Nathan Jones’ Stoke City offered last weekend’s surprise result in the Championship, as the Potters saw off Steve Cooper’s Swansea City 2-1 at the Liberty Stadium. Ahead of the match, all of the odds were pointing in the Swans’ favour, with the league’s then-top club 19 points ahead of Stoke – without a win and bottom of the table – going into Saturday’s game.
Steve Cooper’s side had a familiar look to them as they lined up against Stoke exactly as they had done against Charlton Athletic on Wednesday night. Swansea opted for Cooper’s preferred formation of choice – which has served them well so far this season – with a 4-2-3-1. As previously mentioned, Swansea were man-for-man the same setup as in Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory over the Addicks at the Valley.
The Potters have already used a vast array of formations so far this season, however, Jones stuck with the setup that had seen them suffer a 1-0 defeat against fellow strugglers Huddersfield Town in midweek. Having used a five, four and three-back formation on separate occasions, Stoke stuck with the back four and lined up in a 4-1-2-1-2 – the centre of which lined up as a narrow diamond, as opposed to having two wide midfielders. Jones’ only alteration from the defeat to the Terriers came in the form of two personnel changes. James McClean and Tom Ince made way for Tom Edwards and Tyrese Campbell.
Stoke’s narrow diamond
As previously mentioned, Stoke’s midfield four of Badou Ndiaye, Sam Clucas, Joe Allen and Oghenekaro Etebo can be seen here stationed in their narrow diamond shape. The purpose of this is to allow the side to control the middle of the pitch due to having the strength in numbers located there. This allowed the midfield four to rotate positions, covering one another and working in unison – which works to good effect when performed correctly. Also due to the strength in numbers in the middle of the pitch, Stoke were enabled to outmanoeuvre Swansea’s midfield three when needed, breaking Swansea’s press and advancing Stoke up the pitch.
However, the pitfalls of this can be in the wide areas, due to the middle two being central midfielders the majority of the work on the wings must be done by the full-back on each side. If the central midfielders are then unable to get wide quick enough during a counterattack, then the full-back will be left to be picked off by the opposition winger and full-back, especially when facing a system like Swansea’s 4-2-3-1. As can be seen in the annotation, Stoke are controlling the ball in the middle of the pitch early in the game, but that leaves large areas of open field for the full-backs –Edwards and Bruno Martins Indi – to occupy.
The pros and cons of a high press
Throughout the game it was clear that both sides would be pressing high and looking to force opposition mistakes. Stoke did this by pushing the whole team as high up the pitch as possible and tried to limit Swansea’s time on the ball in each third and, as we will discuss later in the piece, it had both positive and negative effects. Swansea played in a similar fashion in terms of pressing the ball, but when in possession they looked to control the game – slowing the ball down when there were limited opportunities and breaking quickly with pace when the chance arrived.
As the picture highlights, inside the first five minutes of the game – following Swansea’s opening goal – Stoke were constantly looking to aggressively attack Swansea with large numbers. Perhaps this was dictated by Swansea opening the score within a minute of the game kicking off. Here, the Potters have had a failed attack and due to that have eight of their outfield players in Swansea’s third, with seven of those on the opposite side of the ball to their goal. Thus, Swansea were often afforded the opportunity to attack quickly with the pace of their attacking players.
Here, in the build-up to Swansea opening the scoring inside the first minute, it again shows an advanced example of the previous annotation where Stoke have been caught high up the pitch. However, in this instance, Jones’ side have been punished for their high line. As can be seen, only Stoke’s two central defenders are left back while the other eight of the Potters’ outfielders are behind the ball. Yan Dhanda is then able to break quickly and drive into open space due to the clever play of Borja Baston who has simultaneously held off the defender while playing the ball into Dhanda’s path. From there Dhanda can run with the ball up the pitch before the rebound from his saved shot is scored by Andre Ayew.
The positive side of Stoke’s aggressive press
While Stoke had fallen behind in the game due to their high line and aggressive press, they were right to persist with that tactic as it later bore fruit. Steve Cooper likes his side to enjoy possession of the ball and know the difference between when to slowly build through the thirds or to attack explosively – quickly and effectively. Therefore, it was a tactically astute move of Jones to limit Swansea’s time and space on the ball when in their own third – even though opening themselves up to Swansea’s fast counter – it forced the Swans into mistakes.
Here is a further example of Stoke pressing high up the pitch in the build-up to the Potters’ equalising goal. Swansea have a throw-in deep in their own third and Stoke are penning them in, forcing Jake Bidwell to throw the ball long, down the line – as marked by the red arrow. From there Edwards is able to outmuscle his opponent and win Stoke possession of the ball in Swansea’s third of the pitch. Having won back possession of the ball, Edwards then has a number of forward options to choose from.
A few seconds along in the move and Edwards has played the ball infield to Allen. Again, due to the large number of players supporting the attack, a clear path towards goal is cleared for Allen to run into as the Swansea defenders and midfielders attempt to cut off his passing lines. Instead of opting to play a pass Allen then charges towards goal due to the opening of space and is able to get a shot away. His shot is saved by Freddie Woodman but with the large number of supporting players high up, Clucas fires in the rebound.
Swansea’s sloppy man-marking
As can be seen here, Swansea defended set-pieces using man-marking as opposed to zonally marking. The purpose of this is for each defending player to mark an attacking player while the set-piece is taken, then follow their movements so they are unable to gain space to score and clear the ball if it comes near their marked man. When zonally marking, which is somewhat simpler in principle, each defending player would be allotted an area of the box to defend and clear the ball from, should it be played into their zone. Judging from Stoke’s free-kick routines, the Potters knew Swansea would be man-marking and so tried to disturb defensive shape with delayed crosses – taking the free kick or corner later than expected.
Here is the build-up to Stoke’s winning goal at the Liberty Stadium. With the free kick about to be taken, it can again be seen that Swansea were man-marking their opponents. The crosser used no delay tactics when taking this free-kick, presumably due to how far from the box he is, however, Swansea created their own problems in this instance.
As can be seen here, a few seconds after the free kick has been taken, Sam Vokes’ initial header towards goal has been saved by Woodman. However, rather than following the attackers that the defending players were supposed to be marking until the ball is cleared, the Swansea players are caught watching the ball. Thus, at least three Stoke players have been able to break free from their man marker – one of which is Scott Hogan – who promptly applies the last-minute winner. This may, in part, be due to a lack of concentration at what was a late stage of the game.
Steve Cooper will have been bitterly disappointed that his side were unable to capitalise on what will have been seen as a winnable game – with his Swans side slipping from first to fourth in the Championship table. On the other hand, Nathan Jones will be pleased that his side were able to record their first win of the season, but realise there is still a lot of work ahead to keep the wolf from the door as they remained bottom of the table despite the three points.
This tactical analysis has highlighted how Stoke were able to claim their first three points of the season, whilst dissecting each of the sides’ style of play for the match, and the analysis has been used to support and explain all of the points made throughout.
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