A manager’s priority should always be a solid base. That might sound boring but it’s a fact. Every successful manager has to do get that foundation right, just like a player has to get the basics right before they can do anything else.
Get a solid backbone and then the rest follows.
That means the central area through your team has to be strong and then you fill around on the outside of it. If you lose any part of that spine – and don’t replace it properly – it falls apart.
We have seen that all too clearly at Stoke City over the past five years since we had Asmir Begovic-Ryan Shawcross-Robert Huth-Glenn Whelan-Peter Crouch.
But Michael O’Neill has done a good job starting to get it in place again, with three positions that will be the key to how Stoke do this season.
Let’s start with the number one jersey and, at the moment, that is crucial to O’Neill’s forward planning.
Over the last couple of years, Jack Butland has changed his agent to Paul Stretford, who people will know looks after Wayne Rooney. Maybe he should have had him when he got in the England set-up but for me he’s unsettled and that means the team and the club is unsettled.
Stoke are open to offers and I hope it’s sorted quickly. He needs to go because it unsettles other players too.
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
Adam Davies came in at the back end of last season and did a great job – against all odds, you could say, considering at for a number of months he had been third choice behind Butland and Adam Federici. He was nowhere near on a match day, wasn’t even on the bench.
You have to take your hat off to him for the patience he’s shown. He hasn’t upset anything or anyone, he kept his counsel and kept his head.
When you see other people ahead of you making mistakes it will drive you on to work twice as hard to prove ‘I’m better than you’. He performed to a high level when he got a chance and results followed – and he’s in the Wales squad to boot.
He’s shown up well in one on one situations, he reads the game well, stayed big, made the opposing player make the decision. He’s been dominant, working distances with his back line and shown good footwork and decision making.
Hopefully he’s the first choice and he can continue with his performance levels. The goalkeeping coach will continue to work him and improve all aspects of his game – and he’s shown a willingness to improve. You need that enthusiasm, commitment and drive.
With the centre-backs, I’m looking at Danny Batth. He was part of that Wolves squad that won promotion in 2018, knows what it takes to be a central figure.
He found himself settled towards the latter part of the season and he’s been the leader in that back line. He chips in with goals from set plays too.
He’s big, strong, committed and his defensive clearances are good. He doesn’t get drawn out of position, leaving big holes. He stays central and reads the game fairly well. You need a centre-back who defends first and doesn’t worry about anything else. That’s what you want as a teammate.
By this stage of his career he will understand his own strengths: he’s there to win the ball with tackles and headers, that’s all you want from him.
Don’t worry about the other parts of it. Robert Huth didn’t worry about fiddling about. Lou Macari didn’t want that from Vince Overson or Ian Cranson. It’s not about how many passes you tick over, your first and only job is clean sheets.
If you come off that pitch without the other team scoring, you’re happy. You make it as hard as possible for the front players you’re up against. That’s what Danny Batth will do.
With Ryan Shawcross having a big chunk of the last two seasons with injury, we’ve needed someone to take over the mantle. That, in turn, helps the goalkeeper behind you and the communication and relationship of a pair who play consistently with each other is so important.
You can’t have an unsettled position at goalkeeper or central defence. Get those wrong and you’ve had it. It crumbles – as we’ve seen. We saw it with Huth going, with Shawcross getting injured, with Butland’s inconsistencies – your whole team suffers.
John Obi Mikel is an excellent signing. Hopefully he plays every game in the season in the league. He’s the main man, a winner, a really good character who has had a very successful career for club and country.
He’s the one who protects behind him, covers the defenders in those central areas. He’ll slot over where he is needed, he’ll sit in and support.
He also supports those in front because he gives them a licence to do what they need to do to. He can fill in gaps communicate with them. In possession he sits in again with two centre-backs and keeper. It’s really important to have a player who understands that role and does it well.
Look at successful teams over the years, from Nobby Stiles with England in 1966 to Jordan Henderson in the current Liverpool side, getting this one sorted is a big job.
It’s so important and takes a lot of understanding about what you do and when you do it, when to pass players on and when to take responsibility. Mikel obviously does understand it. He’s going to be the main player. With him in the team, I can see us doing well.