Oppositions View: Aston Villa (Away)
Stoke are set to travel to Birmingham to face struggling Aston Villa on the back of an impressive recent run of form. Stoke have picked up 13 points from a possibly 15, which sees them top the form table. Vital Editor Lloyd Reddin travelled down the M6 to ask Vital Villa`s Editor Mike Field a few pre match questions.
What do you feel about your transfer policy from the summer?
I like it, I agree with it, and it's something I've wanted to see us do for years instead of paying overinflated fees for average journeymen. It's a policy we should've used all along and it would've saved us from a fair bit of heartache over recent years, as we really never had a foundation or a core to build from.
Lambert has taken the difficult, and very risky, decision to do that now and although it should pay dividends in the future, there are a lot of worried Villans at the moment.
With all that said, and we don't know who else we were interested in during the summer, but a touch more experience to help bed the newboys in would've been nice.
How do you feel about your dependence on youth?
Sort of carries on from above. I love the fact we are relying on youth, bringing them through, not afraid to throw them in when they deserve it on merit, but not having those 2-3 experienced players around the training ground won't have helped us, and there have been games where a youngster could've done with being pulled out the firing line as the performance wasn't there, and the errors that will obviously happen in that situation have cost us, whereas a more experienced head to calm things on the pitch may well have helped us to a few more points.
There has to be a balance and whilst I personally believe the youngsters are growing game by game (in the main, the less said about Norwich and QPR the better) and things are starting to click, we are a touch more consistent, players are starting to show why Lambert has faith in them etc we still have a fair way to go and that lack of experience within the squad has left us unbalanced.
Certainly not saying we shouldn't persevere with youngsters during a bad performance, for example many would point to the real emergence of Nathan Baker as a very big plus when we lost Ron Vlaar to injury, as they would Christian Benteke who has really grown from his first few appearances, and I certainly wouldn't advocate picking up 4-5 Premiership experienced players and playing them regardless because we do need our kids to play and learn, but having them as options on the bench to tighten the team up, calm things down and help close the final 30 minutes out when we are under the cosh would probably benefit the youngsters more in the long term, especially in terms of managing their confidence.
Randy Lerner has made some odd decisions whilst he has been in charge of the club in terms of transfers and managers, how do you feel about your owner?
I often get accused of thinking the sun shines out of his Emirates, but there has been a lot of good done under his tenure so far, but equally some very head scratching decisions as well. Last season's manager for a start, especially following on from somebody like Houllier who does have a football philosophy - we seemed to just lurch blindly round with no thought to continuity in style, let alone anything else.
I think on balance he's done a lot more good for the club than bad, he's put his money where his mouth was and trusted his managers to handle their part of the deal - what happens on the pitch. But our problem was we got too close to the top four in O'Neill's second season so all thoughts of building a foundation, steady and sustainable growth went out the window and we just started to try and spend our way there instead, which clearly wasn't sustainable and neither did it work.
As a fan hindsight is a wonderful thing, everybody including the vast majority of the fans were caught up with the buzz and it was only by the end of season three that a sizeable bunch of us started noticing the cracks that were being glossed over by our league placing, and the simple fact that we were making the same mistakes season on season and that we had hit our ceiling.
For some that means they now wish Randy had pulled the plug on funds and insisted we sold off those players who were never going to be played quicker, but he was in a no win position by the time we were about to bust. Had he acted sooner fans would've been in uproar as no doubt O'Neill would've walked earlier, but by choosing to give it one last shot the financial element that may have been sorted out in 1 season then needed the 2 and we still gained very little for giving it that one last shot.
For many fans the reigning in strained the relationship. Add Houllier into the mix with his potential health issues that bit us, especially our flirt with relegation for a period affected a lot of fans, and for many then lurching to McLeish was the final straw.
I think we've finally got it right now with Lambert, but Randy needs to back him, as he has done previous managers, similar sums, sanction big spending when key players become available and allow Lambert the time to turn us around completely, build the foundation and then show the same commitment to get us back up there challenging for Europe but on a sustainable footing where our wage bill won't explode again.
If Lambert can turn it round, I think Randy will win back a lot of faith but at the moment, for what feels like the majority reading the forums, anything decent achieved off the pitch and all he allowed on the pitch is used as a stick to beat him because we aren't right on the pitch, we aren't challenging at the moment, which is the nature of the game really.
What were your expectations for this season? And have they now changed?
I simply wanted survival, because Lambert has a huge job on his hands and time will tell if he's tried to change too much too quick. Looking at the squad I thought at best we could get 14th place and some sense of being comfortable in achieving that, but acknowledged staying up by the skin of our teeth and a one goal, goal difference would have to be acceptable given the lack of experience, the change in playing style and so on.
For me that hasn't changed yet, and I think 14th given the signs we are seeing from the players on a more regular basis is still very doable. But the fanbase is by no means united on this. There are a number who see nothing but relegation unless we seriously strengthen in January - there are some who think that strengthening may in fact come too late to change our fate - there are others who think with sensible additions and assuming the team continue to gel as they have done during November that we could make a late surge for a top 10 place.
