It wasn't so long ago that Stoke couldn't buy a goal and whilst Mark Hughes' new style was winning plenty of plaudits, chances to score were few and far between. Goals even less so.
Fast forward a month or two and the Potters have found their feet in front of goal; scoring 10 in their last four games, remarkably nine of those coming away from the home comforts of the Britannia.
It felt like Hughes was mere matches away from trying the kitman up front, such was his rotation in the striking department to find a winning formula, but having given Peter Crouch a second chance to impress neither manager nor player have looked back. Crouch came in for the Manchester United game and made an immediate impact, acting as the fulcrum to a side wanting to add more link up play in the final third.
Stoke's record signing has always carried the moniker of "good feet for a big man" and it would appear to be those strengths which have helped set him apart from the rest of the contenders to cement his place in the starting line up. Or is it?
I believe that it isn't necessarily the return of Crouch that has seen Stoke's goals return increase, it's the return of playing a direct game. With Crouch being 6' 7" he's an obvious targetman and the long ball is there for when the side want to mix it up, but it seems to me that the ball into him from deep is starting to become the default pass.
When you look a little closer it's plain to see that since Crouch has come back into the side, Hughes has opted to play a quicker, more direct game to get the ball into him early so the players can link up in the final third. This is in stark contrast to the tactics he employed earlier in the season with the emphasis on calm, build up play from the back. The possession and passing statistics for the three games before Crouch returned and the three after are below:
West Brom (h)
You can see from this that the side has gone from having the majority of possession in their games to readily conceding it to the tune of only achieving 40 percent or less. The patient buildup play through defence and midfield has all but become a memory as the successful pass count has dropped by around 100 a game.
These trends are further backed up by a statistic titled "Pass Combinations" which covers both sides and details the 18 most popular passes made between teammates. In the Norwich game, Stoke had 12 of the top 18 combinations in the game; against Fulham 14; in the West Brom game they had nine. Combinations of full-backs to midfielders and then onto other midfielders and strikers were a common theme as players throughout the side saw plenty of possession.
For the last three games though, those combinations are virtually non existent -- against Man Utd, Stoke had one of the top 18; three against Southampton; one against Fulham. In all three of those games the most popular pass combination was goalkeeper Asmir Begovic to Crouch.
It's something of a worrying discovery if you are concerned about that kind of thing, but it is one that seems to have bought Stoke a degree of success in the goalscoring stakes. The new/old tactic has seen the side finally start to score with some semblance of regularity.
It's an odd balance, playing it forward quickly and conceding possession so willingly, and with it the initiative, has seen the side throw away any advantages they did manage to achieve as they face a more sustained onslaught as a result of not having the ball. But, as ever, it comes back to finding the right balance between a short and direct game, between hitting the big man at every opportunity or utilising some of the talent the manager has brought in and around him.
It's no coincidence that moving away from a shorter passing game has seen Marko Arnautovic reduced to a bit-part player moving forward; it could well be that this was the intention such was the weight of expectation on the Austrian. The fact remains though that the team should never be about solely using one tactic or player whether that's Crouch or Arnautovic and if Hughes can find that happy medium then I expect he'll start to get the best out of the team as a whole.
Vis Unita Fortior