Michael O’Neill will get off to a sound start just by repeating what he did last season – and this time he’ll be going into matches with a stronger, better balanced squad.
I’m looking at the first two months of league matches, starting next week at Millwall, and it’s clear that Stoke must and will do a whole lot better than they started last season under Nathan Jones.
Back then, we had six games in August and three in September. We didn’t win a game in the first six, drew one and lost five, scoring six and conceding 15. The next three had no wins, one draw, three goals and five against. Ouch. You knew before September was up that the whole season was going to be a long old slog just to stay in the Championship.
This time, we have three league games in September and six in August – and four of those nine will repeats of fixtures that O’Neill oversaw in 2019/20. If he can repeat home wins over Birmingham, Barnsley and Brentford and an away draw with Luton, that’s a good base.
There’s newly-promoted Rotherham at home too – and Stoke won all three home matches under O’Neill against the teams who went down; Charlton, Wigan and Hull.
It bodes well, especially with the players he has coming in, hopefully a more settled squad and team, a striker in Steven Fletcher who you can give a 15-goal target and Benik Afobe hopefully getting back on track.
The work he has been doing means that he now has a group of players who are adaptable to tactics and systems. They will be comfortable with a back three or, with the arrival of a proper left-back in Morgan Fox, a back four.
Different personnel can be used in different situations. He’s brought in an extra sitting midfielder in John Obi Mikel, who I’m sure will be the main man, he’s played James McClean in different positions, Tyrese Campbell can be dangerous playing up front or out wide.
I’m looking forward to partnerships developing. I hope Nick Powell is used well and if he plays in behind Fletcher, on paper, that looks like an excellent combination.
The remaining question is what will happen on the right wing. Will he play Campbell or Tom Ince? I’m not sure what he favours at the moment and it will depend on what he’s seeing in training as well as friendlies.
He can go with three in midfield with Sam Clucas, Mikel and Jordan Thompson or just Clucas and Mikel as a pair. They will have to adapt to different circumstances and match situations over the course of a long season – but the building blocks are in place.
We are in a much more healthy position now. We’ve got a strong footing and I’m expecting some really good performances, some outstanding performances over the coming weeks and months. You can say that with confidence because of the fruit we’ve seen coming off the tree already this year.
O’Neill has done really well and players have come to the fore because the team is organised and disciplined.
The strengthening – including Adam Davies coming in for Jack Butland – has given the players the kick where it was needed.
Everyone now knows where they stand. The manager is in charge and we know what he expects – from what we’ve been reading and hearing. If they don’t deliver, he has other players to put in. There’s a good purpose and I’m looking forward to being a happy pundit!