What is the secret behind Stoke City’s defence?

In the last ten league matches, Stoke City have tightened their defence significantly, registering seven clean sheets and becoming one of the most difficult sides in the Premier League to break down.

Their miserly defensive unit has helped them to continue picking up results, despite being the joint-lowest scorers in the division with Aston Villa.

For a team now heralded for the attacking quality in their side it is the defensive players currently grabbing the headlines. So, is this through good luck, good organisation, or a combination of the two?

For a side sitting in the bottom half of the table, but with the joint-third best defence, it is pretty clear that their issues are not defensive. They are increasingly reliant on their back four to keep the team in contention by shutting out opponents and one of the key factors in this has been a largely settled unit.

In the early part of the season Stoke were missing Shawcross, the club captain and a key figure. This forced Mark Hughes into playing Cameron at centre-back and although he performed well, the defence, which was unchanged for the first four matches, was giving away chances:

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Naturally, the more chances you give away, the more likely you are to concede, so it is no surprise to see they failed to keep a clean sheet during this period.

After round four, the defence changed for three successive weeks and they conceded five times, but they did pick up their first win.

Since Shawcross returned to the line up against Newcastle in round eleven, the defence has been unchanged, conceding just four times and registering five clean sheets. Indeed, two of the conceded goals came after the captain had been sent off at Sunderland.

It is hard to argue that the defensive upturn has not been related to his presence in the side, but perhaps an unsung hero in this piece is Wollscheid. The German has been involved in every clean sheet Stoke have kept this season, coming into the team a couple of weeks before his partner.

In the past seven matches, the chance creation of opponents has decreased significantly, going hand-in-hand with the unchanged defence. They have given up just five Great Chances in this time and the highest number of Good Chances conceded in a match is seven. This points to better organisation, with the team better at denying chances in the first place, rather than relying on opponents failing to convert.

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It is also worth noting that Stoke have the third most effective offside trap in the league, catching opponents with it 43 times so far, a figure bettered only by Liverpool and Swansea. Their offside trap has maintained its effectiveness since the Wollscheid/Shawcross partnership was reformed, with 19/43 offsides being picked up in the last seven games.

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Has this defensive solidity come at the cost of attacking football though?

It certainly could be the case, as in the same seven game period they have found the net just five times. In the opening seven they averaged a goal a game, which in itself still is not clinical, but is significantly better.

Stoke are still doing a reasonable job of creating openings at the other end, averaging 1.59 Great Chances per game. The fact that they are not scoring is another story in itself, but it is testament to the defence that they are continuing to pick up points with a forward line that has not found the net more than twice in a game all season.

Interestingly only four sides have given away more chances than they have overall, with three of those being in the bottom five (Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland). So, although they have tightened up, the defence is still also relying on opponents’ poor finishing and good goalkeeping to keep the score down.

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The amount of Great Chances conceded is significant here. Eight teams have given away more Great Chances, although again all but two are below Stoke in the table.

So, if they are giving away a reasonable amount of chances to opponents, how are they keeping clean sheets?

The emergence of Butland in goal has been an important factor for the side, with the 22-year-old enjoying his first season as undisputed first choice. He ranks third behind only Petr Cech and Joe Hart in saves made from Great Chances and tops the table in saves from Good Chances.

With a goalkeeper in this kind of form giving away chances is often not too harmful, providing the rest of the team with a very solid foundation to build upon.

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Lastly, Stoke are a team who are able to prevent pressure being created by keeping the ball effectively in opposition territory.

Even though they are short of goals they still manage to have just below 49% possession per game on average, meaning the defence is not coming under constant pressure. They give themselves time to reorganise by keeping the ball and allowing players time to recover, which in turn results in better defensive shape.

These factors combined with their ability to keep their defenders fit and available suggest that they are unlikely to start shipping goals regularly. If they can get ahead in matches, it is likely that they will manage to stay ahead for the remainder of them.

Whether this is enough to propel them to a top ten finish remains to be seen, but that looks to be their upper-limit based on their current metrics.

Alec Payne