How Stoke City’s Backline Positioning Unlocked Fosu

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08: Tarique Fosu-Henry of Stoke City and Kyron Gordon of Sheffield United compete for the ball during the Sky Bet Championship between Stoke City and Sheffield United at Bet365 Stadium on October 08, 2022 in Stoke on Trent, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08: Tarique Fosu-Henry of Stoke City and Kyron Gordon of Sheffield United compete for the ball during the Sky Bet Championship between Stoke City and Sheffield United at Bet365 Stadium on October 08, 2022 in Stoke on Trent, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images) /

In recent matches, Stoke City have had issues finding their creative flair in attack. But, that wasn’t the case for the club this past Saturday in a 3-1 win against Sheffield United. Stoke City against The Blades looked inventive and fresh in possession. So what was the major adjustment that unlocked that creativeness in attack? The answer lies with how Alex Neil used his backline, and Tariqe Fosu.

There’s no doubt some basic principles helped Stoke City in possession this past Saturday. Sticking to the principles led to quicker passes and much-improved off-ball movement. All of that will again be crucial for The Potters moving forward.

However, it wasn’t the basics that unlocked another level to Stoke City’s attack. It was how Neil positioned his backline and allowed Fosu to play that made the biggest contribution to the team’s attack.

What Neil Did Tactically with Stoke’s Backline

Let’s start at the top first. Alex Neil against Sheffield United lined up a little bit differently than he has in recent weeks. Neil again used a formation close to a 3-5-2 in possession at times, but out of possession and in possession at other times it looked to be more of a 4-3-3.

Playing with a back four in the 4-3-3 allowed players like Tariqe Fosu, who played more of a left winger role, to take up a forward position and not worry as much about tracking back defensively. It also still allowed players like Dujon Sterling, to defend at left fullback, but also have the ability to go forward and make overlapping runs when needed.

These were just some of the building blocks to allow Tariqe Fosu and others to be more creative. The real difference was then how Neil chose to position his back three or four in possession.

The Positioning Element to Stoke’s Backline

First, Neil played Morgan Fox very close, almost hugging the left touchline. Secondly, he then positioned Ben Wilmot as the deepest of all of his center-backs or defenders, and as the team’s left center-back. Next, Neil played Phil Jagielka over slightly to the left and a little shallower than Wilmot.

Finally, the aforementioned Dujon Sterling played closer to normal right full-back positioning when he wasn’t making runs forward. This gave Jagielka extra help to his right when needed if Stoke City gave the ball away.

So what does this all equate to? It equates to Stoke City having a ton of defensive stability on the left side of the pitch. With Fox playing almost right on the left touchline, it allows for almost no space for Sheffield United to make runs down Stoke City’s left side.

It isn’t just Fox that allows for no space for opposing runs. Because of where Fox is playing, that opens space up to his right. By playing Wilmot deeper than everyone else, that allows him to cover that space vacated by Fox playing more to his left. It also still allows him to defend the space to his right.

The same goes with Jagielka. With him playing more left and shallower, he can help defend the space vacated by Wilmot playing deeper or needing to pinch over and help Fox out defensively.

All of that together leads to Stoke City having the ability to have defensive stability on the left side of the pitch. Which then, even more importantly in attack, gives Tariqe Fosu the ability to have complete freedom to push up in attack.

What Fosu Was Able To Do with His Positioning

As mentioned above, because Stoke City were defensively sound down the left side, Tariqe Fosu was able to push forward without having to worry about getting back to defend as much.

Listen, every player is asked to track back and defend. Same goes for Fosu in this match this past Saturday. But because of Stoke City’s backline positioning, Fosu was able to push far forward in possession without as much of the worry of Sheffield United hitting Stoke on a counter attack down the left.

Regularly throughout the match, Fosu pushed forward down the left side of Stoke City’s attack without defensive fears. He was then able to find crosses, passes, or that final attempt to lead to scoring opportunities.

Additionally, Fosu was able to be free to abandon his space down the left side and roam elsewhere on the pitch in attack. Fosu played as almost an inverted winger at portions of the match by moving inside to help in attack. This can be best seen on Stoke City’s third goal when Fosu is in the center of the pitch in the team’s build up.

In other portions of the match Fosu can also be seen moving over the right side next to Campbell or Dwight Gayle in attack. This allowed Stoke City to run some overloads on the right side of the pitch and create some different opportunities around the pitch in attack.

Digesting These Tactics

Bottom line is, Fosu was a dangerous weapon for Stoke City on Saturday. Whether he was playing down the left side, playing inverted, or overloading the right side, he helped create marking problems/defensive problems for Sheffield United.

Though this wasn’t just achieved by Fosu being inventive and finding spaces to attack. Fosu needed to be given the freedom to move around and push forward. That’s done by making sure the team has defensive stability down his left side.

Fosu wouldn’t have been able to have that true freedom though had he had to worry more about defending the space down Stoke’s left side. That’s where Alex Neil’s positioning of his backline gave the defensive support the team would need in case of counterattacks and unlocked Tariqe Fosu and another gear to Stoke City’s attack.

These same tactics won’t work every match. Different games call for different weaknesses and strengths to attack. But at least for Saturday, Alex Neil and Stoke City pushed the right buttons to be more creative in attack.