Analysis: Outstanding Will Smallbone transforms Stoke and stakes claim for Irish call-up

Plus: Gavin Bazunu is kept busy on his Southampton debut, and Nathan Collins may be busier than expected thanks to Wolves’ change in style.

Updated Aug 8th 2022, 3:01 PM

IT WAS A weekend of Premier League debuts and milestones for Irish players in England, but the Irish performance of the weekend may have been Will Smallbone’s for Stoke City in the Championship. 

He was outstanding on his full debut for the club to whom he has been sent on loan from Southampton, helping them to a 2-0 win at home to Blackpool, their first of the season.

“He played very well today”, said Stoke manager Michael O’Neill after the game. “He is a very talented boy and he has the ability to play in tight little spaces. He can improvise in those tight spaces, and there is more to come from Will…He is quality, and there are times where we might need to work on him off the ball – maybe he has a little bit better to do at times. But how he used the ball and linked with the play was extremely important.”

Smallbone played the last half-hour of Stoke’s first game of the season – a 2-0 loss away to Millwall – and did so as a central, number 10. On Saturday, however, O’Neill changed his position. For the second-straight game, Stoke lined up in a 3-5-2, the same system as Ireland played in the latter two Nations League games in June after Stephen Kenny changed the configuration of his midfield. 

This time Smallbone was picked in midfield, as the left-sided number eight. This still image from the opening minutes of the game gives you an idea as to where he was stationed, and the areas in which he primarily operated. (Jason Knight has been playing in this position for Ireland.)

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Allowing for the fairly meagre opposition – Blackpool will be one of the weaker sides in the Championship this season – Smallbone’s inclusion helped to transform Stoke as an attacking force. They scored twice in this game and also hit the bar, racking up a total of 20 shots. Only once last season did they manage as many, and they averaged only 10 shots per game last season.

Smallbone was crucial in knitting play together, progressing the ball and simply getting Stoke up the pitch. He didn’t do anything particular spectacular, but instead did the most basic things in football very well. He passed, and he moved. When he didn’t create space for himself, he created space for others. Also crucial was the pace he added to Stoke’s play. Smallbone did everything at a quick tempo, and it was notable that of the 43 passes he attempted in the game, 30 of them were one-touch.  

He roved across the pitch at times, but it was toward the left flank that he did his best work. The reason we’ve highlighted left wing-back Josh Tymon in that image above is that Smallbone linked so effectively with him. Tymon will appreciate the link: he assisted both goals in this game, having managed three assists in the whole of last season.

Here are a few examples of Smallbone’s connection with Tymon, the first illustrative of why O’Neill praised Smallbone for working well within tight spaces. Taking a poor ball in a tricky spot, Smallbone controls on his chest, and then pops the ball around the corner to Tymon.

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This seems simple enough, but it’s a clever, economical movement that takes two Blackpool players out of the game, and, crucially, progresses the ball up the pitch rather than sending it backwards. An accumulation of these small moments is what creates dominance on a football pitch. 

Here’s another, showcasing his intelligent movement away from the ball. Smallbone makes a clever movement to pull a Blackpool player with him, creating space for a pass to Tymon…

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…and he then moves again, to take a pass from Tymon. 

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Tymon initially couldn’t get in a crossing position as he was too deep and double-marked. Smallbone’s movement sorted both of those problems, as one of the defenders (Connolly) is forced to retreat to track Smallbone, and the other drops off to allow Tymon push up to a better crossing position. 

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Smallbone plays the ball back first-time, but Tymon goes on to scuff his cross from a good position.

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His involvement in the opening goal was more eye-catching, despite the fact he didn’t touch the ball.

First he drops in between the Blackpool defence and midfield, and bursts to his left to make himself available for the pass. Tymon, meanwhile, makes a move down the left wing. 

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Hopefully this is clear in the image below, but as the ball comes to him, Smallbone takes a slight look over his shoulder to check the position of striker Jacob Brown. 

