Stoke City (H) Match Preview

Wigan Athletic have another chance to drag themselves out of the current awful run of form as we welcome fellow strugglers Stoke City to the DW. Both sides come into the game off the back of 3 consecutive league defeats and will be targeting this game as a chance to get back on track heading into the World Cup break.

Latics’ poor form extends beyond the last 3 games, its been 6 losses in 7 for Leam Richardson’s side. Its been a mixture of poor performances and unlucky breaks, but in every game we’ve had periods where we’ve been on top and then surrendered our advantage through silly mistakes and strange decisions.

It seems to be a similar story down at Stoke as well. The Potters have had an indifferent start to the season and their last 3 games have summed that up completely. Dominant more often than not but failing to make chances count and ultimately finding new and creative ways to throw games away! Its a game between 2 sides in a very similar situation.

Latics Team News

Our injury list continues to grow, this time with an addition in the goalkeeping department. Ben Amos cracked a rib in our game at QPR which looks like it’ll keep him out till after the World Cup. He joins Ryan Nyambe, Tom Pearce, Callum Lang and Charlie Wyke in the treatment room.

Jamie Jones replaced Amos on Saturday and made a wonderful save in the first half. I think most Latics fans are now in agreement that a new Goalkeeper is an absolute must in January if possible but until then Jamie Jones is certainly our best option. Amos has been poor this season and I can’t see him earning his starting spot back anytime soon, especially now he’s injured.

The back 3 on Saturday wasn’t bad at all and dealt with one of the best attacking lines in the league. Assuming we retain our back 3, which I think we should, you’d assume it’ll be Tilt, Whatmough and Kerr playing together again. They need to improve the way they deal with crosses and set pieces but they should keep their places fitness allowing.

Wing back continues to be a problem for Latics and its a position we can’t really do anything about. Darikwa and McClean simply aren’t cutting it at this level but are the best we have fit in those positions. Part of the reason we should be playing a back 3 is to protect their defensive weaknesses, particularly McClean’s although he does have the excuse of not actually being a defender!

We’ll be without Graeme Shinnie tomorrow night who picked up his 5th booking of the season against Watford on Saturday. That’s a huge loss for us and probably hints towards a change in formation too, unless Tom Naylor is to come in as a like for like replacement. Personally I think we need to add a bit more attacking quality into this side though.

Keep Power and Cousins in the middle behind a number 10 like Keane or Aasgaard. They’re very different players though so it depends on how we’re planning on breaking Stoke down. If we go direct against them I’d play Keane there and a target man up top, but if the plan is to be slightly more creative in our build up Thelo is our man.

Nathan Broadhead is starting to show us what he’s all about but we still need to manage his workload. He can’t really last more than an hour on the pitch so its vital we replace him with someone as similar to him as possible. We’ve been killed by replacing him with target man Josh Magennis in recent weeks and I really don’t want to see us do that again. Get Scully on the bench and give him 30 minutes when Broadhead’s time is up. Please.

If Charlie Wyke isn’t fit I’d pick Fletcher as my target man should we look to be more direct. He adds more mobility to our forward line than Magennis and deserves a real shot at things after a slow start to his Wigan career. I’m not sure if he’s match ready to start the game but ultimately we need to try new things as the old method hasn’t been working. Give Fletcher a chance and hopefully he takes it.

An Opposition View

To give an insight into where our opponents are at leading into tomorrow’s fixture I’ve called in the help of some people far more knowledgeable on Stoke than myself!

1) Much like Wigan there have been a fair amount of ups and downs for Stoke this season, but probably more downs if we’re both honest! What’ve you made of your sides season so far?

