Part 1 Finding our feet
The month of December 2015 was a special time to be a Stoke fan. Mark Hughes looked to finally have reached the end of his revolution, the vanguard had dissolved and Stoke were left with the ‘false nine’. City, United and Everton were the victims of the beautiful fluid football the Potters were producing. Alas it was short lived, losses to West Brom and Liverpool spelled the end for the formation and it has yet to make a return.
Hughes seems to be reverting to the Stoke stereotype with the return of Peter Crouch, and it has left me increasingly disillusioned. I more than most have never let go of the dream for a return to the ‘false nine’. So, what better way to get out this slump than to bring back the system and see if using it can take Stoke to the promised land that is Europe.
The style I went with was as close an emulation of the one Stoke played in their 2-0 win over Man City in that fabled month of December (seriously, if you can, watch the highlights of this match, it was bloody awesome – Chris). Compact at the back with Full Backs who sought to support rather than constantly overlap formed the base of the system. A holding playmaker with two box to box midfielders in front of him who were essential both in providing defensive support and getting forward to stretch opposition back lines. And a flexible front three, two inside forwards and a false nine (who later became a shadow striker) constantly provided assists and scored goals for each other.
The transfer window was hardly an exciting one with only two players coming in, Ludwig Augustinsson came into to provide some competition for Pieters at Left back whilst and Fabian Delph to add another dynamic midfielder. The preseason was a good one for the Potters, despite a 4-0 spanking from Inter at the San Siro, my players went into the first game against Boro in good spirits.
Two games, 7 goals, lethal flowing counter attacking football, it was everything I could have wanted. Large rotation saw a weak side slip to a defeat at home to Blackburn in the cup, but with trying to introduce a radical tactical change I saw it as the less games the better. August ended with our first real test at home to Chelsea, the boys kept compact and despite creating little themselves managed to hold off Conte’s men.
September and October were frustrating clichéd months where the team struggled for consistency during International breaks. The biggest disappointment had to be the loss at the Olympic Stadium where the Potters took an early 2 goal lead only to lose all composure and throw it away. The months can only be described as average although the goal against Leicester came from a Ramadan Rabona cross, which I’d love to show you but unfortunately these games are no longer available to view in detail, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it.
November started well with a 3-1 win over Burnley, continued to go well with a 4-0 win at Vicarage Road against a Watford side who would eventually finish 3rd and ended ridiculously with a 7-1 thrashing of Crystal Palace. We were 4-0 up in 19 minutes scoring every shot we took, it was clinical assassin like counter attacking football, it was one of those few games where a game plan was executed without mistake. The game displayed just how far this system could take the boys and things would only get better moving into December.
4 shots 4 goals it happened again, except this time it was against Pep Guardiola’s Man City. The high back line filled with poor defenders was exactly what the false nine system thrived off, and despite the Citizens pulling back a goal Stoke saw the game out for a 4-1 win. After such a fantastic run the camera’s rolled in for the visit of the other Manchester side, where the score was once again 4-1 but this time it was a loss as Stoke were totally outclassed. The lads were quickly back on track going to White Hart Lane and managing to scrape a draw despite being totally dominated for 90 minutes. The rest of December was pleasing 2 wins, 2 draws very little to complain about.
Fabian Delph had stolen the show for the Potters. He won player of the month award in November and went on a scoring spell, 8 goals in 7 games, he had turned out to be an absolute gem of a signing. Things looked promising as Stoke sat in the European places come New Year’s Eve, was the ‘false nine’ the answer to all our problems and the system to push us to the fabled ‘next level’?
Tom Thrower is a Stoke City fan, and writer. Follow him on twitter @sussexstokie