Things change fast in the Championship. One moment a team can be riding high on a winning streak. The next moment, that same club can find themselves suffering a losing streak. With either of those scenarios, it’s important to stay level-headed. But it’s also important, especially when you’re in bad form, to make quick wholesale changes to what you’ve been doing if needed. And in Stoke City’s case, those changes need to come to their starting XI.
Just two matches ago we were talking about a club that looked like a promotion challenger after two straight wins over top-table teams. Now two games later and we could be discussing Stoke City as a team in a relegation battle after two straight losses to bottom-table clubs.
So how do Stoke City pull themselves out of the bad results they’ve found themselves in? Is it a tactical issue? Is it a personnel issue? Although Neil will need to surely adjust some of his tactics, the issue for Stoke City lies with their starting XI not getting the job done as of late.
The Changes Stoke City Need to Their Starting XI
Jacob Brown: Brown has been working his way back from injuries this season. But the time has come for Brown to return as a starter. Brown finished last season as the club’s leading goal scorer and needs to be reinserted into the starting lineup to show off that scoring prowess again.
Even after missing games this season, he’s still tied for third on the team with two goals. Brown has to start again to provide more attacking spark for Stoke City.
Dwight Gayle: First off, it’s not all Gayle’s fault. Dwight Gayle has been great at times with his hold-up and link-up play this season. He’s also had some bad luck not scoring this season. However, that being said, zero goals is still zero goals.
Gayle’s xG (expected goal) data also backs that up. Gayle is behind Jacob Brown, Liam Delap, and Tyrese Campbell with 0.16 xG on the season so far, per TheAnalyst.com. It all adds up to Gayle needing a breather in the short-term and coming off of the bench for Stoke City.
Forward Verdict: Liam Delap, Tyrese Campbell, and Jacob Brown need to be the club’s top choice forwards over the next few matches. Delap while he’s had his struggles this season has come on as of late. Same goes for Campbell who can disappear sometimes in the first half, but make a huge difference in the second half.
Jordan Thompson: Thompson might not be healthy enough to return to the team’s starting XI, after suffering facial and head injuries during the last international break. If he is healthy enough though, Thompson has to go back to starting pronto.
Thompson’s ability to sit deep as a defensive midfielder is something Stoke have missed recently. Although Josh Laurent has had some okay performances, Laurent’s starting to be exposed with his defending and his ability on/off the ball.
Thompson checks all of those boxes and changes the way Alex Neil can play tactically. Neil can be fully confident with Thompson being able to sit deeper midfield and defend and help link-up play early on in the team’s build-up.
Midfielder Verdict: Will Smallbone, Lewis Baker, and Jordan Thompson have to be the team’s starting midfield again. Smallbone brings his box-to-box skills, Baker is a set piece monster with his crosses and leading the team in goals. Thompson also brings a full defensive midfield list of traits the club will need.
Aden Flint: Flint after a miserable game against Watford has been unofficially benched. Though the time is now to give Flint another shot.
Flint at six foot six brings some more size to Stoke City’s set pieces that they’ve been missing. Flint still sits fourth on the team in xG with 0.17 per 90 minutes. Most of that expected goals number (while not a massive number) comes from his set piece ability to put his head to crosses in the box.
On top of that, after being benched Flint should bring more defensive intensity to the club’s starting XI again. It’s also a contract year for Flint, so he’ll be extra motivated to show the club or other team’s he’s worthy of a starting spot.
Harry Souttar: Speaking of size, Souttar when he returns soon will bring more size to Stoke’s backline. Souttar will also bring a fresh defensive intensity to the team. Now, when that return happens and at what capacity, that’s unknown.
Souttar, who suffered a knee injury last year, could be brought along very slowly. But Souttar is already playing 70 minutes in U-21 matches for Stoke City and wants to play in the World Cup. If he pushes enough, Souttar needs to be a starter.
Defenders Verdict: Tariqe Fosu, Ben Wilmot, Aden Flint, Harry Souttar, and Dujon Sterling (keep in mind Josh Tymon could be returning at some point) should make up the club’s backline moving forward. That means Morgan Fox and Phil Jagielka makes their way to the bench more consistently.
Fosu and Sterling will play more as wing-backs, so you can throw them into this conversation but ignore them essentially. At times Fosu has operated as a forward, but at least for now that needs to be changed to him as a wing-back. Sterling and Fosu have been very good down the wings and deserve to keep starting.
For Fox and Jagielka it’s nothing the two really did to come to that opinion. It’s more of inserting size into the team’s backline while keeping Wilmot as the team’s most consistent defender in the squad.
Even though Stoke City have conceded three goals in their last two matches, it would be unfair to blame Josef Bursik for those goals. In both matches against Rotherham and Coventry, Bursik really wasn’t given a chance on any of the goals conceded.
Therefore, Bursik should stay as the team’s starting goalkeeper.
Stoke’s Starting XI Needs a Boost
Listen, the above changes aren’t permanent ones. This isn’t a piece trying to say Stoke City should bench players forever or even release players. This is simply a referendum on why Stoke City need to make some, at least temporary, changes to their starting XI.
The one thing that is clear is Stoke City haven’t been good enough in their last two matches. If The Potters keep up the same level of play as they struggle in attack and struggle to maintain their defensive intensity for a full 90 minutes, a constant free fall could be in the team’s cards.
That’s why making even a few or all of the above wholesale changes to the team’s starting XI is absolutely needed. The club desperately needs a shot in the arm right now and players in their starting XI who will execute what needs to be done in the short-term.