“Very mixed. We had a really good summer window on paper with the likes of Delap, Smallbone, Laurent, Fosu & Sterling arriving in Staffordshire, but they just haven’t quite clicked so far. We looked disjointed early on under MON barring a terrific home performance against Blackpool and that’s not me disrespecting O’Neill as it’s a real shame it didn’t work out under him, I think most fans wanted him to be the man to take us back up but he was relieved of his duties following a loss to Alex Neil’s Sunderland Ironically. Neil has brought improvement but the biggest problem under him has been finishing our chances, that’s currently what is costing us.” [@LouisEccleston7]

“We were the first Championship side to sack our manager, which is hardly a badge of honour. We were hoping that Michael O’Neill’s vision for Stoke would come to fruition following his sixth transfer window. Stoke got off to a poor start, far from our play-off ambitions and O’Neill’s job was the casualty of that. We’re now under Alex Neil, who appeared to be just what the doctor ordered: a terrific coach who will get the best out of our young and talented squad. Stoke didn’t benefit from any new manager bounce and Neil is now appears to be questioning the mentality, fitness and quality of the squad he’s inherited. It feels like de ja vu for Stoke for a fifth season in a row.” [@benarowley]

2) You poached Alex Neil from Sunderland in a move that got a lot of publicity at the time. What’ve you made of him since he’s arrived and how has he got you playing?

“He’s been fantastic, a breath of fresh air in all honesty. Neil just seems to be the perfect fit for Stoke as both a club and a city, he’s straight talking, takes no nonsense and is a tactically flexible manager. He is just one of those coaches who you learn something new from every time he delivers an interview or press conference. I think the general position of most fans right now is that he’ll get it right he just needs time and a transfer window or two.” [@LouisEccleston7]

“Michael O’Neill was wedded to playing three centre backs by the end of his reign: something that didn’t suit Stoke’s depleted squad, particularly at fullback. Alex Neil has come in and been a little more pragmatic in playing four at the back as he waits for his fully fit squad. Players like Tariq Fosu and Morgan Fox have turned from villain to hero as they’ve now been playing in their more familiar roles. Having said all this, nothing’s really changed in terms of our results. We’re still an incredibly frustrating team to watch, and the grace that the crowd offered Neil and his squad initially already appears to be vanishing.” [@benarowley]

3) You’ve lost 3 games in a row despite being on top at times in all of them. What do you think the reason for this recent run of poor form has been?

“Not taking our chances has been our downfall so far this season and the most frustrating part is that we don’t know exactly what is to blame for that. In my opinion, our strikers are more than good enough to score goals at this level but just haven’t had the rub of the green so far this season, with Dwight Gayle being the best example with eight disallowed goals this season, all of which should have arguably stood. The Rotherham game was probably the best example of this, Stoke played out of their skin and had 29 shots on goal, meanwhile Rotherham had four and just the one on target, that was their goal. I do get the feeling (unlike others) that we’re going to turn someone over soon but it’s tough to pinpoint when that will be, perhaps the return of the Australian giant Harry Souttar from injury will be our turning point.” [@LouisEccleston7]

“We still control the majority of games, yet seem unable to create quality chances to score (and spurn them when we do). We constantly get caught out with a lack of pace and/or experience at the back, and concede pretty much every threat we face. It’s frustrating, as it appears to only be in crucial moments where Stoke are suffering. We’re unsure whether it’s a case of luck, mentality, quality or coaching that’s letting us down where is really matters. Whatever it is, it’s been happening for the last five years and has been passed down through managers and players over that time.” [@benarowley]

4) On paper you have a very talented crop of players. Who’ve been the stand outs this season that Latics fans should be wary of come kick off time?

