Stoke City were knocked out of the FA Cup by a rampant Leicester side – but the transfer window is open and the focus is on the Championship. Here are the talking points as things stand.
A gulf between two teams
If Stoke have been benchmarking themselves against the teams relegated from the Premier League this season, the two cup games against Spurs and Leicester – who both fielded near full-strength sides – was a reminder just what the benchmark is against the best.
Leicester – one point off the top in the top flight – were full of speed, movement and craft with quality in every corner. They had made eight changes against Newcastle for a league game the previous weekend, two against Stoke, both enforced.
Stoke gave a good fight for the best part of an hour but as players who were given a chance to get minutes in their legs started to tire, combined with Michael O’Neill needing to take more risks, the game quickly spiralled away.
It’s only five-and-a-half years since Stoke fans laughed when Leicester tried to sign their best player, Steven Nzonzi.
The way they’ve since leapfrogged Stoke, and about 15 other clubs, is probably a blueprint to follow. Boy, it feels a long road.
Links stack up as Michael O’Neill heads to market
Michael O’Neill has been surprised by some of the players being linked with Stoke City and he’s probably been surprised by the quantity too. It’s been pretty much a new player a day since a couple of evenings before the transfer window opened.
But it’s no secret that Stoke are in the market for new blood.
It’s no secret, if you just look at recent results, that they need a striker if Tyrese Campbell and Steven Fletcher are not around.
It’s no secret that they need a left-back if Morgan Fox is not around – and that they probably need one as back-up or competition even if he is. If Stoke have struggled to replace Campbell, they’ve had to change the whole shape without Fox.
Harry Pickering, the Crewe captain, is the latest to be linked after weeks of anyone within a few miles of Gresty Road screaming that he’s pulling up trees in League One.
Stoke are within arm’s reach of the Championship top six. Even if this season is already progress, they can’t let a chance slip past for making another step forward.
And, with a focus on pace and youth and the right positions, the squad should be better by February than it was at the end of December.
Players need to leave
It is obvious for squad numbers as well as financial rules that Stoke need to ship players on too.
Moritz Bauer and Kevin Wimmer are the obvious candidates, even if reports, whispers, nudges and hopes on any exits have been all too quiet.
There are others who have been nearer the first team, like Liam Lindsay – last appearance 12 months ago – and Tom Ince, who has had a surprise link with Schalke and Wolfsburg – second bottom and sixth in the Bundesliga respectively – and Lille, third in France.
Ince should be at the peak of his career now but he’s in need of a fresh start. Prospective Champions League teams seem… ambitious and moves to the continent will be trickier thanks to Brexit but it will be interesting to see what offers appear on the table.
Meanwhile Sam Vokes hasn’t taken his chance to stake a claim in Campbell’s absence, Thibaud Verlinden remains unused and new arrivals might force others down the pecking order.
There needs to be a churn. The numbers have been too high for too long and the same goes for balance. There has been spring cleaning through two O’Neill windows so far and it’ll carry for at least a couple more.
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A more friendly fixture list
Michael O’Neill has been clear that the aim for Stoke is to have a better second half of the season than they had first half.
Repeating what they’ve done so far would get to 70 points and the fringes of the play-offs, turning a couple of defeats into wins would land them in the top six.
It will help their case that key men are returning. Joe Allen has been gung-ho in the first halves against Bournemouth and Leicester and John Obi Mikel and Sam Clucas are finding their feet too after an injury-derailed few weeks.
Joe Bursik has been superb and Adam Davies and Angus Gunn’s comebacks will give the manager a nice headache. Hopefully Fletcher will be back in the next couple of weeks, Lee Gregory by the end of the month and Fox not too long afterwards.
The FA Cup exit means there are 23 games to fit into 113 days, Covid permitting, rather than 29 into the 133 since they met Blackpool back in the Carabao Cup first round. It’s still one every 4.9 days rather than one every 4.6 but there will be free weeks and a chance to catch breath.