Right (and Left) Back to Basics

Stoke have signed two fullbacks in the space of a week. That sentence will be the music to Potters fans’ ears considering the options that have been available for the last few months. A heavily declined England international, a striker, a Dutchman who just can’t seem to get it right and two developing teenagers have left Stoke crippled in the increasingly more important areas on a football pitch. Each of those mentioned either have or will have their part to play in Stoke City’s development and deserve our respect. However, Stoke’s defensive width is currently lacking and has been need of a revamp for a while. The arrival of new manager Paul Lambert was sandwiched between the signings of Moritz Bauer and Kostas Stafylidis. Let’s see what we’re getting.

Moritz Bauer is a 25-year-old Swiss-born Austrian right back. He arrived for £5.5m from Russian outfit Rubin Kazan and has signed a contract with Stoke which expires in 2022. Bauer’s professional career started in his native country with Grasshoppers, before earning a move to Russia in the Summer of 2016. Bauer spent 18 months with Rubin Kazan and broke into the Austrian national team during this time, he has four caps currently. Interestingly, Moritz is also a qualified pilot and flies regularly between football. He is also a polyglot and can also speak five languages including, perhaps most relevant currently, English.

Despite identifying as a defender, Bauer has often been deployed on the right side of midfield. His adaptability is possible due to his attacking style of play, hard work ethic and remarkable pace. Of course, his priority is to help his team keep a clean sheet; however, he’s often seen at the other end of the field crossing the ball into the opposition box – his average position was one of the furthest forward out of any Stoke player during his Premier League debut at Old Trafford on Monday night. A polymath in his personal life and on the pitch, Bauer is committed to both the attacking and defensive sides of football: if he’s not where he should be at any given time, you can expect to see him there pretty quickly.

Kostas Stafylidis is a 24-year-old Greek left back. He arrived on loan from German side Ausburg for the remainder of the 2017/18 season, it’s not publicly known whether there is an option for Stoke to purchase at the end of the loan. He began his career with PAOK in Greece before moving to Bayer Leverkusen. After only making nine appearances for the German side, Stafylidis moved to Championship side Fulham on loan for the 2014/15 season where he had mixed fortunes. Ausburg acquired his services in 2015 and has impressed there, making 40 Bundesliga appearances for them. However, an injury-plagued season has seen Philipp Max take his position on a regular basis as Stafylidis has made his move to Stoke and the Premier League to get first team action once more.

Like Bauer, Stafylidis is capable at both ends of the field, albeit in slightly different fashions. While Bauer tends to cross the ball into the box, Stafylidis has a pop at goal himself. He’s scored goals from open play, the penalty spot and direct free kick opportunities during his career and is an unconventional source of winning football matches. Like Bauer, he’s also capable during his defensive duties and is known for his athleticism. He’s an aggressive defender who often blocks and intercepts the play. Kostas also likes to play the ball long and cross the ball in, although perhaps isn’t quite as accurate as his new teammate on the other flank. His tendency and capability to shoot from distance makes up for that though.

What does this mean for Stoke? For starters, it adds much needed competition to the fullback positions – something that Stoke have been lacking in during the entirety of their Premier League existence. Former manager Mark Hughes’ first signing was Erik Pieters for the at-the-time vacant position and he has been relatively unchallenged for that spot; with square pegs being forced into round holes during his injuries and suspensions. The right side has fared little better: neither Geoff Cameron, Glen Johnson, Phil Bardsley or striker Mame Diouf have been able to convincingly hold down the role since club legend Andy Wilkinson left the club. Tom Edwards and Josh Tymon are recent protégées who will surely be seriously considered for roles in the near future, but right now Stoke are in a relegation scrap and need experience and undoubted talent to drag the club away to safety. Although relatively young at 24 and 25 respectively, Stafylidis and Bauer bring that experience.

It confuses some fans to this day that Mark Hughes attempted to deploy the wing-back system with the ‘wing-backs’ he had at his disposal. A system that relies on quality at both ends of the field and athleticism in abundance were attributes that Stoke’s options just weren’t blessed with. The two new recruits certainly answer these concerns and opens up the opportunity to exploit that wing-back system that was almost so well executed. It’s a system that could well exploit the players we have in our squad, especially Xherdan Shaqiri – Tom Thrower explains how the Swiss international could impact from Bauer’s arrival in his latest Stats Show.

The two new recruits could also directly contribute to sticking goals in the back of the net themselves. Stoke, for the longest time, have not scored enough goals; it’s one of the reasons why this and also conceding so frequently has sent us hurtling down the table. Stoke defenders have contributed just five goals and three assists in the last two seasons, with Pieters, Johnson, Bardsley, Edwards and Tymon contributing no goals and just one assist during that time between them. Bauer and Stafylidis have contributed four goals and three assists during that same period with their respective clubs (and that’s with irregular game time for the latter). Surely this opens up the opportunity for more goals to fly into the back of the opposition’s net, not just keep them out of our own.

The priority, though, is keeping the ball out of the back of our own net. Stoke have conceded the most amout of goals in Europe’s top five leagues and have the Premier League’s worst goal difference this season. The Potters continue to the exploited on the break: opposition wingers finding the space in behind which has been vacated by the adventurous wing-backs. They don’t seem to have the pace, ablity or (rarely) desire to flood back and plug the gap, making it all to easy for Stoke’s defence to be all at sea. We’ve recruited two players with the athleticism to get back when requried and their desire should be through the roof. Both have expressed their desire to play in the Premier League and for Stoke and will be desperate for a chance to express themselves on the world’s biggest stage.

Both players were tracked by the club for a period of time before the arrival of Paul Lambert, raising questions as to why players of this ilk were not recruited before Mark Hughes was relieved of his duties. Now is not the time to think of the past, however: Stoke have fifteen very important games coming up and we have the recruits which we’ve been crying out for. With the addition of another couple of players and Paul Lambert’s introduction, could this be the key to unlocking the potential that we know this underperforming Stoke side has? Time will tell. For now, though, let’s lose ourselves in hope. At the moment, it’s all we’ve got.

Defenders are like buses, apparently.


Written by Ben Rowley

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