“As you say there’s a fair few, obviously you know a lot about him but the Crewe Cantona Nick Powell will be a huge threat if he starts following his goal against Norwich at the weekend. Tyrese Campbell is another who except for the last 2 games has been on decent form this season. Our on-loan, tricky winger Tariqe Fosu will likely give Darikwa & Kerr a tough night with his flair and raw pace. Club captain Lewis Baker also deserves a mention just for his ability to produce 25-yard screamers alone.” [@LouisEccleston7]

“Lewis Baker is the obvious candidate across the season. He’s our top goalscorer and you can never question his professionalism. He’s had many midfield partners and I’m sure there’s more to come from him when we get the balance right. Recently, Tariq Fosu has been a livewire and certainly our most unpredictable player. He’s without a goal for himself thus far, but he’s been the most likely to create one from the left flank. If our strikers had their shooting boots on this season, people would probably be giving him more credit for his service.” [@benarowley]

Tactical Talk

Latics seem set on a back 3 at the moment and as I’ve touched upon plenty of times already this season I’m happy for that to be the case. We’ve been pretty difficult to break down from open play recently and have been let down by our pathetic record defending set pieces, so if that changes you’d think we’d start keeping clean sheets. Stoke have scored 5 goals from set pieces this season and Centre Back Ben Wilmot has netted 3 of them, so we can’t afford to be weak in those situations again.

In our last 3 game we’ve faced 13 corners, and 7 of those have resulted in a shot from our opponents. 2 of those shots were scored by QPR and in the Watford game, although it wasn’t directly from a corner, we conceded from the second phase due to a poorly dealt with corner in the first place. Its so out of character when you consider last season just 24% of corners we faced resulted in a shot and its a problem that needs addressing as soon as possible.

We defend with a blend of zonal and man-marking and from what I’ve seen there aren’t any glaring issues with our set up. We could maybe do with someone on the back post but that’s a tactic that seems to have been left behind by the modern game to allow more players to cover more key areas. For me it boils down to a lack of aggression and physicality which are two things we ought to be stronger than most opponents at.

Another thing that needs sorting out is how we deal with crosses. Watford manager Slaven Bilic made some interesting comments post-match where he discussed how Latics ‘give opponents the flanks and defend our box in numbers’ and whilst that final point is true more often than not its playing the percentages and can cause us problems.

We set up to defend narrow regardless of the opposition but for me we have to get the balance slightly better. Too often there’s a lack of closing down done to wide players and its seen us concede an average of 14 crosses per 90 this season, and in games like Hull and Burnley we’ve been made to pay for our narrowness and willingness to let our opponents cross the ball.

Tomorrow’s opponents Stoke will be keen to get the ball out wide and deliver crosses. According to Wyscout data only 3 teams cross the ball more often than Stoke do per 90 and with a number of tall forwards at their disposal we’ll have to be aware of this threat. Liam Delap, Tyrese Campbell and Jacob Brown are all handy players in the air whilst two former Latics midfielders Josh Laurent and Nick Powell add height to the box with their late runs.

As has already been touched upon Stoke’s Left Winger Tarique Fosu has been a revelation under Alex Neil. He’s made some of the best defenders in the league look silly this season so will more than fancy his chances against our defence given the frailties we’ve shown. Stoke love to isolate their wingers by flooding one side of the pitch and hitting long diagonal balls over to the opposite side where players like Fosu find themselves in acres of space. Latics’ narrow set up will only encourage them to do this more.

This is where I expect Stoke to try and hurt us the most. We’ll need to be better at engaging with their wide players quicker and more aggressively, and that goes for our defending as a whole. We won League 1 last season on the back of a strong defensive unit that didn’t shirk any challenge that came our way, that’s what we need to get back to.

Final Thoughts

Halloween has been and gone and our horror show of an October month is over. Hopefully, we can put the results and the majority of our performances behind us and kick on in the 4 games we have before the World Cup. Stoke are a side that feel like a winnable game and are in an equally precarious position hovering above the relegation zone.

The home form is another thing we need to fix quickly. That Blackburn victory is still our only home win of the season but it did come in a midweek game so perhaps we can replicate it! I certainly hope so.

Lots of things haven’t gone our way this season but we have to better at making the most out of what we’ve got. Cut out the silly mistakes, be more brave with our decision making and give the crowd something to cheer and we’ll be fine. But if we don’t and the same mistakes come creeping in as they have done in the past month it’ll be another long night!

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