Stoke City (A) Preview

Does this game really have to go ahead? It feels like salt is being added into Latics’ wounds by the bucket load at the moment and despite everyone accepting our fate we’re still not technically relegated. We all know it’s coming though and could well be confirmed in midweek should we lose to Stoke and QPR and Reading pick up points.

We went down 1-0 to fellow relegation threatened side Blackpool at the weekend in an incredibly frustrating and depressing game of football. We failed to cause them problems and despite only conceding the one chance it was enough to lose us the game. Shaun Maloney was furious post match and he has every right to be, his side were rubbish.

Stoke are everything I wish Wigan were right now, under absolutely no pressure whatsoever with precisely nothing to play for. God that must be nice to be done and dusted with as many as four games left! That could mean we turn up and get a result against a side that don’t need it, but more likely will just make our impending defeat even more hurtful!

Latics Team News

Shaun Maloney’s post match comments were very interesting on Saturday, especially in relation to his team selections going forward. He announced he would start being more ‘ruthless’ moving forward in his bid to get the club back to where he believes it should be. To me that means his decision on certain players has already been made and teams will be picked with next season in mind.

With players out of contract all over the pitch there may well be some notable absentees. To my knowledge, Ben Amos, Jamie Jones, Curtis Tilt, Steven Caulker, Joe Bennett, Tendayi Darikwa, Ryan Nyambe, James McClean, Jordan Cousins, Max Power and Scott Smith are all OOC in June, as well as the loanees so you’d assume all those players are at risk.

U21 keeper Sam Tickle signed a three year contract extension earlier this week which suggests he’s very highly rated. With Amos and Jones both flattering to deceive, especially with the ball at their feet which is huge in Maloney’s system, I’ve been keen to see Tickle get a go for a few weeks. Now might just be the time.

Look no further than centre back for the benefits trusting in your youth team can bring. Charlie Hughes has been the best of a bad bunch ever since he came into the team and will be Wigan captain one day I’m sure of it. Jack Whatmough went off injured on Saturday but should be fit to play, as should Omar Rekik. That trio are about the only ones that can feel any sort of pride right now.

The U21s doesn’t have a stand out pair of wing backs necessarily but there have been some impressive performances at times. I feel like these might be McClean and Darikwa’s last four games at Wigan Athletic though and both deserve a nice send off. There will be youngsters waiting in the wings (pardon the pun) in pre season.

Chrsit Tiehi was dropped on Saturday which again might be down to the fact he probably won’t be here next season. I’d love him to stay as he’d be ridiculously good in League One but financially it’s probably going to be difficult. Power and Naylor might be the partnership for the rest of the season but I’d hope that’s not the case going into next season. New midfielders are needed.

I touched on Maloney’s comments after Blackpool and I’ll do so again. Nobody caught flack as much as the forwards did! “We’re the worst attacking side in the league if you look at the data, or just use your eyes.” were the manager’s words and he’s not wrong. So unthreatening, so many players incapable of playing Championship football and so simple to defend against. No pace, no finishing ability, no bravery in possession. It’s as bad as it gets up top.

Fletcher, Magennis and Keane can all thank their lucky stars that Charlie Wyke has been so hampered with injuries as he’d walk into this side at the minute. Inside forwards Lang and Aasgaard will always have the backing of fans as they’re one of our own but wow, against Blackpool they might as well not have turned up! In League One they’ll be wonderful but it’s painfully obvious neither can manage the step up yet. Keep playing them though as both have a big part to play next season.

An Opposition View

As always I’ve called in the help of somebody far more knowledgeable about Stoke City than myself to contribute to this section of the preview!

1) As an outsider I’d probably say this season has been slightly disappointing for Stoke City, with your side currently sitting 16th in the Championship. Can you sum up for us how things have been at the Bet365 stadium this campaign ?

