Stoke City were taught a lesson in discipline and game management on Thursday as Leeds United wiped the floor with them at Elland Road, inflicting a 5-0 scoreline on Michael O’Neill’s side.
With four games to go, Stoke aren’t out of the woods in terms of relegation and a horrendous run-in awaits the Potters.
This was always going to be a tough game, but for 44 minutes, O’Neill will have been pleased with what he saw from his side. However, on the stroke of half-time, Tommy Smith needlessly lunged into Helder Costa, presenting Mateusz Klich with a penalty to open the scoring. He obliged.
Costa doubled the lead minutes after the break, with Liam Cooper, Pablo Hernandez and Patrick Bamford rubbing salt in the wound to leave Stoke 21st in the Championship table, a point clear of the relegation zone.
We begin to take a look at what went wrong for O’Neill at Elland Road…
Reckless Smith rips up the game plan
The opening 45 minutes at Elland Road were a real battle and whist Leeds had the better of the game, they hardly at Stoke on the ropes.
James McClean and Danny Batth combined to keep out Bamford and Tyler Roberts, but Leeds’ other efforts were all from distance and Jack Butland was only forced into one meaningful save.
However, as Costa threatened with a punching run towards the edge of the area, a rush of blood from Tommy Smith saw him dive into a tackle and concede a penalty.
— AGB (@BurnsAlfie) July 9, 2020
On 45 minutes, Leeds had the lead through Klich and never looked back. Stoke had to come out and take the game to Marcelo Bielsa’s side in the second-half, playing into their hands.
That will never have been O’Neill’s game plan heading to West Yorkshire, he will have wanted his side to make things tense and really make Leeds work for their opening goal, just as Luton Town had done at Elland Road nine days earlier.
In the end, Smith’s challenge ripped up the game plan at the worst possible time.
Failure to react made things worse
Minus Smith’s challenge and Klich’s penalty, it was a decent enough showing from Stoke in the opening 45 minutes, with O’Neill’s 3-4-3 system working well.
However, the half-time introduction of Pablo Hernandez heightened Leeds’ ability to retain the ball in midfield and the Stoke pairing of Sam Clucas and Jordan Cousins were chasing shadows.
The personnel in the XI would’ve allowed O’Neill to shift to a 4-2-3-1 system, adding Nick Powell to Clucas and Cousins to try and stem Leeds’ flow.
That decision never came and Leeds found it far too easy to pull Stoke’s structure to pieces before punishing them through the lines.
Of course, when your game plan goes up in smoke on the stroke of half-time, it is difficult. However, you’ve got to try and adapt.
Simply, Stoke and O’Neill didn’t.
Off-field developments might well save them
The table makes grim reading for Stoke at this stage; they sit 21st in the table and a point clear of Hull City, with the likes of Bristol City, Brentford and Nottingham Forest still to come.
A clash with Birmingham City is vital on Sunday and you feel a win there is needed if O’Neill is to have the best chance of keeping the Potters in the Championship.
If either of those clubs are deducted points, it’ll throw them into the mix and potentially give Stoke a lifeline.
Of course, O’Neill shouldn’t be relying on these factors and he’d be foolish to bank on them saving his side.
Yet, what happens at boardroom level elsewhere might just save Stoke’s skin.