Why Crouch must leave Stoke for Bojan to shine

Bojan

Bojan

If the first month of the Premier League season has taught us one thing, it’s that we should never bet on the Stoke City result. They recorded a famous 1-0 win away to Manchester City in August, yet also lost home games against Aston Villa and Leicester, who are teams they were expected to at least draw with.

In some ways, these results provide an indication of the counter-attacking football Mark Hughes wants to introduce at the Britannia Stadium. Summer recruits, such as Victor Moses and Mame Biram Diouf, possess a lot of pace. They are excellent when playing on the break, yet not so impressive when they face a team content to defend.

Moses and Diouf are attacking players that feed off adrenaline. They thrive when they have the space to sprint, run with the ball, or take a defender on individually. They are more likely to have this space if the opposing team’s midfield operates high up, as Manchester City’s had done. However, when opposing midfield players double up with the defence to stop attacks, the pace and skill of Moses and Diouf has very little effect. It’s much harder to beat anyone for pace if they have a man behind them waiting to intercept.

This blog previously wrote an article called ‘The Passing Of Possession Football’, which referenced the recent success of counter-attacking teams. Mark Hughes is one of many to spot football’s latest tactical trend. He has set up his Stoke side to counter-attack, not quite as repeatedly as Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund do, but as one that is capable of hitting teams on the break when the right scenario arises.
Counter-attacks require players with speed, which explains why Hughes brought in the aforementioned Moses and Diouf. However, what does this mean for Peter Crouch? When watching a free-flowing, end-to-end passing move, he is perhaps the last player one might expect to see involved.

Crouch’s height, although useful in some cases, means he is not a player that is conducive to high-tempo play. There is a scientific link between a player being tall, and having delayed muscle movements, due to the distance between the brain and the feet being bigger. Crouch typically takes at least two touches before he has released the ball, because his feet take a split second longer to process instructions from the brain. Counter-attacks can only be effective when there are players who are able to play one touch football, and make quick decisions. Crouch does not fit this criteria.

In some cases, he could still be a useful player. His aerial prowess means that he will be able to win high balls in the box, draw other defenders out of position, and knock the ball down into the space for other players breaking forward. This side of his game can be particularly useful when opposing defences are content to sit back and defend, and counter-attacks cannot be made. However, should Crouch stay at Stoke, he will only be useful as part of a contingency plan, when his team are in desperate need of a goal. As the club’s highest earner, a role as an impact substitute may not justify Crouch’s hefty wage.

Instead, Mark Hughes should be brave with his team selection, and develop a system geared entirely towards fluid, counter-attacking football. What may work, rather than the traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, is a 4-3-3:

stoke 433Glenn Whelan has proven himself to be effective at sitting in front of the back four and breaking up attacks. If Whelan remains disciplined, Charlie Adam will not have the defensive responsibility of a deep-lying midfielder, which is a slight waste of his creative talent. Adam and Steven N’Zonzi should be able to drive forward and support the attack when needed.

Bojan must be given a series of games in a ‘False 9’ role, where he can drop deep into midfield to receive the ball, whilst attempting to drag defenders out of position. This will create space for other players running beyond him, particularly Mame Bram Diouf, who has impressed thus far. Although Bojan’s performances in his first 3 appearances have been mixed, when he has struggled, it has not been due to any lack of technical quality, or tactical nous. Rather, he is simply adjusting to the physicality of the Premier League.

The way forward for Mark Hughes is to treat Bojan as a special player, in the same way that Neil Warnock built his 2010-11 QPR promotion side around Adel Taarabt. One possibility would be for Hughes to privately tell Bojan that he will be in the team for the next 5 games, or so, regardless of performance levels. While some might argue this is an undiplomatic way to manage, the effect would be for Bojan to play with more self-belief. When a foreign player comes into the Premier League, the common problem is not a lack of motivation. Rather, the increase in the number of physical battles can cause confidence problems, because the conditions are not what that player may have been accustomed to working in.

Bojan is undoubtedly talented, evidenced by the fact that he has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe. However, there is a sense that his career has declined somewhat since he first left Barcelona in 2011. The way for Mark Hughes to get the best out of Bojan is to show belief in his quality, and give him the time in the team to gradually build confidence. Stoke’s top scorer last season scored just 8 league goals. By playing Bojan regularly in the ‘striker’ position, Stoke have little to lose, because they do not have a prolific goalscorer elsewhere.

Whether the manager will afford him this key role is debatable. Doing so would come at the expense of Peter Crouch, who started up front throughout last season. If Hughes wants Stoke to play long balls, Crouch needs to be playing up front regularly. However, then the creative talent of a 5 foot 7 Bojan becomes redundant, because less of the play will go through midfield. However, if Hughes wants Stoke to play slick, fluid football, as he seems to, Bojan needs to be playing centrally on a regular basis. This limits Crouch’s value, due to his lack of pace and tendency to dwell on the ball. It seems Bojan and Crouch are mutually damaging to each other’s role in the side.

Bojan has the attributes to be a success at the Britannia Stadium, but he will need time to get used to the physical aspects of life in the Premier League. Mark Hughes must do what it takes, both tactically and in terms of motivation, to accommodate him during this transitional period. It may take Peter Crouch leaving for Bojan to truly flourish.

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