Some clashes need no introduction. I’m nothing without introductions though, so I’m going to write one anyway.

Plymouth Argyle travel north this weekend to take on Stoke City. It’ll be the Greens’ first trip to Staffordshire since that glorious afternoon against Port Vale last May. Rather than a league title, this time Championship survival is on the line. Argyle and Stoke both remain in the relegation battle, with just a point separating the sides with three matches remaining.

This would be a big game in any circumstances, and I haven’t even mentioned the elephant in the room. Steven Schumacher will be in the opposing dugout against Argyle for the first time since his abrupt departure from Home Park in December. And add Argyle’s manager to the mix too; Neil Dewsnip’s presence on the touchline creates a fascinating “master versus apprentice” dynamic, as if this encounter needed any more drama.

It’s 47 points against 48. The Potters against the Pilgrims. Schuey against Dewey. What can we expect?

Style of play

Guessing Schumacher’s tactical setup at Argyle was always tricky, with Schuey roulette becoming a staple of many matchdays. The story at Stoke is not too dissimilar, but for the last four at least he’s opted for the same shape, and it’s one he rarely deployed during his time in Devon: 4-2-3-1.

The heart of defence should be easy to predict; Michael Rose and Luke McNally are regulars at centre back, and Leicester City loanee Daniel Iversen will start behind them in goal. Ki-Jana Hoever has been impressive in recent weeks, and I’d expect to see him at right back, but Ben Wilmot was preferred for the 1-1 draw against Sheffield Wednesday last week.

A bone of contention for many Stoke fans has been lining up without a natural left back for much of the season. Enda Stevens is available for this one, and the smart money would be on him completing the back four. Don’t rule out some Schumacher shuffling here though; Jordan Thompson, probably a central midfielder by trade, has played there more often than even he would probably like. Again, he played the full 90 at Hillsborough.

The midfield may cause Schumacher a few headaches. My understanding of the concussion rules is that Wouter Burger, one of Stoke’s better performers this season, will miss out this weekend after going off against Wednesday. Stoke seem fairly confident that he’s fit to feature, and we’ll probably find out whether that’s permitted at 2 o’clock on Saturday. If Burger does miss out, it’d leave a gap next to Lewis Baker in the double pivot.

One of two things would probably happen. Schumacher could perhaps switch to the 4-3-3 he used at Argyle at the start of the season to negate Burger’s absence. We could also see a shuffling of personnel. That could perhaps see Josh Laurent, who has played recently as an advanced midfielder, dropping back, and Bae Jun-ho (or a certain Luke Cundle) taking on the advanced role. Alternatively, Thompson could switch to his familiar midfield position with Stevens coming in at left back.

In the front three, my money would be on Sead Haksabanovic starting on the left and Million Manhoef on the right, though I’ve been impressed by both Andre Vidigal and Mehdi Leris when I’ve seen them play (which I concede is not regularly). Vidigal is their top scorer, but 51 Championship players have scored more, so I wouldn’t take that as an indication of starting preference.

The centre forward position has a few options. Ryan Mmaee is one, as is Tyrese Campbell, who scored Stoke’s goal in the reverse fixture. Honestly though, I’d be stunned if Schumacher didn’t give Niall Ennis a chance to shine against his former employers.

The Schuey roulette factor, as memeable as it became, is another worthy consideration. Simply, a surprise formation choice cannot be ruled out. Bae Jun-ho is key to this; he’s able to play in an advanced midfield role or in any of the forward positions, which allows Schumacher to tinker with his shape more freely. That, along with Burger’s potential absence, may lend itself to a 4-4-2, with Bae Jun-ho partnering Ennis as we regularly saw Sam Cosgrove do last season. I have a suspicion though, perhaps misguidedly, that Schumacher may be tempted by a system with three at the back.

In any case, Argyle will need to be ready. They, and particularly Dewsnip, will know all about Schumacher’s selection dramas, and will surely commit some time to being prepared for every eventuality.


Many of Stoke’s strengths this season have been in the defensive side of their game. It means that they may not be a spectacular side to watch even at their best, but you can trust them to be solid. That probably puts them on a similar level to Preston North End, managed of course by another former Argyle gaffer in Ryan Lowe. I know that could be worrying, given that Preston comfortably beat Argyle in March, but plenty has changed in the last month.

There are a few examples of Stoke’s defensive proficiency. They rank fifth for the number of interceptions they’ve made this season, another metric which sees them comparable to Lowe’s Preston. Hoever excels here, with his total of 65 interceptions bettered by only five players in the league. Their total of 758 tackles also ranks fifth in the league, and they complete them at an impressive success rate of 71%. Again Hoever is strong, but it’s actually Burger who has completed more tackles than anyone in Stoke’s side.

None of these are necessarily standout stats. Indeed, we’re not talking about the best tackling or intercepting team in the league by any stretch. However, for a team languishing at the lower end of the table, these defensive numbers are more than acceptable.

That being said, Stoke do absolutely stand out with their goal-line clearances. Their total of 10 is the highest number in the league. To put that into perspective, Dan Scarr’s goal-line clearance against QPR was the first made by an Argyle player this season. It suggests to me that, despite their struggles, there is no lack of fight in this Stoke side. Their defensive players appear to be willing to do whatever it takes to keep the ball out of their net.

Making a number of interceptions and tackles means Stoke often find themselves in transition on the front foot. They do well, and in a way that perhaps won’t be too surprising.

