at the start of their careers. I can see it in their attitudes already.
The thing that struck me about the three players was that they were so keen to come. Once we got agreement from the clubs it wasn’t difficult to do any of those deals. They had a real desire to come.
That’s a positive for us. We did a good job in the recruitment with that.
We just have to see what we go with Saturday but all three players are certainly in contention to start.
Sam Vokes has had his critics – but he’ll now get a better supply?
Strikers never like going through a period when they’re missing chances.
Sam had that chance against Leicester at 0-0 and you don’t get that level of chance very often against a Premier League team either.
What we’ve tried to do is add pace in the final third. I definitely think that will help us in relation to who we play as a striker if we play 4-3-3.
Often strikers have had to play in a 3-5-2 formation, which can make it more difficult in terms of getting the right supply from the wing-back area. Those things have forced on us a little bit as well through injury.
In the second half of the season we want to get back to a team that was pretty free-scoring in the earlier part of the season. We certainly want to try to get back to that.
Equally we want to keep clean sheets. We’ve had 12 clean sheets, which is the second highest in the division. For that number of clean sheets we should have had more wins.
That’s something we have to address as well.
Can you give us an injury and Covid update?
Fletcher and Gregory are still on their way back.
The two goalkeepers have joined in training today actually. They need a bit more training probably to come into consideration.
Morgan Fox is back running and it will take a bit of time. Obviously Tyrese is a long-term injury.
We were tested (for Covid) today. Josh Tymon should be back after Covid from, I think, Saturday, but he’s not training before then so he’ll not be available.
We have to wait for tests we’ve had today.
Is Nick Powell ok after being rested last week?
Yes, Nick was rested. He had a bit of illness that wasn’t Covid related. He had a bit of a hip problem as well which needed to be managed.
Nick’s played the most minutes for us this season with James Chester so we felt they were two players who could do with a break.
We had experienced players to come in and replace them too.
What is going on with search for a striker? Will there be any more signings?
Everyone is looking for a striker and I think in this window the opportunities, particularly in that position, are pretty limited.
We can’t, for example, go out and spend £5m on a striker. More likely it will be someone coming in on loan.
We will have to see what options are available and at this minute in time the options are very limited in that arrangement.
We also have to be mindful of the players we have in the building. We can’t just continually sign players. We need some players who are on the periphery of things to possibly get the opportunity to find first team football elsewhere.
We are continually looking. We know what areas of the team we’d still like to improve. If we’re able to do that, we’ll try to do it.
One of the reasons I’m so pleased we’ve managed to get players in so quickly is that it gives us maximum time with the players and, secondly, we’re not stuck at the end of the window and possibly not with the players we want and take players in who maybe weren’t our first choice.
We’ve got our first choices in the wide areas but I think possibly we’ll have to be more patient in the striker situation.
How do you think you’ll manage to get players out?
In every window we’ve tried to reduce the size of the squad. It will be slightly more difficult in this window because of where clubs are and what they’re able to do.
We still have five or six players out on loan, players left in the summer as well, and there are players who have played very limited minutes this season who need to find regular first team football.
At the end of the day, as their parent club, we can only accommodate that if someone inquires to take them away.
It’s not a case of us denying them the opportunity, the opportunity has to be there for those players to go out and play.
There are clubs who are not openly inquiring about players. The window is very difficult for clubs. Financially it’s more difficult.
If there are inquiries for players we will evaluate those and see if it’s the right thing for the club and the player.
How frustrating is that for you and the players?
It’s frustrating. More so for the players. I was a player myself and when you’re out of a side you want to play.
It’s much more difficult now than when I played. Now you can only move in a transfer window.
It’s frustrating for us. Our bodies are too high and we want to work with a tighter squad but it is the nature of the transfer window, it’s the nature of the game now.
We have players now who need to have an opportunity to play elsewhere.
Will loan players get enough game time to please parent clubs?
There’s no stipulation on game time. We wouldn’t agree to loans on that basis because it’s too restrictive.
But equally we wouldn’t have brought them in unless we felt they were going to play and be starting players for us.
We are not bringing players in to bulk up the squad. We are bringing players in who can hopefully give us an edge and a new dimension in the second half of this season.
Players still have to come in and prove themselves, they have to prove they can help us and improve us.
And also it adds competition for places, which is healthy. Players know they have to be at their best to stay in the team and it creates a competitive environment and atmosphere within the club.
Those are all things that we want to do.
It’s down to the three lads who have come in to establish themselves. If they get the opportunity it’s down to them. The important thing is that we have that competition for places.
More pace, a better balance to the squad?
Yes, I think it gives us a better balance, particularly in terms of the options in wide areas.
Morgan’s injury highlighted the problem we have at left-back, particularly with Josh Tymon being ill at the same period as well.
It’s an example of the challenges we face. You never know from one week to the next how things will develop this season.
You can have a Covid situation, like we had with Morgan Fox earlier this season and James McClean – suddenly you’re missing a player for three or four games. Not injured but they have to self isolate or they’ve had a positive test.
Those are challenges that every manager at every club is having to deal with. It’s important to have a squad that can get us through to the end of the season and hopefully give us the opportunity to push into a top six position.
Any update on Alfie Doughty?
Alfie’s a player where discussions are ongoing between ourselves and Charlton.
We tried to bring in Alfie in the summer but weren’t able to do so and it’s an ongoing process. It’s probably a little more complex at the minute because the player has an injury.
I haven’t got any other information to give you really apart from that.
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The league was always the priority for Stoke and Blackburn?
We had a nice run in the Carabao Cup to the quarter-final. It was a nice experience and allowed us to integrate some of the younger players, which has helped us this season, there’s no doubt about that.
Leicester was a tough tie. I felt we were in the game up until the first goal and in the game still until the second goal. Then the game becomes difficult against that level of opposition. They came with a very strong team.
Now we have to focus on the league and they’ll be the same.
I think they’re a very good side. I was very impressed with them in the game here. It was a very tough game for us which we managed to win 1-0.
I don’t think this game will be any easier on Saturday.
The plan is to try to get back to how you were playing a couple of months ago?
We were scoring more goals, there’s no doubt about that. We lost players through injury who were key to that and obviously that has been a big factor in terms of consistency and trying to score.
We have to find a way in the second half of the season to be more potent in front of goal.
We’ve been very good in terms of clean sheets but we’ve been disappointed in recent weeks that we’ve not done enough to take three points. We’ve got to continue to find a way to be more a threat in the final third and that’s the message we’ve hammered home going into the second half of the season.
Blackburn haven’t had trouble scoring?
They’re a good side. They’ve got one of the top scorers in the division in Adam Armstrong. He’s had a fantastic season, I think he’s a good player.
They’ve got good players. There’s no doubts about that. They’re a free-scoring team but they’ve had their own challenges, they’ve had injuries and been unsettled in their back four at times.
We expect a tough game and hopefully an open game when we can come out on top.