A downwards spiral after relegation from the Premier League and overspending, brushes with dropping into the third tier, a mid-table finish in 2019/20 and then a surprising play-off push in 2020/21. No, it’s not Reading, it’s Saturday’s opponents Stoke City. Although the Potters’ poor form of late has pushed them down to 10th, they’re still only four points outside the top six - a far cry from when they were bottom of the table at the time of Michael O’Neill’s appointment in late 2019.
To get some more substantial background on Stoke - what’s gone wrong recently, the threat they’ll pose us on Saturday and how they may do in the future - we spoke to Potters fan Ben Rowley, founder of Stoke City podcast The YYY-Files, which you can find here.
Just one win in your last 11 going into Saturday – what’s gone wrong recently?
We’re desperately missing Tyrese Campbell. He scored and created so many goals for us and was the spearhead of anything creative or clinical for Stoke. Now he’s out for the season and we’re having to compensate. The defence has been solid, unless we’re in a game where we decide to push up and score ourselves. If we score a few, so do the opposition and it’s leading to a lot of draws that should be wins, and losses that should be draws.
Given Stoke’s previous poor league finishes – 15th and 16th – does this season’s play-off push show long-term improvement?
100%. This season has to be shown as a step-up as long as we hang around in the top half of the table. We also reached the quarter finals of the League Cup and did all this while bleeding through a lot of young players (we fielded a team with an average age of 23 with John Obi Mikel and Joe Allen in it the other week) and a lot of injuries to key players. There’s green shoots showing that next season will be a marked improvement too.
How does Michael O’Neill set Stoke up tactically?
The easy answer: depends. With Northern Ireland, O’Neill didn’t have the benefit of signing the players he wanted, so he had to use the players he had available and adapt their approach to the opposition they were playing. We’ve been on the front foot against a fair few teams, but I remember in this reverse fixture we sat back and pounced on mistakes. It’s O’Neill’s greatest strength.
What are the main strengths and weaknesses of this Stoke side?
We’re excellent at defending (on the whole). I believe we were one of the teams with the most clean sheets in England during 2020. We’ve got a great blend of youth and experience at the back and the players that are being picked consistently are finding themselves to become more established as games go by. It’s a shame we’re crap up front. Nick Powell and Steven Fletcher have been our only real hope for goals and when one has been fit the other has been injured. Hopefully that changes soon and that we’re able to front a bit more firepower.
What did you make of Reading in the reverse fixture, and this season in general?
I think most people had a feeling that your time at the top of the table would be relatively short-lived, but to remain in a strong play-off position I think is credit to you. Yes, you had a great head start after 10 or so games, but to maintain a steady points tally throughout the season is something to admire. You were certainly vulnerable (dare I say a little naive) in the reverse fixture but it’s been a long time since then. I think we’ll see a different game this time round, from a Stoke and Reading perspective.
How will the rest of your season go?
Unless something changes on the scoring front, we’ll fizzle out to a mid-table finish. That’s not horrible considering the seasons we’ve had previous and the improvement we’ve shown in our playing staff. However, we were making a strong push for the top six and that looks difficult now. We’re not that far away, but with so few wins on the board recently it’s going to take a big shift in form for us to even give ourselves a chance.
How do you see the game on Saturday going, and what will the score be?
Stoke have been the draw specialists for a while now and I think that trend will continue. I’m going for a 2-2 draw, in the hope that Stoke can field a full strength team and we play similarly to how we did in the reverse fixture. Either way, all the best for the rest of the season and I hope to see you guys in a Stadium next season.