Alex Neil: The Tactician Against Burnley

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 31: Alex Neil the head coach / manager of Stoke City during the Sky Bet Championship between Stoke City and Swansea City at Bet365 Stadium on August 31, 2022 in Stoke on Trent, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 31: Alex Neil the head coach / manager of Stoke City during the Sky Bet Championship between Stoke City and Swansea City at Bet365 Stadium on August 31, 2022 in Stoke on Trent, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images) /

It couldn’t get much worse defensively for Stoke City than the teams 4-0 thumping last Sunday against Watford. Therefore, it was great news for Stoke City fans when fast-forward just days later to Wednesday’s match against Burnley – and things improved drastically in defense for The Potters. So what was the big tactical change for the club on Wednesday compared to Sunday? The answer comes down to Alex Neil, the tactician.

On Wednesday, Stoke City were able to hold high possession-based team Burnley to only one goal. A feat that should be applauded, as Burnley are the third highest scoring team in the Championship right now with 19 goals for.

Mentality absolutely played a factor in the team being sound defensively against Burnley. After all, without a sound defensive mentality and high defensive work rate, any team is going to be doomed to conceding goals.

But it’s what manager Alex Neil did with his formation on Wednesday against Burnley and some other slight tactical adjustments, that made the biggest difference for the club.

Small Changes Can be Big Changes

One seemingly small change can sometimes be the difference between being in the right position defensively, compared to out of position defensively. Or, in the case of Stoke City’s match against Burnley, it was the case of the team being in position to slightly nullify Burnley’s possession-based attack.

In recent weeks Alex Neil and Stoke City have mostly lined up in a 3-5-2 formation in possession and a 5-3-2 out of possession. The club against Watford on Sunday did line up a bit differently though, by choosing to play in more of a 3-1-4-2 formation.

Of course, all of these formations are very fluid and similar. Teams will sink into a formation defensively that doesn’t match their chosen formation in possession. Such as Wednesday’s 3-4-1-2 or even 3-4-3 Stoke City played with in possession, compared to a 5-2-3 or 5-2-1-2 against Burnley out of possession.

For the sake of this piece though, we’ll just focus mostly on the out of possession side of Stoke City’s formation. For most of the match Stoke City played in a 5-2-3 out of possession, while sometimes moving into a 5-2-1-2 as Dwight Gayle would move deeper at times defensively.

How Alex Neil’s Formation Change Helped Against Burnley

It may not seem like a big difference, but Stoke City moving from essentially a 5-3-2 to a 5-2-3, played a big part in the team being able to defend against Burnley. Playing three forwards and two midfielders with a back five, instead of a back five with two forwards and three midfielders in a 5-3-2, allowed Stoke City to keep Burnley’s backline from playing as high of a defensive line as they would normally want to in possession.

This mainly forced Burnley’s high possession-based attack to not be able to recycle their buildup as much if needed. This would force Burnley to keep their backline around midfield for most of their attacking play in the match.

Basically, Burnley was forced to build up and try to break down The Potters back five and two midfielders with only their own forwards and midfielders. Stoke City were able to keep Burnley’s backline more honest from pinching up and joining the team’s attack as much. Plus, Stoke City’s three high forwards were also able to slow down Burnley’s buildup at points.

This is all achieved by Neil playing with three forwards instead of two forwards. With three forwards instead of the two, Stoke City was able to press their wide players out into wide spaces and have Gayle press the ball in the center of the pitch.

The same logic applies to Stoke City’s counter attack having players out wide and in the middle of the pitch, instead of just having two high forwards roaming in between Burnley’s full-backs and center-backs.

Either way defensively in a 5-3-2 or a 5-2-3, you’re going to have your wing-backs sinking into a back line with five defenders. But Wednesday’s slight tweak from Neil allowed Stoke City to still play with five defenders and also have the ability to apply higher pressure/counterattacking ability up the pitch to keep Burnley honest.

The Negatives of How Neil Lined Up Wednesday

To every positive, there’s usually a negative. On the flip side of all of the above positives, playing with only two midfielders did inhibit Stoke City’s ability to play through the middle on counterattacks. Whenever Stoke City would win the ball back deep in their own end, it was very difficult for them to play through the middle of the pitch on counterattacks.

Those issues could have been stymied a bit better if Stoke City would have had better off-ball movement from their forwards dropping deep to hold-up and link-up play.

But still, it was a give and take strategy from Neil to be more defensively sound and try to nullify Burnley’s high possession buildup. A strategy that paid off for Stoke City in a bend but don’t break performance.