Stoke City, if ever there was a premier league side that blows more hot and cold, it is them. Three consecutive ninth-place finishes have made this campaign a little bit of a blip. They sit in 14th as things stand, but that could change rather quickly if they can secure another win or two.
So, what are they good at? The answer is nothing in particular. The Potters have not scored a bundle of goals (40), but have conceded quite a hefty amount (56). Given the talent within their squad, some would say they are massively underachieving. Any team that can boast the likes of Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Saido Berahino and even Peter Crouch, (who is effective on his day) should be scoring goals at a much higher rate.
Last season, Arnautovic was superb. He broke into double figures for the first time in the Premier League and was rewarded with a new bumper contract in the summer. Fast forward almost a year, and he seems a player with little confidence. His recent penalty against Swansea was embarrassing and he would be the first to admit that. Seven goals is not bad for a winger, but for one of his quality, it is frankly below par. Nonetheless, when he is on it, he can be a menace for full-backs. DeAndre Yedlin would easily blitz him in the pace department, but his ability to gain a yard of space on his right foot is something that is easy to anticipate, but very difficult to stop. He would have to be doubled up on, something Rafa Benitez would be aware of.
On the other flank, you have a small but robust Xherdan Shaqiri. Much had been made of the Swiss’ arrival at Stoke back in the summer of 2015, but to say he has flattered to deceive would be an understatement. Whilst there is nobody that will ever doubt the talent he possesses, the moments of magic have been few and far between. Injuries haven’t helped (he has missed 14 games this season with injury issues) but Stoke City fans would be right to question exactly what all the fuss was about. Four goals and two assists is a poor return. Although, there has been times during his spell in England where he has really turned it on. He has tormented Hull City this season and Magpies fans will remember the run around he gave Paul Dummett at the Britannia last season. He is not as fast as some might think, but like Arnautovic, he would have to be kept a close eye on.
As strange as this may seem, I would actually say that Newcastle’s midfield is just as good as Mark Hughes’ side. Joe Allen is a very tidy, resourceful player, but alongside him, Charlie Adam and Glenn Whelan should have been moved on years ago. Granted, Giannelli Imbula was signed for £18 million last season, but he has been a huge failure. Perhaps he was meant to be that destroyer that sat alongside Allen this campaign. For whatever reason, it just has not worked out for the Frenchman.
Newcastle have the supremely talented Jonjo Shelvey as the linchpin of their midfield. Yes, people will point out how he has often looked lazy and lethargic in the top flight, but this season has been a real eye opener to those looking on at him. He has shifted some pounds, got his head down and worked his socks off in the Championship. His natural ability to pick a pass and start an attack is something that cannot be taught. He also possesses an ability to strike a ball from distance, as well as delivering a wonderful set-piece. The former Liverpool man can dictate games like nobody in the Stoke team can. As long as he is protected by the athletic Isaac Hayden, then he would have his way with Stoke.
How else can Newcastle get at them then? For starters, lumping balls into the box may not be the best tactic to employ. For all of their faults, the one place that Stoke defenders are comfortable in, is the air. Ryan Shawcross has been a brilliant captain for them for many years and this year, he has been given a new partner in Bruno Martins Indi. Both he and the Dutchman, on loan from Porto, have been impressive together. They are physically imposing, very strong and ultimately, will not tolerate any nonsense at the back. If Benitez were to try and expose them, Aleksandar Mitrovic would probably have little joy. The man that they would despise playing against is Dwight Gayle. 23 goals this season only accentuates the fact that he is a born goal-scorer. The man knows where the net is and if he is presented with service, he will score. He loves playing on the last shoulders of defenders and utilising his pace to give them the slip. His relationship with the aforementioned Shelvey has been a real bright spark for the Magpies. Balls over the top have been the order of most-days and Newcastle have had some real success from it.
Stoke have a similar player in Berahino, except he clearly is not the player that broke onto the scene at West Brom many seasons ago. Weight problems and the player being unsettled meant that he totally wasted a year of his career. His big move to Spurs never transpired, but Stoke persisted with their chase and have granted him a fresh start. Unfortunately, he is yet to score since his January move and some of the Geordie faithful have considered themselves lucky to have dodged a bullet in not signing him.
You cannot forget Crouchy either can you? Everybody knows that Peter Crouch, for all the laughs he has given English football fans, is still a real threat on any day. He literally is massive and his dominance in the air is not something you can defend against. Given that Newcastle have struggled with facing him in the past, Mark Hughes would probably get more joy by playing him against the Magpies, especially at St James’ Park.
Who would win then?
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Newcastle would win both. Stoke has been too easy to score against and with Newcastle’s defence looking decent this year (mostly when Ciaran Clark has played), I would say they could restrict them to less than a goal in each game.