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Everton try to keep rolling as Stoke come to town

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Will this matchup look more like the crazy 3-4 or the dominant 3-0 of last season?

Stoke City v Everton - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Stoke City visit Everton on Saturday as Ronald Koeman looks for his first Premier League win at Goodison Park. Stoke have started the season with a draw and a loss, and are coming off the back of a comprehensive midweek defeat of Stevenage. Everton likewise beat League Two’s Yeovil Town in League Cup action on Tuesday.

Stoke City overview

Since coming to the Premier League in 2008, Stoke have established themselves as a perennial midtable side. Much of this has been due to Tony Pulis’s steady stewardship, but for the last three seasons it’s been Mark Hughes at the helm.

Under Pulis Stoke had a reputation for gritty, borderline ugly football. It was during this time that the phrase “cold wet Wednesday night in Stoke” and all of its variations was born, and for a while there seemed something to that, at least as long as Ryan Shawcross horror tackles and Rory Delap long throws were flying around.

With the arrival of Hughes was supposed to come a style change, and in some ways there has been. The transfer strategy has been geared much more towards technique and creativity, helped on by the Premier League’s new television deal, and aesthetically they are certainly better they used to be. Statsbomb has done some nice looks into Stoke’s transition here and here that are worth a read.

Numbers-wise, Hughes has brought some improvements. Stoke shoot more, score more, and take care of the ball better than they did under Pulis, but they’re still not really great at any of those things. According to expected goals, the improvement over Pulis has been minimal-to-non-existent. Last year in particular was less than impressive:

Expected goals via Paul Riley

Given those numbers how did they finish 9th, above Chelsea and Everton? In short, when they won, they won small, and when they lost, they lost big. 10 of their 14 wins were by one goal, and twice they lost by 3 goals for 3 straight games. This paints a picture of a super streaky team that was riding some serious waves throughout the season.

Long story short, Stoke are an average to below average team, Mark Hughes is a solidly average manager (and I actually mean that as a compliment), and they should finish this season about where they always have. Early results this year suggest about as much—they played an even match against Middlesbrough and grabbed a draw, then got clobbered by Man City in a match that easily could have come out of one of last season’s aforementioned losing streaks.

Tactics

In truth there aren’t a whole lot of interesting things to say about Stoke from a tactical perspective. Hughes usually likes to line up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, often depending on the availability of his central midfielders and attackers. In terms of possession, they tend to vary in their approach based on their opponents—they’ll average middling numbers over the course of the season but in individual matches will have fairly wide ranging figures. Against teams that like to keep the ball they are content to let them do so, but they aren’t like West Brom in that they almost refuse to have the ball at all regardless of opposition or situation.

In general Stoke’s attacking play is somewhat flexible and they have a correspondingly versatile group of players. As Statsbomb pointed out though, the Potters don’t have a decent, true striker in their midst aside from (unless you count Mame Biram Diouf or Peter Crouch), a feature with probably plays a part in their low shot volume. They do have speed and creativity though, and with the addition of Joe Allen in the midfield, Stoke can be dangerous in transition. Last week against Man City, Allen was doing his thing:

It was surprising to see him leave Liverpool as he had demonstrated under Jürgen Klopp that he’s a pretty decent counter-pressing midfielder, and Everton will need to be wary of his presence. They will also do well to remember Xherdan Shaqiri’s fine goal at Goodison Park last year, which also came from a transition.

Defensively, Stoke are again pretty average—solid at times but prone to the usual mistakes of a mid-table side: poor spacing, disorganization, ball-watching, etc. Last year Everton killed them in transition. Here are two goals from the wild 4-3 Stoke win in December:

In the first, Lukaku loses his markers way too easily and Stoke are undone by a single long ball. In the second, Everton win one header in the midfield and they are away, with Stoke’s defenders doing abject jobs of tracking the Everton runners.

This is from the 3-0 Everton win at the Brittannia:

Stoke are seemingly in control of the situation but a poor pass and poor positioning send Lennon through on goal.

Last week Manchester City were keen to exploit Stoke’s defensive lapses as well:

Here Iheanacho runs into 4 Stoke defenders, and everything seems fine until Silva picks up the loose ball and finds...Iheanacho again, who is inexplicably unmarked. Ditto for the onrushing Nolito.

I’m kind of piling on at this point (this goal came at 3-1 in stoppage time) but you get the idea. Loads of individual errors and concentration lapses made worse by positional disorganization. In this particular case, the right back tried to play the forward offside but was not on the same page as his teammates, thus leaving a gaping hole on his side of the field.

Matching up with Everton

Everton will likely see most of the ball on Saturday. As long as they remain patient and disciplined they should have no trouble creating chances. Stoke aren’t the greatest at managing space on the defensive side of the ball, often leaving defenders on islands as we’ve seen above.

One interesting thing to note is that in last year’s 3-0 victory, Stoke actually had 66% possession. I made a similar comment before the West Brom match, but Everton should try to avoid possession for possession’s sake. Stoke can be caught out if the Toffees play their cards right.

If you’re curious, Koeman did have a bit of trouble with the Potters last year, being somewhat outplayed at home in a 0-1 loss, then winning narrowly at the Britannia in March thanks to some lovely finishes from Graziano Pellè.

Finally, Everton need to be wary of Stoke’s aerial threat. They’ve been beaten by headers already against Tottenham and West Brom, and Crouch’s midweek hat trick was a reminder of what Stoke can do in the air.

Conclusion

Stoke aren’t a very good team, but they can run hot and do have plenty of raw talent in the side. Everton deserve to be favorites here, but disciplined defending and clinical finishing will be necessary if they are to take all three points.