Stoke City assistant manager Dean Holden has said the club’s new identity is imperative to ensure their players know what manager Michael O’Neill wants from them both in and out of possession, speaking to Stoke-on-Trent Live.
The Potters have operated with a clearly-defined back three system so far this season, recruiting Ben Wilmot and loanee Leo Ostigard in the summer to be able to implement this system and bringing Mario Vrancic to help Nick Powell in the final third as the duo look to fire their side to a top-six finish this term.
The trio of arrivals, along with other summer signings including Romaine Sawyers and £5.5m addition Sam Surridge helping to vastly improve their team and many high-earners being offloaded at the bet365 Stadium, has left the club looking in a much healthier shape.
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Not only are they performing well off the pitch after a wild spending spree in 2018 that they were still recovering from up until this summer, but they have also performed much better in the early stages of the season after winning 10 points from a possible 12 in their opening four league games before the international break.
And they remain in fifth place despite last weekend’s loss against Derby County.
This fast start has been largely due to the Potters freshening up their playing style and formation, switching to a 5-3-2 and thriving as a result.
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Dean Holden commented on the importance of this new identity created in Staffordshire, saying: “The main thing is to put in a positive performance and to show, as we have done in most games this season, a real identity we’ve got in how we play with the ball and how we defend as a team when we don’t have the ball.
“Identity is probably a word that you hear bandied about a lot but it’s to do with how we operate when players come onto the pitch.
“They know coming into the team fresh or in a slightly different position they still know exactly what the manager wants both in and out of possession.
“That’s really important as a player. There are certain parts of the pitch when you can make things happen and you can be positive in your play.
“I think the manager is really keen on the structure of the team and that’s when we’re in possession and when we lose the ball as well. It’s a really important thing that we’re working on.
“It’s really about repetition through training and making sure players know exactly what we want from them and then they can play their game, they can go and be free and be the best they can be on the day.”
From an outsider’s point of view, there seemed to be a real lack of direction at Stoke City in previous seasons not just on the pitch, but also off it.
After finishing in 14th place last term, staying in a similar position during their three seasons back in the Championship following their relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2017/18 campaign, things were looking bad for the Potters.
But one summer later with some new recruits and old faces out the door has changed the game for Stoke, although that enough wasn’t alone after bringing in eight players, a low number compared to the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town in League One who rebuilt their squads.
They also needed a clearly-defined philosophy and way of playing after being stuck in the motions in recent seasons – and what a difference it has made after several years of mediocrity. They look like a completely new team and have a future to be excited about despite last weekend’s setback at Pride Park.
Their main challenge now will be ensuring they don’t become too predictable. They will only suffer if they do, so Stoke City’s coaching staff including Holden and O’Neill will need to ensure they continue making tweaks to their playing style without tinkering too much.
It will be a fine balancing act.