Stoke City have reached pretty much the quarter mark of their first full season under Michael O’Neill and it’s fair to say that it’s been hectic.
It’s also obvious that the club is in a much different place than where it stood when he took over the reins.
Stoke were on their fifth manager in under two years at that point – Mark Hughes, Paul Lambert, Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones had gone – and for the first time since 2014, they are in a higher position than they were the previous November.
So what have we made of it so far? What have been the highlights? What is there still to improve? Stoke reporter Pete Smith tries to find an answer.
The league table after 11 games
Tony Pulis: Championship
Position: 7 P11 W4 D5 L2 F15 A14 Pts17
Mark Hughes: Premier League
Position: 14 P11 W3 D3 L5 F13 A22 Pts12
Gary Rowett: Championship
Position: 16 P11 W3 D4 L4 F16 A18 Pts13
Nathan Jones: Championship
Position: 24 P11 W1 D2 L8 F11 A22 Pts5
Michael O’Neill: Championship
Position 8: P11 W5 D3 L3 F15 A12 Pts18
We have put in the promotion season for context because that’s a more optimistic yardstick than the two horrors back in the Championship.
First up, Stoke have won more and lost fewer – and a solid start was the plain objective from Michael O’Neill when he summoned players back after the briefest break following the delayed end of last term. Stoke just couldn’t afford to spend another season playing catch-up.
He said back in the late summer: “We’ve finished in the bottom half of the table in the two years we’ve been in the Championship so we have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to be.
“I think the players we’ve brought in will help us and going forward the imperative thing for us is to make sure we have a good start to the season. The two seasons the club have been in the Championship, that’s not been the case.
“We want to get started on the front foot and hopefully we’re at the other end of the table.”
Positive goal difference, too. Remember that?
Stoke had previously only been in the black for goal difference for 23 days – December 8, 2018 to the end of that year – since a few days in the winter of 2015/16. They ended 2014/15 on the right side too thanks to that final day walloping of Liverpool.
It’s interesting to note that the Class of 2020 currently have one point more than the Class of 2007 at this stage, even if they are one position down the table. The Championship currently seems similarly mad this season as it was then, with barely anything to separate the top half.
They’re clearly in the fight and now we’ll see how hard they can swing.
Key issues have been addressed: the Jack Butland saga, the left-back hole, a reliable holding midfielder, a quick winger and a mobile and powerful striker.
Youth has been incorporated with genuine game time for Harry Souttar, Nathan Collins, Josh Tymon and Tyrese Campbell as well as Michael O’Neill’s own recruits Tashan Oakley-Boothe, Jacob Brown and Jordan Thompson.
There is a better balance all round, even if when everyone is fit there will still be an overflow of centre-halves and just one senior right-back.
There have been six additions from last season, including James Chester returning on a permanent deal. John Obi Mikel and Steven Fletcher have made a big impact without costing a transfer fee.
And there have been 12 senior departures including loans. It’s slimmed down but still not quite slim enough, with Kevin Wimmer and Moritz Bauer the two notables on the books but not involved.
Liam Lindsay, Tom Ince and Jordan Cousins have barely featured – and Lee Gregory and Sam Vokes have not featured as much as they would like.
There is still Joe Allen, Ryan Shawcross and Thibaud Verlinden to come in and Sam Clucas is hoping to return after the international break. Adam Davies is in the treatment room as well.
But O’Neill has made the point: “We know there are points we’ve dropped when we could have done better but over the piece the team looks a lot more resilient than it did last season.
“I still think we’re coping with injuries that we possibly wouldn’t have done last season. Clucas and Allen were massive for us last season and yet we’re coping with their absence. It shows us that the squad is able to cope and we’re stronger than we were last season.”
What is better this year?
Everything. Find anyone to disagree. Everything in every aspect is better than it was in November 2019. Every department has improved, even if it’s the same personnel.
In terms of transfers, the players who have come in have been used and made the team or the squad better and stronger – and only Jacob Brown cost a transfer fee, about £2.5m from Barnsley.
Let’s be honest, November 2019 left a lot of room for improvement but it was so bleak that it was difficult to see it actually happening.
There has been debate about whether the 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 that has been Plan A has been better than the variation on 4-3-3 that O’Neill used heading into the spring but he would point to defeats last season – like away at Derby and QPR – that had to be wiped out.
There was a fierce defence of three-at-the-back when he was asked if it was too negative for home matches – and only Blackburn, Reading and Brentford have scored more.
The manager – who has rolled out a back four in recent games too – now has at least a couple of systems up their sleeve and it will be interesting to see which one will be preferred over the next few months.
Who’s it been a good first quarter for?
Adam Davies had been elevated from the shadows to runaway number one before his injury.
And Harry Souttar has taken the Championship in one of his big strides after 18 months on loan at Fleetwood Town.
O’Neill said: “He’s a player blessed with great natural attributes. Obviously his height but also he’s got good game intelligence and he’s a great user of the ball as well.
“That’s something which I think will set him apart from the other defenders in this league.”
Tyrese Campbell has shown more glimpses of his match-winning potential and has found a great foil in Steven Fletcher. That performance against Brentford had shades of Ricardo Fuller and you don’t get much higher praise than that on these pages.
John Obi Mikel, too, has been a good partner for Jordan Thompson, who has taken his chance in central midfield. Stoke miss his set piece delivery when he’s not in the side.
Who’s it been a bad first quarter for?
Tom Ince has only made one substitute appearance, putting in a shift for 13 minutes when 10-man Stoke looked for a winner against Barnsley.
Jordan Cousins and Liam Lindsay have not been available for a chunk but, when they have been, they are clearly some way from the first XI.
Lee Gregory had a chance to stake his claim at the start but needed the goals to match his work rate while Sam Vokes was brilliant leading the line in a Carabao Cup win at Aston Villa, less so in a league defeat at Swansea.
Who’s got something to prove?
Josh Tymon and Tashan Oakley-Boothe have been around the squad but haven’t quite seized their moment to lay full claim to a starting shirt on a regular basis.
Tymon’s performance in midfield at Wolves and Oakley-Boothe’s ability to carry the ball at Preston have shown that patience could be rewarded.
Who to watch out for?
Harry Souttar and Tyrese Campbell might be grabbing the headlines but Nathan Collins has been on the cusp of following in their wake but for a fractured hand at Aston Villa and tight hamstring which ruled him out of the last three games.
Collins is 19 now and he’ll face competition for his place – but there is a growing pile of evidence to suggest he’ll soon be the one to beat.
What can we look forward to?
Stoke are one point outside the play-off places and will now squeeze in a run of 12 league games up to the New Year which will take us up to half-way.
There will be inevitably be a lot of twists and turns in this division because the matches come so fast. It’s going to be fun.
There is also a Carabao Cup quarter-final at the bet365 against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham two days before Christmas.
It’s a belting cup tie and the sooner the vaccine is available to make sure supporters don’t miss out on everything like this the better.