Whoever starts in the deeper positions will be expected to play plenty of long balls, and that extends to the goalkeeper. Stoke have actually completed more long passes this season than any other Championship side.

Having seen Schumacher’s style enough times, we know these won’t be traditional long balls to a target man (and nor should they be, given that their aerial duel success isn’t the best). They’ll instead threaten with balls into the channels for their strikers to chase. As good as he’s been recently, I think there is a case for replacing Dan Scarr with Lewis Gibson to combat this specific threat.

The wide players will also be key, with much of Stoke’s game plan revolving around crosses. They do very well to put crosses in with regularity. Indeed, this may be where Scarr plays himself back into contention.

Only Queens Park Rangers have attempted more crosses than the Potters across the Championship season. Not only does that place particular importance on their wingers (and full backs – Hoever has attempted more crosses than any other Stoke player), it also makes the role of Argyle’s wing backs crucial as they attempt to stop those crosses at source. Joe Edwards, anyone?

The game will be won and lost in both boxes. But if Argyle can win the midfield battle and come out on top of the transitions, they’ll give themselves every chance.


Poor finishing has been a major factor in Stoke finding themselves way down the league table. It may not fit our impression of a Steven Schumacher side, but the Potters have had serious issues finding the back of the net all season.

Their profligacy in front of goal can be demonstrated with numerous statistics. For example, only Rotherham United have a lower shot accuracy across the Championship. Stoke, whilst ranking 13th for shots taken across the division, rank 20th for shots on target. Those deficiencies are even clearer when we consider shot conversion – no team in the league posts a worse figure than Stoke’s 7%.

That, unsurprisingly, results in Stoke struggling to score. In fact, they’ve scored just 23 goals from open play all season. That’s fewer than even Rotherham, and only Cardiff City post a lower total (22). I accept that’s negated by their number of set piece goals, for which Stoke rank 5th in the league. But based on what we know about Schumacher’s teams, that feels unsustainable.

Stoke’s shooting is so inadequate that they rank as one of the league’s biggest xG underperformers. Indeed, xG data suggests that Stoke should have scored 51.02 goals this season. Their total of 41 means they’re underperforming by 10.02 goals, with only Sheffield Wednesday underperforming to a greater extent.

And the damning stats don’t end there. Despite ranking 14th for their number of big chances this season, Stoke rank 7th for big chances missed. They’re also one of just three sides, along with Coventry City and Middlesbrough, to have missed as many as three penalties. They’ve failed to score in 17 games this season – only two teams have failed to find the net more often. Again surprisingly for a Schumacher’s side, substitutes have scored just three times for Stoke this season, the joint-lowest total in the league alongside Blackburn Rovers.

I’ve laboured the point enough, so I hope I’ve demonstrated that Stoke can be toothless going forward. Facing one of the best goalkeepers in the division in Michael Cooper this weekend could make their task even tougher.

With a focus wider than just the attack, I’d also earmark Stoke as one of the most unsettled sides in the league. Across the campaign they’ve used 35 players, a league-high figure. In their current circumstances, that’s a serious problem. In fact, you could argue that Schumacher is the worst possible manager they could have in that regard.

See, when things are going well and everyone is pulling in the same direction, rotation can be healthy. We saw at the back end of last season how Schumacher’s policies kept players happy whilst fresh enough to perform at their best. When things are going awry, this can have the opposite effect. Players become uncertain of their places, morale dwindles, and the patterns of play worked on in the training ground become disjointed. That, I’d argue, is seriously holding Stoke back.

I fully accept that there is a cause-and-effect argument at play. It’s possible that Stoke are changing their side because their plans aren’t working, just as it’s possible that Stoke’s plans aren’t working because they’re changing their side. Regardless, it isn’t a clever or efficient way to run a football club; Schumacher should be thankful that he doesn’t face the sort of budgetary constraints that could exacerbate the situation.

Finally, I want to touch on Stoke’s disciplinary record. The Potters have picked up a league-high 110 yellow cards this season, alongside three reds. It suggests this is a team that is never far away from a collective headloss, which could work against them in such a highly-charged game.

Stoke’s lack of discipline works against them in two ways. First of all, it contributes to the problem discussed above, with changes to an already unsettled side enforced through suspensions. It also means their players can be walking a tightrope for significant periods.

We saw against Sheffield Wednesday under Ian Foster how both central players being booked contributed to a lack of bite in the midfield. If Stoke continue to rack up the bookings on Saturday, I’d be keen to see Argyle put those players under pressure by having the likes of Bali Mumba and Morgan Whittaker running at them with the ball.

At their best, Stoke are a solid side who can cause many teams in this division problems. At their worst, Stoke are an unsettled team who can’t score and are liable to lose their heads. Let’s hope the latter turns up on Saturday.


This is a seismic match for Plymouth Argyle. However, I don’t think it’d be unreasonable to suggest it’s even bigger for Stoke. They are the team further down the table and, with games against Southampton and Bristol City to come, they’ll see this as the most winnable game of the three they have remaining. The dynamic of Schumacher going against his old club only adds fuel to the fire.

That must be taken into consideration. I actually think Argyle match up quite well to their opponents, but I can’t ignore how well Schumacher performed during big games last season. We often saw heroic victories from behind when the stakes were at their highest, including of course at Vale.

With all of the above in mind, I have a feeling factors may cancel each other out. So I’ll go for 1-1, with Argyle scoring first, and a point I’d be more than happy to take.