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The FA Cup Fourth Round

N'Zonzi shining for new-look Stoke

Steven N'Zonzi has benefited so much from the change in style at Stoke that his passing statistics are among the best in the Premier League.

Last Updated: 28/09/13 at 19:29 Post Comment

Steven N'Zonzi: Excellent start to the season for Stoke

Steven N'Zonzi: Excellent start to the season for Stoke

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There was a delicious moment in the latter stages of Stoke's draw with Manchester City when Erik Pieters headed the ball forwards to Steven N'Zonzi in a left midfield position.

Spotting Yaya Toure out of the corner of his eye and anticipating his advance, N'Zonzi flicked the ball over his illustrious opponent's head and controlled it with the City man well beaten. It was pure Patrick Vieira.

As an isolated incident in a goalless draw, it had little significance. As an example of the renewed swagger of Stoke City, it was rather more evocative.

Calm and composed in possession, N'Zonzi arguably holds the key to Stoke's new approach under Mark Hughes by setting the tempo in the middle of the pitch.

N'Zonzi has the talent to do so. "His technique is fantastic," Steve Kean, his former manager at Blackburn, told Sky Sports, adding his admiration for "the way he plays a cross-field pass and the way he can switch the play." Former Stoke boss Tony Pulis also appreciated his technical qualities. "He's got two great feet and strikes the ball fantastically well," said Pulis in May.

Passing

Of course, it is well documented that Pulis placed greater emphasis on less subtle characteristics, and the presence of a 6'4" midfielder brought its own benefits under the Welshman's regime.

Getting the ball down to play was not the priority. Stoke had the worst passing accuracy of any team in the Premier League last season, with only relegated Reading playing fewer short passes.

But things are changing at the Britannia Stadium. That passing accuracy has gone from a dismal 70 per cent success rate to a creditable 80 per cent so far this season.

On average, Stoke are playing more than 100 extra short passes per game. It also seems that it's time to abandon the hoof-ball cliché - only two Premier League teams have hit fewer long balls than Stoke in 2013/14.

"Maybe they were ready," said Hughes, when quizzed on the changes. "If I felt they weren't capable of playing the way I want, I wouldn't even have put it to them because if they haven't got the capabilities as football players to take it on board, then I would have been making more problems for myself.

"But the group have been excellent from the first day. The players have bought into it. It has to be possession with a purpose. We're trying to work on that."

Steven N'Zonzi - Premier League 2013/14
DisciplineRanking
Successful passes8th
Successful passes opp half7th
Chances created (open play)6th
Duels won5th
Tackles6th

A more patient approach suits N'Zonzi. Neat and tidy in possession, the 24-year-old is comfortable on the ball and happy to slow the game down. He ranks among the top 10 passers in the Premier League this season.

Crucially for Stoke's development, these are not the meaningless square balls that Pulis found so deplorable.

The graphic (below) from N'Zonzi's man of the match performance in the win at West Ham shows that the vast majority of his passes are forwards. It is progressive passing rather than a stat-boosting exercise.

With Marc Wilson holding, N'Zonzi's greater involvement with the ball at his feet appears to have brought out his creative side.

N'Zonzi has created 10 chances from open play this season. That's twice as many as any other Stoke player, and more than all but five footballers in the Premier League.

Given that he only managed to create 14 such opportunities in 35 appearances last season, just five matches into the new campaign it is clear that N'Zonzi is shining in his new role under Hughes - his expert floated cross for Marko Arnautovic that led to Geoff Cameron's equaliser at Arsenal being a prime example of his intelligent and ambitious use of the ball.

N'Zonzi's passing and duels against West Ham (L) and his (15) role in the goal at Arsenal (R)

N'Zonzi remains a physical presence. He can still do the ugly stuff and won more aerial duels than any other player on the pitch in that away win at West Ham, making more combined tackles and interceptions than anyone else too.

As such, N'Zonzi is perhaps the perfect hybrid footballer to see Stoke through this period of adjustment.

By Adam Bate.

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