'Big step forward' for Stoke as Man Utd defender Tuanzebe helps shape new style
Stoke City are going into the international break on the back of a home draw with Norwich and some smiling faces back in the stands. Here are the talking points from the bet365 Stadium.
It is no fluke that Stoke have been good value against Middlesbrough and Norwich in the last few days, disappointed to emerge with two points when they might easily have had six. They look a strong team, perhaps stronger in certain types of game but certainly very decent at this level; athletic, aggressive and skilful, hard to beat and creating good chances to score.
They could still do with making fewer potentially costly mistakes, they could still do with putting away more of those opportunities and a couple of injuries or illnesses or suspensions could still highlight vulnerabilities in certain areas of the squad. On top of that, only four of the starting XI vs Norwich are under contract past June.
But it is a big step forward to see and hear supporters looking forward to going to matches, to leave with smiles on their faces and be hopeful and optimistic about the future.
The form in the 11 games since mid-January – five wins, three draws, three defeats – would be worth a play-off contending 75 points if it was stretched over a 46-game season. It’s another thing actually doing it but exciting to think, actually, there is a chance they might and it’ll be fun watching them try.
READ MORE: Every word from Alex Neil post-match press conference
Dwight Gayle’s absence would have been the ideal moment for Emre Tezgel or Nathan Lowe to step up but they’re ruled out with quad and back injuries respectively.
So one player missing from the starting XI in mid-week meant three changes.
It was a relief for most Stoke fans not to return to wing-backs but Ki-Jana Hoever, fresh from scoring three from right-back in the last week, had to venture onto the right wing and Morgan Fox started at left-back, with Dujon Sterling shuffling over to right-back.
The squad for next season has to be set up, or a big step towards being set up, to allow for consistency even when a player or two aren’t available.
What kind of centre-forward will be on the shopping list?
If Stoke are going forward with a 4-3-3, who or what type of striker will be leading the line down the middle?
Dwight Gayle has had that role since early February but ideally Stoke need a striker who scores at least a little more regularly. Jacob Brown got the gig against Norwich and will be hoping he gets more than 90 minutes to stake his case. He had four shots, including a couple of really good opportunities, and has a target of getting into double figures for the season.
Elsewhere in the team, it was interesting that Fox was preferred to Josh Tymon at left-back while Lewis Baker continues to be on sub duty, used every week but not starting since early February.
There are decisions to be made not just about the future of loan players and players who will be out of contract.
It was interesting to listen to Ryan Shawcross on Radio Stoke talking about how certain types of centre-back can dictate how high and intense a team presses at the other end of the pitch.
“One hundred per cent they can,” he said. “I can even refer back to when we had Robert Huth here, who was a very good one-v-one defender. I knew I could leave him behind me. I wasn't as good a one-v-one defender as Huthy so I'd need a bit of cover. In those scenarios when Huthy is the last man we can press high. In other scenarios if the defender isn't as quick or as good then you have to adapt your tactics and how you press.
“The best thing about being high up the pitch is that you have more time to recover from mistakes you make. I'm a big believer, especially at home at the bet365, can we be brave, get up the pitch, press, get after teams.”
EFL have a job on their hands to improve refereeing
There has been a welcome step pretty much since Euro 2021 to let matches flow more in the Championship. It feels like there is a slightly higher threshold for fouls and no one outside of Arsene Wenger’s padded living room will be complaining about that.
But some officials are really struggling at Championship level and their only consistency is the incredibly low marks out of 10 they receive. It’s polite to say it’s not an easy job but Stoke-Norwich was an easy game to referee, or should have been.
The EFL needs more referees to go through matches unnoticed and David Webb is one who is featuring almost every week in the news up and down the division at the moment.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section
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