The longer our good streak continues the longer I’ll be saying it, but this is a weekend where we will learn a lot about this West Ham side. After defeating the reigning Champions last weekend, we now head over to the Potteries for the sort of test that many pretenders to the top half will crumble at. Stoke have always been a very good side at the Britannia, incredibly difficult to beat, very physical, and capable of punishing teams. This will be a tough game for West Ham, and one we would do very well to get something out of.
Stoke are a side without any real stars or obvious stand out players. Marko Arnautovic and Victor Moses can both be potent attacking sources, but are also a bit hit and miss. Ryan Shawcross and Marc Wilson are developing a formidable partnership in the heart of defence, whilst Glenn Whelan and Charlie Adam are both underrated midfielders in this division, capable of picking passes and mixing it in defence.
However, arguably the most talented player at the club is Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. The former Portsmouth goalkeeper has been a consistently outstanding performer since moving to Stoke in 2010 as a 23 year old, and is now regularly linked with moves to some of Europe’s top clubs – Juventus and Real Madrid have been mentioned in recent months.
What has been particularly impressive about Begovic, is his desire to claim balls into the box. Many goalkeepers struggle with crosses and long balls in the air, not knowing whether to come and catch, to punch, or to back off and leave it to somebody else. Begovic doesn’t seem to have that issue, as he comes and catches as much as possible.
The chart below shows his successful and unsuccessful claims since the start of the 2012/13 season. Over that time, Begovic has claimed a remarkable 232 balls into the box, 2.9 per game, with an astounding success rate of 97%.
But the Bosnian is more than just a presence in the air. He is also a fantastic shot stopper, saving points for Stoke on many occasions. The images below shows the saves Begovic has made since the start of last season. You can see that he has made 79 saves in 41 appearances, at a rate of 1.93 per game. In this time, he has kept 11 clean sheets (one every 3.7 games), and has conceded 46 goals (1.12 per game).
Stoke’s defence has a reputation for being pretty impenetrable at times, but the real challenge is once you get past the back four and come face to face with one of the best goalkeepers in the modern game.
How do you stop Stoke?
Stoke are a side that tend to pick up the majority of their points at home, with the Britannia becoming a bit of a fortress since they were promoted to the Premier League. This season though, they have played four home league games, winning and losing two a piece, and have also lost a Capital One Cup game there (to Southampton on Wednesday night). So, how did Aston Villa and Leicester City head home from one of the most notoriously difficult away fixtures with three points each, and a clean sheet?
Let’s start with the clean sheets. Stoke have a reputation for getting the ball into the box quickly, either via long balls into a target man, or through utilising wingplay. In order to deal with the onslaught of balls into the box, both Villa and Leicester made a large number of clearances from within their own box.
The images below show Villa’s 32 clearances (left) and Leicester’s 50 (right). You’ll notice that a large number of clearances are marked with blue arrows on the images. This denotes a headed clearance, demonstrating that Stoke often go for aerial balls into the box, particularly when chasing a game.
In attack both teams, again, took a similar approach.
Although Stoke possess one of the most resolute defences in the division, they do not possess much pace. As a result, Villa and Leicester attempted a high volume of take ons in attacking areas, isolated defenders and running at them.
The images below again show Villa on the left, and Leicester on the right.
You’ll notice that, Villa attempted a higher number within the penalty area, whilst Leicester operated outside the box and down the flanks.
For Villa’s goal, both Charles N’Zogbia and Andreas Weimann took on defenders, bundling through tackles on the way to Weimann scoring. And for Leicester’s goal, the Foxes worked the ball wide to Paul Konchesky who rolled across the six yard box for Leonardo Ulloa to tap in.
Both goals were indicative of the approaches taken: run at them with speed, and get the ball into the box. This is a tactic that should suit West Ham’s current approach to the game, and one that will hopefully pay dividend for the Hammers.
I’ve already mentioned the lack of pace in defence for Stoke, but that is something that they actually cope with rather well generally, so isn’t their main weakness. The area of the game the Potters most struggle with is at the other end of the pitch, and putting the ball in the back of the net.
Stoke tend to play with a variation on the 4-3-3 formation, with one striker and a couple of wingers. This season, their main six forwards have attempted 44 shots between them in 9 appearances – a combined rate of 4.9 shots per game. However, they have only hit the target with 32% of those shots, and have scored just 5 goals between them, at a conversion rate of just 11%.
It is an issue that Stoke have experienced in the past, but one that Mark Hughes probably felt he had addressed last season. Last year, Stoke were the 10th highest scoring side in the division. So far this season, they are down to 15th. It is still early in the season and, of course, all of this could change, but as it stands Stoke are struggling to put the ball in the back of the net.
An away trip to the Potteries is never easy. West Ham will have a serious job on to get through a very successful defence and talented goalkeeper, and will have to deal with a couple of tricky customers at the other end too. Coming away with anything will be a very good return, and a victory would be a massive achievement. But optimism is high in East London, and let’s hope that con continue after the weekend.
For match stats, visit my personal West Ham dedicated blog.