Michael O’Neill is keen to move onto the next phase of his long-term plan for Stoke City as he reaches the half-way point of his first full season in charge.
Stoke take on Bournemouth tomorrow evening (7.45pm) with O’Neill quietly pleased with the club’s progress from “a team that was beaten far too easily” to a team which is hard to beat.
Now, with a bit of help from returning injuries and a bit of business in the January transfer market, he hopes to start turning more draws into wins.
They sit seventh in the Championship and can draw level on points with fourth-placed Bournemouth with a victory at the bet365 Stadium.
“Maybe I don’t show (I’m pleased with the first half of the season) to be honest but I am – a little bit,” he said.
“There have been things I’ve been really pleased with and I said to the players, before the game against Forest, is that what we’ve become is a team that’s very difficult to beat. That’s a good thing because when we came in here we had a team that was beaten far too easily. That’s the first thing.
“It’s very difficult to go from a team that loses to a team that wins. It’s a process and you have to become difficult to beat and then become a team that wins.
“At times – and I think with the squad being stretched with injuries – we’ve not won as many as we could have done. We just didn’t have that final little bit of quality at times to open a game up and win. Subsequently we dropped two points to draw.
“That’s something we’re looking to improve in the second half of the season. We’re looking at ways to do that with the transfer window opening as well.
“But overall, for us to be in the position we’re in, we’ve made good progress. We’ll not get carried away. We’re not patting ourselves on the back. We know what the expectations for the club are.
“I’m pleased to see players like Harry Souttar and Nathan Collins, Tyrese Campbell, in the early parts of the season prior to injury, become important parts of the starting XI. That’s something for us as well.”
Stoke are hoping to have Steven Fletcher (knee) and Josh Tymon (groin) back available while O’Neill has to assess the state of his three experienced central midfielders all returning from injury – Sam Clucas, Joe Allen and John Obi Mikel.
Morgan Fox (hamstring) is still out but the manager is not tempted to use Clucas’s versatility at left-back.
He said: “He’s a left-sided player who has played there on occasion but I think it’s far from his favourite position. I think we’ll have to solve that in another way, to be honest.
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“I think Sam gives us a lot as an eight, where we’ve played him. Last season his numbers were probably the highest of his career with 11 goals playing in the Championship.
“We would lose the potential to have that kind of season if we opted to play him at left-back.
“I think sometimes we’ve had to do that in the early part of my reign – we had to make changes in games and Sam’s position changed – but I think we get the best out of him by consistently playing him as a number eight on the left side of a midfield three.”