“It’s safe to say it has been a season of mixed feelings, we started the season quite poorly and had a change of manager within the opening five games but we’ve seen a massive upturn in form and performances following Alex Neil’s appointment. The Scotsman had a slow start but following the January window, where he managed to bring in some great players including Ki-Jana Hoever, Axel Tuanzebe and Ben Pearson, we have watched some truly excellent football that has seen us beat the likes of Sunderland, Blackburn Rovers and Coventry City convincingly. The month of March has probably been the highlight of the season as we went unbeaten and, at one point, a section of our fanbase felt that we could’ve made a late run for the play-offs had it not been for our inconsistent run of form pre-January. I would say that the fanbase is currently as happy as they have been since the Premier League days, there’s a clear vision being created by Neil and Technical Director Ricky Martin which should set us up for a great season next year.” [@LouisEccleston_]

“The first half of the season was as bad as it could have been. We sacked Michael O’Neill very early on and Alex Neil could get to grips with the squad he inherited. We were playing incredibly poorly, and were hurtling toward relegation to League 1. The January transfer window helped massively. Key additions to the side, such as Ben Pearson, have brought out the best in other players, such as Tyrese Campbell and Will Smallbone. We now press with severe intensity and transition exceptional quickly. Some excellent performances and results in March have refuelled optimism for the future, though tired legs will most likely see us retain our status as an upper-bottom-half Championship side.” [@benarowley]

2) Alex Neil has always been a highly rated manager but maybe hasn’t managed to get as much of a tune out of this squad as he might’ve liked. Are you confident he’s the man for the job or is it time to look elsewhere?

“Absolutely no doubt for me and 99% of Stoke fans that he’s the man for the job. To be honest, he’s probably the most well-suited manager to being in our dugout, he plays aggressive, high pressing, attractive football, and speaks very well when performing his media duties. There is also a sense that he understands the football club and what it’s culture is all about, our fanbase loves to be hated and he gets that, he wants the club to remould itself into that image and hopefully what we’ve seen in recent months is just the beginning of the club’s journey back to that image. He’s gotten more out of this squad than most managers could’ve and his signings have also been top class and have added extra quality to the squad.” [@LouisEccleston_]

“Before February came along, I certainly would have said he was underperforming. Results were going against us and performances were poor. Games were hinging on critical moments which Stoke often found themselves the wrong side of. However, Neil has managed to properly assess his players and has brought in other to synergise with our top talent. Though on paper we will have had another disappointing season, it appears Neil knows how to build a squad to challenge for promotion and, most importantly, knows what Stoke need to do this Summer to get there. For the first time in a long time, Stoke fans have belief, not just hope, in the management.” [@benarowley]

3) You’ve underperformed your xG quote considerably this season which would suggest performances aren’t being rewarded with results. Firstly, is that fair, and secondly why do you think that is and what can be done to change it?

“Absolutely would agree with that statement, to be honest, I can’t recall too many games where we have been outplayed or deserved to lose. We have gone toe-to-toe with some of the best sides in this division and that includes runaway title winners Burnley, who we gave a good game to in both the home and away fixtures this season. Our biggest issue has been putting the ball in the back of the net, we either score a boatload or have a mix of bad luck and wastefulness in front of goal and it costs us. It’s hard to pinpoint why that is though, we’ve got some top forwards playing for us who have provided a decent goal return including Tyrese Campbell, who is currently on nine goals and five assists for the season and Lewis Baker, who despite spending a period out of the XI has scored seven goals and provided five assists this term. So to answer your question, our performances haven’t been awarded as often as they probably should’ve and I think the answer to our problem likely lie’s beyond this season.” [@LouisEccleston_]

“There are some significant contributors to this particular stat. Jacob Brown, Liam Delap and, perhaps most significantly, Dwight Gayle all show a poor return on their xG. Particularly in the first half of the season, this was certainly a contributor to poor form, along with conceding extremely low quality chances. Missing sitters and connecting stinkers is as frustrating as it is damning. Since the turn of the year, Stoke have won a handful of games by a margin of three or more, yet lost games by just the one goal. Stoke are very much a team that relies on game state: if they take the lead, they can obliterate teams on the counter; if they concede, Stoke have found it hard to break down a low block and have suffered being counter-attacked. Alex Neil will need to bring in personnel who are more fleet-footed in defence, and more incisive in attack.” [@benarowley]

4) The Stoke squad still has a fair amount of talent, especially at Championship level. Who will you be pinning your hopes on to deliver 3 points for your side?

