Preview: Stoke City

After an exasperating defeat against Queens Park Rangers on the weekend, where Coventry City did just about everything right, apart from scoring more goals than the opposition, the chance to immediately return to action could be just the tonic to shake that frustration out of the system.

Against a Stoke City side that are in a similar position to the Sky Blues in the league table, it is vital that the positives from Saturday are harnessed correctly. Frustration can easily give way to a lack of focus and discipline, in a game where a defeat would make it difficult to retain realistic ambitions for the top six, Coventry City cannot afford either a repeat or a downgrade from the QPR game.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Moore; Hyam, McFadzean, Clarke-Salter; Kane, Sheaf, Hamer, Bidwell; Allen, O'Hare; Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

After playing so well on Saturday, it is hard to see Mark Robins wanting to make any changes for this game, but there may be some tweaks and adjustments required for this specific match-up, as well as the possibility of any injuries or fitness issues that may not be apparent at the time of writing.

The biggest tweak for this game may be to switch-up the set-up in attack. Returning to two up top may well be a consideration after the lack of killer touch in the final third against Queens Park Rangers. However, that decision is likely to depend entirely on how fit Mark Robins believes Martyn Waghorn is. With the striker looking a little short of match sharpness and given the shortage of alternative options up front, Waghorn’s return to the side may be a gradual one.

The other selection consideration for this game looks set to be at left wing-back. While Jordan Shipley has filled in adeptly over the past two games, he has twice had to be substituted due to cramp, making it difficult to see him starting another game so soon after the last one. With Jake Bidwell available, it makes Mark Robins’ decision to take Saturday’s goalscorer out of the firing line a little easier.

Last Time We Met

It was a rather strange, end of season contest between Coventry City and Stoke City back in April of last year. With Stoke having nothing to play for and the Sky Blues only needing to pick up a couple of points to make sure of survival, the two teams served up a 90 minutes that was equally brilliant as it was somewhat shambolic.

Coventry City had been the better team for much of the first-half, fluffing a few decent openings, before Callum O’Hare played through Tyler Walker to open the scoring just before half-time. Not that Stoke didn’t pose a threat, with their giant centre-back, Connor Taylor, forcing an incredible, point-blank save from Ben Wilson in the opening period, but they didn’t seem that bothered about the final result.

However, the Potters stepped up the intensity massively in the second-half, pressing high, making the pitch big and doing everything in the textbook to turn around a losing position. For all of the theory Stoke were attempting to put in practice, it took a thunderous Jacob Brown strike to level the scores. The game only looked to be heading one way.

That was until a Sam McCallum long throw, Leo Ostigard flick-on and Maxime Biamou finish set-up a chaotic closing period. Stoke quickly restored the deadlock through another brilliant strike, this time from Sam Clucas, before their defence sat and watched Viktor Gyokeres as he walked with the ball to the edge of the penalty area, paused a little longer, made himself a coffee, pondered life, the universe and everything in between, before he eventually accepted the invitation to hit a hopeful shot on target, which proved to be the game’s winning goal.

The Opposition

The Manager – Michael O’Neill

The former Northern Ireland manager has proven a stabilising presence at Stoke City in what had been a chaotic and underperforming post-Premier League era until his arrival in 2019. However, the difficulty for Michael O’Neill has been in taking that next step with the Potters, who have been on the fringes of the play-offs for much of the past two seasons but have fallen short of the form required to make the top six.

Backed in January to add further quality to the squad, there is a growing sense that if O’Neill can’t get Stoke City in the top six by the end of this season, it will be time for the club to consider its options in the dug-out. The former Coventry City player is organised and meticulous in his approach, which means Stoke are a difficult side to break down but a lack of fluidity in the team’s attacking structure has often been where O’Neill has run aground in his time at the club.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-5-2): Bonham; Harwood-Bellis, Jagielka, Chester; Smith, Vrancic, Allen, Clucas, Tymon; Brown, Campbell.
Possible Line-Up

Having made some intriguing moves in the January transfer market, with former Chelsea starlet, Lewis Baker in midfield, and current Aston Villa starlet, Jaden Philogene-Bidace, further forward, the most eye-catching, it has been the promotion of a player from the under-23 team that has threatened to liven up Stoke City’s campaign. D’Margio Wright-Phillips – that’s right, Bradley Wright-Phillips’ nephew – has started back-to-back games, scoring once, and adding pace and unpredictability to the Potters’ front-line.

Wright-Phillips, who is more naturally a winger, has been paired up top recently with the hard-working Jacob Brown, who is also not an out-and-out striker, adding a level of explosiveness to Stoke City’s forward play. With Steven Fletcher’s physicality to bring off the bench, as well as further pace from Tyrese Campbell, Stoke have the ability to rotate and change things up in their forward line if their initial approach doesn’t work here.

In terms of the supply line to that attack, Stoke City are a team built around getting the ball out to their wing-backs to put quality deliveries into the penalty area. Tommy Smith on the right and Josh Tymon on the left are very energetic and direct players in their respective positions who can put the ball into the box with accuracy. On top of that, Sam Clucas on the left of the midfield three can drift out wide, create overloads and also put in telling balls into dangerous areas.

In addition, Michael O’Neill has the wildcards up his sleeve of introducing Mario Vrancic from the bench, who can carry the ball from central midfield, pick a pass and also has a very delicious technique when it comes to striking the ball from either open play or set-pieces. Tom Ince, once the best player in the Championship over a period of three to four years, has been in good form and provides another different attacking option to his manager with his technical ability and goal threat from a wide or central position. Nick Powell, a supremely talented and impactful attacking midfielder, may also be available for this game after recently returning to fitness.

At the back, Stoke have looked a little wobbly following a serious injury to their giant centre-back, Harry Souttar. However, the addition of Phil Jagielka from Derby County has helped calm things down, while James Chester is another steadying presence at the back.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Like Coventry City, Stoke City are in the midst of an important week of their league campaign with fixtures against sides around them in the table. While Michael O’Neill is usually of a mind to keep things tight away from home, with a game against Huddersfield Town to come on Friday evening, he may look to be a little more attack-minded than usual in order to take advantage of an opportunity to put the top six under pressure.

While Stoke have the squad depth to rotate, for Coventry City, the game-plan here is likely to rely upon being able to sustain energy levels from Saturday. The performance against Queens Park Rangers underlined just how important pressing is to this Sky Blues side, it allowed them to dominate a game against a top four side but when the intensity dropped, that was when the opposition scored.

A specific concern for Coventry City in this game is what Stoke City’s pacey front-line of D’Margio Wright-Phillips and Jacob Brown – with Jaden Philogene-Bidace and Tyrese Campbell fresh pacey legs to rotate into the side or bring off the bench – could do against the Sky Blues’ slow defensive line. With Coventry City needing to push up the pitch in order to enact their pressing game, Stoke are well set-up to exploit the underlying weakness in that approach.

Stoke City are also a physically pre-possessing team at the back, which presents two challenges for the Sky Blues. The first is that it will make it especially difficult for Todd Kane’s crossing to lead to chances. The second is that it means Stoke will have a big presence at the other end of the pitch at set-pieces. In what could be a tight game, that edge that Stoke have could count for a lot.

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