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Stoke City manager Michael O’Neill will need to ensure he establishes his best combination in midfield during the festive period, following the Potters’ 3-0 win against Luton Town.
One of the first decisions that O’Neill has made during his time in charge at the Bet365 Stadium has been to change Stoke’s system to a 4-3-3, which has helped to provide the option of a third central midfielder to bring more solidity to the centre of the pitch for the Potters, helping them control matches better.
The 50-year-old had opted to start Joe Allen and Ryan Woods in midfield during his first five matches in charge, with the pair starting alongside the likes of Sam Clucas, Nick Powell and Badou Ndiaye, as O’Neill searched for the right formula in the middle of the pitch.
However, against Luton on Tuesday, O’Neill elected to drop Woods following his poor performance in the Potters’ 2-1 defeat at Hull City on Saturday. Allen partnered up with Clucas and Jordan Cousins, who came in for just his third appearance in the Championship for the club since his summer move from Queens Park Rangers.
That trio appeared to offer the team a good balance during most of the match against Luton, with Allen being allowed the freedom to get forward in support of Sam Vokes in the penalty area, which saw the Wales international score a brace to help the Potters on their way to a comfortable victory.
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Cosuins took his chance to impress, stepping into midfield and displaying his potential to make an impact for the Potters, with the 25-year-old offering the physical presence that O’Neill’s side had been lacking in their defeat at Hull last weekend. He also managing to dictate Stoke’s play with some quality passes through the lines.
Given Stoke have made so many changes to their starting line-up at the heart of midfield so far this campaign, under Jones and now O’Neill, it is now vital that the 50-year-old establishes some consistency in his selection – and having performed well against Luton he should stick with Allen, Clucas and Cousins and give them a run of games to develop as a partnership.
O’Neill would then have the options of being able to bring in Powell, if he feels the side needs some more creativity during the latter stages of games, or he could use the more defensive options of Ndiaye and Etebo from the bench to shore things up and help them see out matches.
The 50-year-old created a real solid and settled midfield for Northern Ireland, which has been the foundations for a lot of the success the nation has enjoyed in his time in charge, and he will now need to do the same thing at the Bet365 Stadium – and there were signs on Tuesday that he has the potential to do that with the midfield that started against Luton.