How to Solve a Problem Like Our Midfield?

Earlier today a message appeared in a twitter group chat, it read: “Right. Does anyone have an actual explanation for Fletcher?” The discussion moved onto how bizarre Fletcher’s decline has been, something that would normally only occur due to injury. Suggestions quickly came; ‘he’s just past it’, ‘maybe he is carrying an injury’, ‘he’s lost the ability to read the game’, but none of these seem to be a satisfactory enough answer.

Fletcher initially appeared to be a dominating midfielder (I even did a stats show on him), the likes Stoke had not seen since a Frenchman scorned us and moved to Spain.  So for him to tail off so drastically to a point where many were wanting the return of Charlie Adam, seems totally perplexing. 

But then the thought came to me, maybe it isn’t to do with Fletcher or at least the root cause isn’t Fletcher himself, instead it is the actions of his midfield partner. I hypothesised that Allen’s response to Stoke’s general performances getting worse was to attempt to cover more of the pitch, and this massively impacted on Darren Fletcher’s ability to control the centre of the pitch.

Now before I get into this, it is supposed to be constructive criticism of Joe Allen’s lack of discipline, not simply taking a pop shot at one of Stoke’s better players this season. I believe his work rate should be commended, and installed within the rest of the side. But Allen is not Kante, he cannot play the role of two players, and his midfield partner certainly cannot cope with being left so exposed.

So where’s the evidence then? The evidence is in the Welshman’s defensive actions. In games where Stoke are playing well Allen’s defensive actions are; compact, in front of Stoke’s box, in the middle of the pitch. In game’s where Stoke are playing poorly Allen’s defensive actions are all over the pitch. Now the question of if Allen’s lack of discipline causes Stoke to play poorly is a different matter and one I am not prepared to address, but looking at these 4 games you can see what I am talking about.

(KEY: T = tackle, M = missed tackle, I = interception, F = foul committed)

We start with the 2-2 draw at home to United, arguably Stoke’s best performance of the season, and we can clearly see that Allen is staying in position, preventing United gaining access to our defence.

Next we move to the 1-0 win away at Watford, Allen is slightly less central here, but is still sitting relatively compact, cleaning up in front of the defence.

The 2-1 defeat at home to Bournemouth begins to show what I suggested. Allen is a deal more drawn out and across the pitch, leading to the pièce de résistance.

Stoke City 0 West Ham 3, our most embarrassing result of the season for many reasons, including performance. Allen’s effort cannot be faulted here, but in terms of positional discipline, he is all at sea.

Allen’s willingness to dig in and get going when things are tough is commendable, but it often leaves Fletcher exposed, and is ultimately bad for the team. It is the reason that Allen’s best performances came in a free number 10 role, where two midfielders could remain disciplined behind him. And many would call for him to be moved back into this position, but this is not the solution I propose.

I urge Mr. Lambert to tether Joe Allen to the centre circle, sitting, waiting for the opposition, breaking apart their attack and starting our own lethal counter. This is the role that he played so devastatingly well for Wales in the Euro’s, the reason Stoke coughed up the third highest transfer we have ever paid, to sign Wee Joe.

Sitting Allen in this position will allow for Fletcher to remain protected from indecent exposure, and will perhaps even see Fletcher recapture his form from the start of the season. Our porous, weak, nonexistent midfield has been one of the main contributing factors to our slide into the relegation zone, but if it is addressed properly it could become the foundation for a push away from danger.

Written by Tom Thrower

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