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He then just lets the ball run through his legs for Brown, who drops off. But Smallbone’s movement has panicked right-back Connolly, who is drawn towards him and in-field…

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…which creates space for Tymon down the left. Brown drops off, plays the ball out to the screaming Tymon, who this time takes a touch, and gets his cross right.

He slings into the box, where it’s headed in by the wing-back on the opposite side, Harry Clarke. You’ll notice he gets to the ball after it narrowly evades another Stoke player in the box, one W. Smallbone. 

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Let’s pick a moment from the second half, one of Stoke’s best moves of the game. Smallbone yet again finds space between the lines, and demands the ball. 

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He takes the ball on the run, and this time takes a couple of touches – just long enough for poor Connolly to commit himself – before pushing the ball out to Tymon on the flank. 

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This time, Tymon is well-tracked by Blackpool’s right winger, however, and can’t just cross into the box. Instead he moves in-field, where Smallbone makes himself available for a pass inside the box, yet again finding some space for himself. 

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Then Smallbone pulls the same trick again. Another dummy lets the ball run through for Brown, who pops it back around the corner for Tymon, who sees a terrific cut-back fall to right wing-back Clarke once again, who this time fluffs his lines. 

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The second goal came courtesy of another Tymon cross. Smallbone is less central to this one, though his presence in midfield may have given the backtracking Bowler a pause for thought. If so, that pause was long enough to allow Tymon race away, and cross for Brown, whose controlled, first-time finish sealed the game for Stoke. 

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Smallbone will be in an Irish squad next month, the only question is whether it will be in the U21s for their Euros play-off against Israel, or the senior squad for the first time for the Nations League games against Scotland and Armenia.

He is a different type of player to Jason Knight – less hard-running and tenacious tackling, more balletic ball-carying and lithe, clever touches – but Stephen Kenny may view him as a potential solution to Ireland’s persistent issues in breaking down defensive sides, a task that awaits in the home game against Armenia at least. 

That he is likely to play regularly in the Championship and in a system so similar to Ireland’s is an ideal testing ground. If he continues to play as he did at the weekend, then the next international phone-call will likely come from Stephen Kenny, rather than Jim Crawford. 

Premier Debuts 

Smallbone was strutting his stuff from 3pm last Saturday, at a time when Irish eyes were fixed squarely on the Premier League. Gavin Bazunu is indeed Southampton’s number one, but his debut away to Spurs was a chastening, 4-1 defeat. Southampton won’t have many harder games this season, but he was hardly helped by the clown-car defence in front of him. He will at least be afforded the chance to impress across this season…he’s going to be busy. Nobody faced more shots against than Bazunu on the opening weekend, and only Dean Henderson of Nottingham Forest made more saves. 

Mark Travers kept a clean sheet on Bournemouth’s return against Aston Villa, but was met today with news of renewed competition, as the club have signed the aptly-named Neto from Barcelona. 

Nathan Collins‘ debut for Wolves, meanwhile, went awry, as they fell to a 2-1 loss at Leeds. Collins spoke in the build-up of liking Wolves’ style of play last season, though they’ve gone away from it already. Conor Coady has been bombed out as Bruno Lage has switched from a back three to a back four, in an effort to make them more creative. That has come at the cost of some control, and perhaps that’s the reason Collins has been bought and paired with Max Kilman: both have pace and are good at defending one-on-one. Collins may be in for a fairly hectic season too. 

Also worth noting is the fact Connor Ronan and Joe Hodge were on the bench for Wolves, though the fact Lage spoke about the benefits of having five subs before the game and proceeded to make just one sub in the game was not a huge vote of confidence in either. 

Good weekend for…

Conor Coventry, who made a Premier League debut for West Ham in their shellacking against Man City. He didn’t get a touch during his couple of minutes on the pitch…but few West Ham players did throughout the whole game. Super moment for him. 

Bad weekend for…

Aaron Connolly, denied a debut for Venezia in the Coppa Italia at the weekend, as he got swept up in a mass Covid outbreak at the club. 

First published today at 12pm 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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