How much has Michael O’Neill improved Stoke City?

Since their relegation back to the Championship in 2018, following ten consecutive seasons in the Premier League, Stoke City have struggled to adapt to the second division, continually finding themselves at the wrong end of the table. They have been through two managers, in Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones, but seem to have found the best person for the job with their third appointment, former Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill. After helping them to survive last season, they are now looking at and aiming for the top half of the table, and are potential outsiders for promotion this season.

Given this, it seems that Stoke have improved a lot since O’Neill came in, so what has been better in their team, and what still needs further work? In this article, I will look a bit closer at the Potters, going through their performances in the last few games and in the season overall so far.

The first thing to mention is the makeup of their team. Stoke have been a team looking to sign players who have shown promise in this division, with Ryan Woods and Sam Clucas coming to mind in particular. However, whilst Woods has now moved to rejoin Gary Rowett at Millwall, Clucas has established himself as a key player in the Potteries. Add to that players like Nick Powell and Joe Allen, who add an attacking edge to their midfield, and Jordan Cousins, who balances the team out by bringing a defensive quality to the middle of the pitch, and you can see how they have always had the players, but just hadn’t been able to make it all tick until O’Neill came in.

However, the thing that I think he has got most right is the balance between young and old. Since they came into the Championship, as mentioned, they had looked to sign promising players that undoubtedly had quality, but they missed one crucial ingredient; Championship experience. To correct that, over last summer, Stoke made three key signings that brought this add this to the team; striker Steven Fletcher, who joined from Sheffield Wednesday, and has shown in the last season that he still carries a big goal threat; left-back Morgan Fox, another who joined from the Owls, and who has been in the second tier for a good few seasons now; and former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, who previously spent some time in the Championship with Middlesbrough, and was a key player in their push for the play-offs in 2018-2019. Therefore, they now have players in the squad who can get them up the table and have been in the position of fighting for play-off positions, which is a massive bonus for them.

That is the old, but when it comes to the young, they have some really exciting players in their squad. At the back, Nathan Collins and Harry Souttar have secured nailed down regular places in the first team, but forward Tyrese Campbell is the player that I think brings Stoke together. He is able to play on either wing or as a striker, and has pace, spatial awareness, a good passing ability and an eye for goal. When you look at Stoke’s attacking opportunities, most involve Campbell in some way, and that is why he plays so often for them.

We have already looked at their experienced arrivals, but another player the Potters signed this summer, which I thought was a really shrewd arrival, was forward Jacob Brown from Barnsley. He is quick, creative and can score from either side, and he has added a lot to their team this season as well. Overall, they now have players who are versatile and creative, and this gives them options to deal with whatever match situation they may be faced with.

When it comes to their performances, the noticeable positives are that they now look to move the ball forward every time they get the ball. In one of their more recent games, one move saw the ball go from the back to the front in just three passes, highlighting how they have more confidence to move the ball forwards and attack with it, rather than just playing sideways or backwards. Another thing that is worth mentioning is that, in the final third, they stretch opposing defences out, and this was notable in Nick Powell’s winning goal against Wycombe Wanderers just this week. You could see that Stoke’s wide attackers looked to stay as wide as possible, creating plenty of space to use the ball in. Wycombe stayed very compact and centrally-orientated in their defensive structure, and that gave Stoke the space to cross the ball in and for Powell to get on the end of and nod into the net.

This is what I think they can build on, because if they keep that wide attacking setup, it creates problems for opposing defences; if they stay narrow, as Wycombe did, then Stoke have space to operate in. If the defenders move towards the wingers, then gaps appear between them, which allows the Potters to get between and into the space behind, providing targets for the wingers to find with their passes or crosses into the box.

You might think that, by the fact everything in this article has been positive, there is nothing that Stoke need to keep working on. However, that is not the case, although there are less negatives than there were this time last season. Defensively, they tend to play with a high back line at times, leaving space open at times. However, they leave gaps in between their defenders, allowing opposing defenders to get behind them. Against Norwich City a few games ago, this was evident, with reinvigorated Finland striker Teemu Pukki thriving when he plays on the front foot. He was given so much space to operate in against Stoke, and caused problems all game. Against Sheffield Wednesday, last weekend, whilst the defence wasn’t as high up the pitch, Owls winger Kadeem Harris managed to shoot through a gap in the Stoke defence. Although it did go wide, this is now two separate examples of opponents finding spaces between the Stoke defenders. This is just something for them to keep in mind as they look to fight for a place in the top six at the end of the season.

We have looked in this article at Stoke City, analysing how Michael O’Neill has improved them since coming in as manager in 2019. Whilst we have pointed out one area they can definitely work on, we can also see how they have worked hard to improve over the last year, and it has shown in their results and performances. Their transfer activity has been much more focused on what they need, rather than just players they think are good and promising in the league, and that was what they needed to do when they first came down from the top flight. I want them to go back up, because they have a squad full of players who can play in the Premier League, but they just need to keep working and improving as the season goes on, and hopefully they will earn a place in the top six when the season reaches its conclusion.

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