Premier League

Defence Stoke’s Strength In Relegation Dogfight

 • by Andrew Gibney
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Two weeks after they conceded seven goals away at Manchester City, the topic was still fresh in the minds of Stoke City fans as they travelled down to watch their team against Watford at Vicarage Road.

Like a badge of honour, they would tell you they stayed to see ‘all nine goals’ like it was a surreal moment, something which had to be seen to be believed.

The pain continued the following week when they lost 2-1 at home to Bournemouth. In the sense of competition, defeat to the Cherries was more important – dropping points to a direct rival could ultimately come back to haunt them come the end of the season.

Shipping goals has been the biggest issue this term and at one point the Potters goals against record was the worst across Europe’s top five leagues.

Now, with nine games to go, they can point to Serie A minnows Benevento with 60 goals lost in 26 games, compared to them and West Ham United on 54 goals conceded.

Enough was enough and eventually the Staffordshire side said goodbye to Mark Hughes, and, on January 15, former Norwich City and Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert was appointed as the new boss at the bet365 stadium.

Seven games into his term, the signs have been positive, as Sam McGuire wrote recentlyfor Football Whispers, he is averaging one point per game, compared to the 0.68 they managed before his arrival.

And it’s hard to attach any blame to the Scotsman for the 3-0 away loss to Manchester United, as he had only been in the job for a few hours.

Life Under Paul Lambert

In the six games which have followed, the Potters have only conceded four goals, picked up a 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town and a total seven points. Only three points separate Lambert’s men and the Terriers in 15th, so there is plenty of reason to remain optimistic.

However, that positivity may take a back seat on Monday when they welcome Manchester City to Stoke-on-Trent. Yet it’s not stopping the former Celtic midfielder talking a good game when asked about their chances of causing a shock.

“We have to take them out of their comfort zone, and maybe we can,” Lambert told the Stoke Sentinel. “You know you are going to have to play like hell, but what a game. The support will be vibrant, raising through the roof, so you’ll run that extra yard. What a game it’s going to be.”

Since arriving, there have been no great changes in tactics or style, but the European cup winner has made his team difficult to break down, which stems from hard work and a desire to play better.

Badou N’Diaye has had a great impact since arriving from Galatasaray on deadline day, averaging 3.5 tackles won per 90, as well as 1.1 interceptions and 3.3 shots. The 27-year-old is everywhere and has added a spark of energy through the middle of the park.

According to WhoScored, for the season, Stoke average 45 per cent possession, 72.7 per cent pass completion and 10.9 shots per game, and that hasn’t altered.

Over the past six games, they average 44.2 per cent possession, 63.8 per cent pass completion and 11.3 shots. If anything, they are doing slightly more with less of the ball.

Lambert has tinkered with the shape of the team, going from 4-2-3-1, to 4-3-3 to 4-1-4-1, but in all three the overall theme doesn’t change: playing a back four, three men in the middle of the park and a lone striker up top.

Xherdan Shaqiri has helped massively; the Swiss international has scored three times in the last six fixtures, cementing his place as one of the Premier League’s deadliest players from outside the box, and they will need him to come good in last few weeks of the campaign.

“(We are) really, really pleased with the improvement in performances since the manager has come in,” Jack Butland admitted following the 1-1 draw with Brighton & Hove Albion. “We are finally feeling like we are in games and can be taking points.”

Improving Stoke’s defence

The England goalkeeper is right and, although the results haven’t been spectacular, the underlying statistics behind Stoke’s performances show they have improved.

When we ignore the games against the top six – accounting for 29 of the 54 goals they’ve conceded – via Understat, we can look at Stoke’s expected goals against (xGA) before and after Lambert’s arrival.

This judges the quality of the attempts they are allowing the opposition and helps look at whether they have been defending well. The lower the number, regardless of how many goals you concede, the better job you are doing at reducing the likelihood of Butland having to bail out the defence.

In their 15 games against non-top-six sides, Stoke’s xGA was 1.40 on average – for context, against the teams in the top six it’s up at 2.63, and only Bournemouth, with 50.59, have a worse xGA overall than Stoke’s 47.99.

However, since the defeat at Old Trafford, that number has dropped to 0.98, which, if played out for an entire season, would rival Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea’s defensive record during the current campaign.

If Lambert can stop City scoring seven on Monday, it would show a progression from last year’s horror show.

The run-in hasn’t been kind, with Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool still to come. But if they keep to their xGA of 0.98 consistent against Everton, Burnley and West Ham United, going into the final few weeks, the Potters will be in with every chance of avoiding the dreaded drop.

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