The seven point plan for Nathan Jones at Stoke Cityby Gabriel Sutton / 16 January 2019, 09:38Tweet
Although new Stoke City boss Nathan Jones was brave to take to the dugout for Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Brentford, he had only had two prior days to work with the players and thus the match represented more of an induction than his first in charge.
Now, he's in his full week of training with his squad - and Gabriel Sutton has devised an seven-point plan for how he can achieve success in the Potteries.
Impart his philosophy
One of the things that Potters fans were not happy with during Gary Rowett’s tenure was the absence of a clear playing identity.
Of course, shortly before the former Derby boss’ departure came an eight-game unbeaten run but it felt like that was down to the individual quality that lied within the expensively-assembled squad, rather than well-rounded, coherent performances.
For example, they were on the back-foot for longer spells against Ipswich than they were on the front foot, but the clinical finishing of Tom Ince and Joe Allen meant they won 2-0.
Jones’ job will be to cultivate an exciting style of football that not only gains results, but does so in a way that breeds confidence that a genuine promotion push will come, if not this season then in 2019-20.
Renovate the defence
Stoke have conceded 34 goals, fewer than Norwich and West Brom, but that should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The Potters have often relied on a combination of good goalkeeping from Jack Butland and poor finishing from the opposition finishing to keep shut-outs, October’s 1-0 win at Bristol City being a classic example.
Ryan Shawcross and Ashley Williams started a combined 38 league games under Rowett, who favours experienced centre-backs who are proficient in the air and possess strong leadership qualities.
The problem with Shawcross and Williams, 31 and 34 respectively, is that they are slow, rash and vulnerable in transition, which limits the confidence with which they can distribute.
Towards the end of his reign, Rowett instructed Ryan Woods to drop deeper to improve the quality of build-up play from the back, but that causes other issues further up.
Nathan Jones showed in his consistent use of summer signings Sonny Bradley and Matty Pearson this term that he is not averse to using tall, powerful centre-backs, so long as they are also comfortable with their feet.
The Welshman is likely to favour Bruno Martins Indi, who played for Louis Van Gaal’s Holland side at the 2014 World Cup, when back from illness, but another ball-playing centre-back is required.
Cuco Martina had often been the first choice right-back under Rowett.
Although the Curaçaoan is technically capable, he is not the type to attack the wing at pace and, without a right-sided midfielder that likes to hold the width, that could disrupt the symmetry of the forward play.
Moritz Bauer, however, is an energetic presser who likes to run forward with the ball, which makes him closer to the Jack Stacey mould and thus more in sync with what Jones wants from his full-backs.
The Austrian had evidently fallen out with Rowett and has not featured since late September; while his professionalism could be questioned at times, his performances in the Premier League in the second half of last season shows he can be a serious asset when motivated.
Sign James Justin
Erik Pieters has been one of Stoke’s better players this season: he has produced some highly-charged displays at left-back, putting in strong tackles and has enjoyed the odd belter to boot.
However, we saw in the Premier League that when Mark Hughes deployed him as a wing-back, he struggled to juggle attacking and defensive duties.
The Dutchman puts everything into every run that he makes but, at 30, he can struggle to sustain his performance level for 90 minutes and, in a Nathan Jones team, any full-back is essentially a wing-back.
While Pieters could be a useful player to have in reserve, relying on him to play almost every game in such a demanding system would be risky.
By contrast, James Justin has been outstanding for Luton.
At 20, he already has 71 games worth of EFL experience; he is quick, powerful, technically gifted and has the stamina to contribute in more than one phase of play.
Most impressively, after starting out as a right-back due to being right-footed, he has been at least equally impressive since moving to left-back to cover for the injured Dan Potts.
The incredibly versatile Justin has the potential to play for England one day and not only would he be excellent for Stoke in the Championship, his sell-on value will only increase.
Find the right midfield blend
Most Championship managers could only dream of having Ryan Woods, Joe Allen and Oghenekaro Etebo in the same squad.
Woods has been one of the division’s best deep-lying playmakers now for many seasons, after impressing at Shrewsbury and then Brentford.
Allen, who starred at Euro 2016 with Wales, brings top level pedigree, dynamism and an eye for a cleverly-timed goalscoring run.
Etebo, meanwhile, showed relentless energy at the World Cup with Nigeria, even if he has not started quite as often as he might have liked this term.
The midfield holds huge potential, but the process of unlocking it is not an obvious one.
Neither Woods, Allen nor Etebo could be clearly defined as an anchor man or an attacking midfielder; they are all quite strong in a wide range of attributes, rather than being outstanding in one or two.
For that reason, one does not want to limit them to a binary role, but instead allow them to rotate and cause confusion for the opposition.
Luton’s midfield interchanged seamlessly under Jones, who could bring the fresh ideas required to get the best out of Woods, Allen and Etebo.
Ince or Bojan?
Nathan Jones is very demanding of his players; he wants them to play with pace and energy, but he also wants them to produce a high standard of technical quality.
That standard does not get much higher than Barcelona, where Bojan played 104 games; to have done that, he must be a phenomenally gifted footballer who could, potentially, become by far the best player in the Championship, the star of a title-winning side.
The problem is that he has started only four league games for the Potters since 2016; a combination of injuries and perhaps, one imagines, homesickness have hindered his performances.
Tom Ince, meanwhile, is the other candidate to be the jewel in Stoke’s crown.
In his career, he perhaps has not shown quite the same level of potential that Bojan has, because he is yet to perform well at the top level of the game.
Equally, there is far more first-hand evidence in recent years that he can be an asset at this level.
Ince has six goals and three assists to his name; he intelligently picks up gaps between the lines and can take numerous defenders out of the game through jinking runs in from the right channel.
The demand for high work rate without the ball, which neither Bojan nor Ince will provide to any great extent, means there may only be space for one of them in the same eleven.
Ince would be the safer option but Bojan, linked with a move to Huddersfield this month, possesses more genuine greatness within.
Find a pressing striker
Kemar Roofe, Teemu Pukki and Lewis Grabban might be three of the top seven goalscorers in the Championship, but what is most notable about them is the work they do off the ball.
All three front-men get through a lot of graft in wide areas to deny centre-backs time on the ball and while they might not always win the ball themselves, they force panicked clearances that help the midfield take control.
Stoke’s front man, meanwhile, is Benik Afobe.
The Afobe that the club thought they were spending £12 million on was the one that scored 13 goals in 21 appearances for Wolves in 2014-15 by blitzing defences with pace, power and sheer ruthlessness.
The Afobe they got however, is one whose speed had declined in recent seasons and affected further by a summer injury.
While he does work hard in some games, his body language without the ball can sometimes look a tad languid.
Somebody like Tyrese Campbell, who came through the club’s academy and has shown great promise for the Under-23s, could offer the youthful exuberance speed of movement to inject new life into Stoke’s attack.
Jones has the potential to build a promotion winning team in the Potteries, but it might not be until he’s had a full pre-season and transfer window before he has a squad he believes can attack this division.