Forensically watching an ordinary player: Erik Pieters

Date published: Tuesday 30th January 2018 10:10 - Sarah Winterburn

Thanks very much to those who requested a regular series on ‘Ordinary Players’ after the piece on Dale Stephens.  You asked for it, you got it. In this instalment, a Dutchman whose name, and whose plight, could be familiar…

When Mark Hughes became the manager of Stoke City in the summer of 2013, his first signing was a 24-year-old left back from PSV Eindhoven named Erik Pieters. When fit, Pieters had been a consistent starter for PSV, had logged plenty of minutes in the Europa League, and even made three Champions League appearances. He cost £3m – real money for a club like Stoke, particularly in those days – and was expected to fill the hole at left-back which had been variously manned by Marc Wilson, Andy Wilkinson and Geoff Cameron.

Fast-forward to 2018, and he’s at home in the Potteries, having made 158 appearances, all but five as a starter. If you follow the league at all, you’ve heard his name regularly and seen him play several times. Now in his fifth full year, Pieters can consider himself part of the Premier League furniture.

But that’s just it. Unless it’s a classic Chippendale or Louis XVI, or some super-duper Swedish modern piece, we don’t notice the furniture. And Pieters is more like a standard chair you bought at DFS, useful to sit in but not to show off.  When neutrals talk about Stoke City, either positive or negative, they talk about Shaqiri and Shawcross, Butland and Berahino. If you’re detailing the squad, the final words are likely to be “…oh, and Erik Pieters at left-back”.

Right now, though, is an excellent time to talk about Erik Pieters. That’s because he’s at a sort of crossroads in his career. He’ll be 30 in August, and up until a few weeks ago, Hughes was the only Premier League manager he’d played for. How long Paul Lambert will be there we don’t know, but there’ll be new ways, new emphases, and new personnel. That affects every player, but Pieters more than most. Let’s see why.

We’ll start with tactics. Up until this year, Hughes had naturally played four at the back, with Pieters on the left. But after experimenting a few times last season, Hughes caught the three-at-the-back bug, and that was the default system this year until he got the sack. Pieters, having played all his life as a conventional left-back, was moved to left wing-back.

Anyone could have told you this wasn’t ideal. Pieters is a decent tackler and marker, physically strong, a solid Premier League full-back. But although he’ll run all day for you, he doesn’t have the pace to be a top-flight wing-back. Nor can he give you the kind of attacking threat or technical skills you need in that position. He’s a defender first and foremost.

Hughes presumably knew this, but figured that moving Pieters somewhat out of position would be made up for by improved overall defence. As we know now, it didn’t work, or even come close. And it noticeably weakened Pieters’ contribution to the team. The stats make this abundantly clear.

To start with, his tackling, generally a strong part of Pieters’ game, has significantly declined. Both attempted tackles and successful tackles are currently at a career low, and while that’s partially because he’s in a more advanced role, his tackle success has also dropped. The previous two seasons it was at 75.8% and 76.8%, and this year so far it’s only 71.7%.

So has this drop in defensive contribution been balanced by an increase in attack? No. In fact, quite the opposite. His pass completion percentage is the lowest in his career, and so are his key passes. In the past he occasionally got into position to shoot, for an average of eight shots per season. This year he has zero.

His possession stats have suffered as well. Playing further up the pitch, he’s had less time on the ball. He’s been dispossessed more often this year than in any other season in his career. He’s also at a career-high for unsuccessful touches.

The numbers are unmistakable: Pieters is a lesser player at wing-back, more a liability than an asset. But anyone could have told you that before. The switch wasn’t going to work for him, and more importantly it didn’t work for the team.

So now Paul Lambert’s in charge, and his first tactical move was to reinstall a four-man back line. That’s the good news. The bad news is that for the first time since he joined Stoke City, Pieters is facing competition. In a nice twist, Lambert’s first acquisition was a left-back too, Greece international Kostas Stafylidis, on loan from Augsburg in the Bundesliga. He’s familiar with English football, having started 34 games for Fulham in the Championship a few years ago.

In a relegation race, and having played out of position for a while, Pieters will have to get back in the groove quickly and stay there. Will he hold off Stafylidis’ challenge? Against Huddersfield, the first game under Lambert, he was back in his favoured position, and played well. But Lambert wants to play more on the front foot, and Stafylidis has more pace and more pressing/attacking potential. Pieters has never been a terribly good crosser – it’s appropriate that his one and only Premier League goal came from a wayward centre.

On the other hand, Stafylidis’ crossing stats at Augsburg, and for that matter, at Fulham, have been poor as well. Moreover, he’s still getting up to match fitness, having played very little this season for Augsburg.

It’s a small drama, but a big one too, both for the individual players and the team. It continues on Wednesday, as Stoke host Watford in a winnable match. Check out the match reports the next day, and follow the story. After all, someone at your club might be in a similar position, and we’ve all got a stake in this game, football’s version of musical chairs.

Peter Goldstein

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