Stoke City legend Mike Pejic reflects on the victories over Sunderland and Leeds United as Alex Neil leads his team to Middlesbrough.
If in my last column, I mentioned that it was the right time for Stoke City to seize the opportunity, I am delighted to sit down and write this piece with a sense of relief and joy. Two games, two significant wins, with only one change in the starting lineup, which I won’t downplay.
I witnessed a team that played with a clear purpose: a solid back four, a holding midfielder, two advanced midfielders, two wingers, and a striker. With this foundation, the focus was on connecting, and we saw our center-backs taking charge, especially alongside Ben Pearson. When they assume that responsibility, it allows our full-backs to push forward when we have the ball, thus giving freedom to Wouter Burger and Daniel Johnson.
We appeared as a balanced side, demonstrating a good understanding of both defensive and offensive play. When all these elements work cohesively, confidence naturally starts to grow. During the first half against Sunderland, we were slightly off the pace, allowing them to play through us too easily at times. However, in the second half, we pushed higher up the pitch, became more compact, and improved our performance.
It’s heartening to see partnerships developing because this isn’t a one-time occurrence; it signals a promising future. Alex Neil also made an impact with his substitutions, as Jordan Thompson and Josh Laurent played a crucial role in front of the defense during the final stage of the match. Lynden Gooch added stability on the left, and Nathan Lowe created problems for the opponents by maintaining possession, making forward runs, and challenging the center-backs.
The crowd responded positively because they witnessed organization, discipline, and hard work. The pressing was particularly effective, pun intended.
Stoke continued to impress against Leeds, the second match in a three-game series. I was glad that Neil made only one change, bringing in Thompson to replace the injured or rested Enda Stevens. It’s essential that players earn their place in the team rather than just expecting to rotate. The team’s familiarity with each other’s styles paid off, with Johnson and Burger combining effectively with Ryan Mmaee, and promising partnerships forming between Pearson and the center-backs, as well as the goalkeeper.
However, the recent news of Mark Travers’s injury was a significant blow. He was outstanding throughout the match, displaying exceptional positional sense, commanding his defense, and exhibiting excellent footwork. His decision-making, concentration, and technique were spot on. Losing him is a major setback, but we are aware of the potential risks associated with the loan market, no matter how infrequent such scenarios may be.
In the first half, we largely controlled the game, but there were a few lapses when we allowed gaps to open, necessitating some last-ditch tackles. We need to eliminate those moments and ensure that Johnson and Burger understand when to sit back.
During the second half, we let the game’s pace drop, allowing Leeds to make numerous passes. However, the shocking missed penalty jolted Leeds and awakened Stoke. Patrick Bamford’s penalty miss was, frankly, ridiculous and cost them dearly. Stoke resumed playing as a cohesive unit, pressing high in the attacking and midfield areas when they lost possession, which energized the crowd. That’s the style of football that fans want to see; that’s Stoke City.
Gooch and Laurent made a significant impact, and Wesley up front used his height and strength effectively. During the decisive corner, we had six players in the six-yard box, and Wesley’s presence caused chaos. Sometimes, teams without a player on the post are criticized, but Leeds had one; it was just an unfortunate body position that resulted in the ball hitting the crossbar and going in. Such breaks don’t happen by chance; they are created. Stoke deservedly reaped the rewards for their response to the penalty miss, and that was immensely satisfying. They were truly deserving winners.
Towards the end of the match, Ki-Jana Hoever showcased his ability to recover and make interceptions. He’s learned valuable lessons, and the defense was solid, making crucial blocks. Kudos to them.
I hope Neil doesn’t rest too many players for today’s game, even though traveling to Middlesbrough poses another challenging fixture. The roles and expectations are now clear for everyone. The standard has been set, and we mustn’t allow it to slip.
I also take pride in the performance of the youngsters from our Pejic Taekwondo Academy at the Great Britain National Championships in Worcester. Each of them won a medal either individually or as part of pairs or teams, competing against participants from four different nations. It’s truly satisfying to witness the synergy among children aged eight to 15 as they collaborate. Individual performances are great, but when you see them working together as a team, it’s a special feeling for any coach in any sport.