After a brief layoff, Everton return to action on Wednesday night against Stoke City. Although the January transfer window has lacked excitement thus far, Evertonians should enter the week in high spirits. The Toffees haven’t lost a league match in over a month, they’ve gotten rid of some dead weight, Idrissa Gueye is coming back, and recently they have genuinely looked like the best team in the league outside of the top 6. This match takes them to the Britannia Stadium, a place where a year ago they won their first match in 8 tries. Everton produced a 1-0 victory in a match they dominated when the two sides met in August.
Stoke City overview
In August’s match preview, I noted that Stoke finished 9th last year despite some lousy numbers:
Checking back in with them now, things look...kind of similar. In the table, they are again 9th (if they end the season there, it will be their fourth in a row in that spot). However, they still lack the numbers to justify their position:
Often when a team performs above their shot and xG metrics, you can dig deeper and find that they are finishing chances extremely well, that their opponents are for some reason finishing chances extremely poorly, or some other trait that is likely to be unsustainable. Most of Stoke’s simple “luck” metrics, though, are middling. You could argue they’ve been running a hair hot in front of goal (7th in the league in shooting percentage), but the basic numbers don’t really show an obvious area where they are consistently fortunate.
|Win||Sunderland (H), Hull (A), Swansea (H), Watford (A), Burnley (H), Watford (H), Sunderland (H)|
|Draw||Middlesbrough (A), West Brom (H), Man Utd (A), West Ham (A), Southampton (H), Leicester (H), Man Utd (H)|
|Loss||Man City (H), Everton (A), Tottenham (H), Crystal Palace (A), Bournemouth (H), Arsenal (A), Liverpool (A), Chelsea (A)|
What Stoke have done is taken care of business against crap teams. Accordingly, they’ve not really troubled the league’s better sides, apart from a pair of somewhat fortuitous draws against Manchester United. Beating teams that are worse than you and nicking some draws against teams that are on your level is a fairly sustainable way to stay in the Premier League for several consecutive years without ever really challenging for anything. Credit to Mark Hughes I suppose, but it doesn’t make for the most interesting story or analysis.
Stoke’s approach mimics their ambition. Ranking near the bottom of the league in passes per minute of possession suggests that tend to play fairly slow, and ranking near the top in both aerial duel win percentage and total aerial duels evinces a side that is strong in headers. Their pass patterns usually indicate a preference for long distribution from the keeper:
Passmaps & xGplot for Stoke against Man Utd. #passmap #xGplot #autotweet pic.twitter.com/Fv7fU5FNZY— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) January 21, 2017
Passmaps & xGplot for S'land against Stoke. #passmap #xGplot #autotweet pic.twitter.com/iuNqALToge— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) January 14, 2017
In keeping with this strategy, Peter Crouch is the preferred striker at the moment. He is flanked by direct, attacking, wingers in Marko Arnautivoc and Xherdan Shaqiri, who themselves are playing in front of direct fullbacks, notably Erik Pieters on the left. Stoke’s attacks thus tend to focus down the wings, with long balls forward the initial catalyst. There is rarely patient circulation amongst the defenders, and the midfielders mostly exist as a temporary hub to move the ball wide again.
Matching up with Everton
In August the Toffees indulged Stoke’s direct tendencies by pressing high up the pitch and inducing long balls forward. This made it fairly easy for Gueye and Gareth Barry to break up play and make sure that the Potters couldn’t get anything going. The end result was a whopping 1 shot on target for Stoke and a season-low xG of 0.2, according to Caley.
Since that match both sides have generally stuck with a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 but have also flirted with 3 and 5 man back lines. Koeman has the decision between doing what has been working recently (a 3-5-2) and what worked back in August against this opposition (a high-pressing 4-2-3-1). The mostly likely scenario is that he sticks with the 5-3-2, given its success against Crystal Palace, a side that also loves to cross it to the big man.
Stoke, meanwhile, will do what they usually do: play a direct and conservative game with little faffing around and lots of work and organization. Everton should expect to have most of the ball and should expect Stoke to sit deep. This will again require some creativity, but the Toffees have been doing a good job as of late of taking some of the playmaking responsibilities off of Ross Barkley’s shoulders and sharing it with the likes of Tom Davies and the two fullbacks, especially Seamus Coleman. They will again need to do so here, to avoid the old “Ross repeatedly runs into a crowd and loses the ball” syndrome.
If Everton can win again, that will be 4 league victories in a row heading into matches against AFC Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland. Breaking into the top 6 still seems a long shot, but with every solid performance comes an indication that the side is progressing and building under the new manager. In his first season, that’s about all one can hope for.