“It’s a brilliant squad as you say and we may utilise it on Tuesday as Alex Neil has said we will be freshening up the side following a three-game run of mixed results. If I had to pick one who I think could really cause Wigan issues it will be the likely returning Captain Lewis Baker. That will surprise a few if I’m honest, he’s been out of the starting eleven for a few months now but I sense he will make his first start in over two months against Wigan. My reasoning behind choosing him is that I feel he’s got a huge point to prove and Tuesday could provide him with a chance to earn his spot back as a starter, not to mention that he can be a phenomenal footballer on his day. The biggest thing to watch out for with Baker is his ability to smash home a shot from 30 plus yards out, in fact he’s probably more accurate from 30-yards and beyond than most Championship forwards are from 10. But the former Chelsea man isn’t just a long-shot specialist, he’s also a technically sound player when it comes to his on-the-ball ability, in addition to that, he displays an impressive range of passing, an eagerness to get in-between the lines and a cracking cross from dead ball situations. Not to mention that if you concede a penalty to us he often finds the corner of the net. Big fan of him as a player and I think he could really damage you if given the opportunity , alongside the obvious names such as Campbell, Josh Laurent, Hoever, Nick Powell and Jacob Brown to name a few.” [@LouisEccleston_]

“Shifting Tyrese Campbell out onto the wing has brought out the best of him. He’s able to play many roles within this Stoke team: arriving late in the box, cutting in off the wing and shooting, ball carrying from deep and taking players on to get dangerous crosses in. Though many others in the team have been more consistent in their performances, Campbell is the livelier and, if he can get the better of Wigan’s right side of defence, Stoke may well go on to win the game.” [@benarowley]

The Permutations

Usually I’d have a ‘tactical talk’ section in my match preview but nothing much has changed from the last half a dozen previews! Unfortunately it seems as though regardless of the system or the patterns of play or the pressing triggers we still don’t have enough quality or the correct profile of player to pull it off. So rather than waste my team repeating myself i’ll discuss the possible outcomes regarding relegation.

We can get a maximum of 46 points this season, although there’s more likelihood of James McClean going a season unabused by English football yobs than that happening! Should we lose tonight that’ll mean we’ll only be able to get 43 points, and a draw would mean 44 points would be our maximum.

Reading, who occupy the final relegation spot, are on 42 points currently so can achieve a maximum of 54. Cardiff are also on 42 points but have an extra game left after their crunch clash with Rotherham was abandoned due to a waterlogged (kind of) pitch. So if both of those were to win their next games we would have to win to avoid relegation this midweek.

QPR are on 43 points currently so have the potential to reach a maximum of 55 points. They only need one win to get out of our reach given our vastly inferior goal difference and if they were to get that midweek it would all but relegate us too, even if we were to pick up three points. The same goes for Neil Warnock’s Huddersfield Town.

Basically to cut a long story short we’re relegated. It might be confirmed in midweek or it might be confirmed at the weekend. Either way it’s a sorry story for Latics fans…

Final Thoughts

Forgive me for the undertone, or probably overtone to be honest, of negativity splattered throughout this preview but I feel like it captures the mood as a Latics fan right now. I’m excited for next season, the transfer window and our time under Shaun Maloney in League One but unfortunately there’s still 360+ minutes of Championship football to play before then!

We should be playing some youngsters between now and the end of the season but until we’re confirmed down I can’t see it. Therefore we’re just going to have to endure the same old squad I suppose. Considering several will probably be leaving in a couple of months it’d be nice for them to go out on a high…

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