Who would you say is your danger man?
Christian Benteke without a doubt. With our current form, confidence levels we aren't a one man team, but it seems that way because Benteke is becoming huge for us. Literally everything decent goes through him, but assuming we revert to our 433 variation for the game, by all means double up on Chris, you know what Gabby can do when his head is right and he clicks, and Andy Weimann is more than capable of finding the net.
What would you say are your strengths as a team?
The players are together, and believe in each other so if you think back to last season, how heads dropped, players really couldn't care, especially with things slowly starting to click for us in terms of performances in November, you won't see that from us now. We go until the final minute, and although the QPR performance as a whole was potentially our worst of the season so far, we were still looking for the winner until the whistle went.
It's that determination more than anything that I think will see us okay this season, and then with a year under their belts, or another year for the likes of Barry Bannan who is starting to mature creatively now and strike up a good partnership with Ashley Westwood in the middle of the park, we should then see the talent these players have come through far more than we are at the moment.
What would you say are your weaknesses as a team?
It's back to that inexperience again, and players not being on top form. We are having to play cleverly in some ways, instead of freely and naturally, but that leaves us open to individual errors defensively, and offensively the strikers are under pressure to make every chance count, and that is counting against us more often than not with people missing chances that they really are kicking themselves for.
Our main weakness really, as I do think these players are good enough in themselves to compete in this league successfully, will only really be fixed when we get ourselves on a run, the pressure comes off, and the confidence allows them to express themselves more and enjoy it. Which of course, is something only the players themselves can make happen.
We are totally different proposition in my mind to what we were back in September. I'd hope we are totally different again come February, because if the real opti's are right and we can make a late surge on a top ten place, it will come in the final few months of the season when everybody has clicked, and we are playing with a smile on our faces.
How do you feel about your manager?
My choice for the job, along with many, although I did have a little daliance with Solskjaer at one point. He's doing exactly what we needed to be done and chasing a transfer policy that we needed to pursue. As above, whether he's doing that too quickly we'll find out in May. What he's trying to do with us, build up the core, build up a young, vibrant and talented spine in the team I cannot fault for a single second.
But that's not to say everything is rosy.
I've already mentioned the lack of experience, simply just to hand hold the youngsters through a rough spell and give differing tactical options.
Some selections leave you a little baffled as some players seem to be selected not on merit. Substitutions can often leave you wondering, or come too late especially, he isn't pre-emptive enough is making a change when you can clearly see it's not working.
But on the flipside, he is still assessing the team, assessing partnerships, seeing who works best with who so maybe that's to be expected for a little while. He always says he trusts the team to do the job he sets them, and he does act like that, so maybe the issue is not so much trust in making changes during a game, it's knowing how each player will react in differing circumstances that he lacks at the moment to be that bold. That is something that should come though, because we are seeing a more balanced and in some ways, a more assertive starting XI compared to a few months ago, and after many midfield swops Bannan and Westwood really are looking like they compliment each other well in the middle.
So whilst being one of the more patient ones amongst us, maybe I need a touch more and stop looking for things to nit pick on?
Which player (s) do you fear from the Stoke City side?
Despite effectively flopping at Liverpool, Charlie Adam has an eye for a pass and an eye for a goal, so he is somebody we'll need to watch carefully, especially with the strength and speed you have up front.
Jones and Walters are obviously very physical players and will be a big test for Clark and Baker, especially if Vlaar remains out injured. And I really rate Jerome although he seems very underrated, but does give you a thoroughly different option.
Is there any Stoke players you would like to add to your squad?
I would happily lift Nzonzi, Walters, Crouch and Jerome.
How do you think Stoke will do this season?
I see you comfortably top ten, and although you've spent big over the last few season I'm not sure you have the consistency yet to really push for a European place. In some ways it's interesting looking in at you from the outside because you seem to have followed the route we took judging the type of player signed and the fee, and I do wonder how long you can sustain that before players fall out through lack of game time or wages become an issue.
Certainly have no thoughts of Stoke hitting such a bad run that you would ever look at a relegation issue though. Squad has come on too much for that to be an issue in the foreseeable future, so really it's about how high you can push.
What is your likely line-up for the match?
I see us reverting back to our 433 variant, so I'd be surprised if we don't line up.
Lowton, Clark, Baker, Lichaj,
Bannan, Westwood, Holman,
Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann
Seems to be Lambert's staple choice now and at time of writing I'm not aware of any injured players being passed fit in time for the game.
Finally, what`s your score prediction for the match?
You're on a good little run at the moment, but we have improved. I'm not sure if it's more head or heart but I think this has got 0-0 written all over it.
We are due a Manchester's performance but where we click in front of goal and really hammer somebody, but I don't see it being this weekend because of how physical Stoke are.