Michael O’Neill’s January priority is now obvious and urgent


There’s not much to be said about Stoke City’s goalless draw at Coventry on Boxing Day. It was hardly a feast of football, and the few chances that fell Stoke’s way were wasted or well saved.

That’s three consecutive away 0-0 stalemates for the Potters now, so the big question is, how does Michael O’Neill get goals out of this team without Tyrese Campbell?

Since the young striker picked up his season-ending knee injury Stoke have played around 500 minutes of football and scored just twice: Nick Powell’s diving header to win the game against Blackburn and Jordan Thompson’s well-worked goal to draw level against Spurs last midweek in the Carabao Cup.

That’s not far off one goal in every three games.

So, it’s clear where improvements need to be made.

But can they come from the existing squad? Especially with players starting to come back into the mix?

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Saturday saw the very welcome return at Christmas of our very own ‘Jesus’, Joe Allen. The Potteries Pirlo made an immediate impact bringing energy and accuracy of passing to midfield, but even he couldn’t find a way past a very stubborn Coventry defence.

He may not have been the Messiah on this occasion, but he was a very welcome addition to the first team ranks.

Now we are boosted by the news that both Sam Clucas, last season’s top scorer and Jon Obi Mikel, who has proved far better in keeping going forward than any of us could have hoped for, are in contention to play against Nottingham Forest.

That’s got to be good news. And will certainly add a goal threat.

But there also have to be question marks about some choices the manager makes here and there, particularly off the subs bench.

So far this season, Thibaud Verlinden has been used more sparingly than a brussels sprout on any other day than the 25th of December.

He has, in fact, played just 10 minutes.

Now that maybe because he isn’t quite ready yet – and only O’Neill can judge that – but it is frustrating watching him warming up on the sidelines, while Stoke lack creative spark and pace going forward late in games.

Especially as O’Neill, having been a major proponent of the mid-season switch, has barely ever used all five of his permitted substitutes.

Against Derby it was just two, QPR and Blackburn four, Spurs three and Coventry, sightly unbelievably, only one.

So, O’Neill is clearly sticking with a core of this squad that he absolutely trusts to deliver the tactics that have made City fairly impregnable at the back. But he now needs to find it amongst them to deliver far more in attack.

Or, he can turn to the impending January transfer window to help cure City’s scoring travails.

But again, slightly bizarrely, with Morgan Fox’s injury against Spurs, his priority now has to be finding an actual left-back to fill that gaping hole until Fox’s return in late February.

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In fact, it could be argued that Stoke’s performance at Coventry was entirely predicated on O’Neill having to completely rejig the team to cope with Fox’s absence and the lack of a player to suitably fill the left-back role amongst the squad.

Neither Josh Tymon nor James McClean have proven successful there in the past and are clearly far more suited in other positions. So, perhaps, instead of having to go with safety first and a back three in a winnable game at St Andrew’s, O’Neill can, with a left-back in the team, set Stoke up with more ambition, with two wingers, rather than wing-backs, which might bring Verlinden into the frame a lot more.

That can only be a good thing.

And with the players coming back and a simple addition, let alone the much-talked about pacy striker which would be a direct replacement for the injured Campbell, City can pick up the momentum to propel them towards an unlikely tilt at making the play-offs.

Because, although you can criticise micro decisions that O’Neill makes such as reduced playing time for an exciting young winger like Verlinden, there is no doubting he has Stoke City on the right course as we head towards what must be, surely can only be, a far better new year than this old one we are leaving, unfondly, behind.





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