When you put it like that, there is a very big difference. Stoke haven’t started seasons very well for quite a few years, even going back to when they were doing well under Mark Hughes. Michael O’Neill has made a point of saying that he brought them back for pre-season training early and that was the big thing they needed to address. He’s made a different team shape this year; he’s gone with wing-backs and three centre-backs and has been working really hard to get that system – and it’s intricacies of it all – into place. There’s a lot more structure in the way they play and you can see that from their away form because they haven’t conceded any goals at all yet. They are going to be really hard to beat.
It’s been almost a year since Michael O’Neill took over at the Bet365 Stadium, during which Stoke have been tested greatly by events both on and off the pitch. Would you say everything is starting to come together now?
Stoke were at rock bottom when he joined and confidence was really low, but straight away, with the same players, he was able to get results. It took a couple of months for him to really hit his stride but, since the turn of the year, they have been among the Championship’s top teams, in terms of form. He says it’s still a work in progress and that he’s not been able to change as much personnel, so there are lots of players who aren’t going to play much of a part under him and it’s in everyone’s best interests if they find a new home. But they are definitely going in the right direction, there’s no doubt about that.
Jack Butland sealed a move back to the Premier League with Crystal Palace at the end of the transfer window after seven years with the club. There have been some glaring errors along the way but do you think he’ll be missed?
Everybody wishes him well. The abiding memory of Butland isn’t with him performances but how he has acted as an ambassador for the club. When Gordon Banks died, all the cameras were on him and he really took it on his shoulders. He was a class act in that respect but he needed a fresh start. Nobody expected Adam Davies, who hadn’t played at all in the league since joining from Barnsley last summer, to have kept nine clean sheets in his first 13 games and become the No 1. He’s barely put a foot wrong, has a real aura about him and is brilliant in one-on-one situations. Angus Gunn has come in and will provide good competition but he’s got a real challenge on his hands if he’s going to displace Davies any time soon.
Which player would you say Brentford fans should be keeping an eye out for this weekend?
I’d say Nick Powell. He’s probably the most dangerous attacking player for Stoke and if he clicks, they click going forward. There has been an evolution of his role this season; he’s usually at his best as a No 10, so O’Neill has been trying to find a place for him without playing a No 10. He’s tried him in central midfield a couple of times and has also tried playing him further forward in a 3-4-3 and that’s where he’s come into his own.
How is Michael O’Neill likely to set up his side on Saturday?
As I mentioned, Stoke have been very tough to beat and tough to score against but the challenge has been to make them an offensive force as well. It will probably be 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 this weekend, though we may see something different against Brentford than we did against Barnsley on Wednesday.
Recent meetings between Brentford and Stoke have been closely-fought, cagey affairs, with just two goals scored in the last three. What’s your score prediction for this one?
I’ve been saying 0-0 every week for my own predictions and I’ve not been far away! One goal might settle it and I’ll go for a 1-0 home win.
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