Mark Holmes and I tend to talk about something or other most days. Well, I say 'talk' - I mean 'argue', 'debate' or possibly even 'cantankorize' (my own word). But with Mark's beloved Stoke City the next name on Sunderland's fixture list, I caught up with him for a chat that was actually, well, relevant. Read on for the view from the Brit.
As a starting point, can you give us a quick summary of how Stoke's season is going so far?
Mark Holmes: It's been a strange season, really, because one win in eight would suggest our poor form from the end of last season has continued, yet most Stoke fans are more optimistic about our future than at any point for quite some time. The only real disappointing result was on the opening day when we conceded an injury-time penalty to draw at Reading; other than that we drew at Wigan, which was a decent result, drew at home to Arsenal and Manchester City, drew at Liverpool, were only just beaten at Chelsea, and then made a game of it at Manchester United last weekend. So I'd like to think our league position at the moment is a little misleading.
Stoke have long been defined by their rigid system and, shall we say, 'old school' football, but there seems to have been a genuine move away from that this season. Any chance of you filling us in about the new Stoke City?
MH: Looking back, some of the football we played last season was dreadful. We'd gradually improved our style every year since getting promoted until then, but our best performances last season came in Europe, and we struggled to re-create that in the Premier League. After spending such a lot of money last summer, there were rumours that the Coates family warned Tony Pulis they expected a better style of football this season - and he's delivered it.
Since signing Charlie Adam and Steven N'Zonzi we've changed our system, with Adam given a floating role ahead of N'Zonzi and Glenn Whelan, which has allowed us to play through the midfield a lot more. We've also moved away from traditional wingers, with Michael Kightly encouraged to cut in and shoot from the left (he's had more shots than any other Stoke player) in comparison to Matty Etherington, who hogged the touchline and put in crosses. Jon Walters has replaced Jermaine Pennant on the other side and also plays more of a wide forward than a winger, trying to get into the box as much as he can. Recently, Geoff Cameron has replaced Andy Wilkinson at right-back which has given us another facet to our game - Cameron is much more comfortable on the ball and is regularly allowed to overlap the wide man.
The overall result is a much more fluid system - players regularly seem to switch positions throughout matches, and all three of our midfielders given a little more freedom to get forward with two rather than one team-mate able to cover. We're keeping the ball much better and much more, and for the first time since we were promoted to the Premier League we look threatening from open play through the middle of the pitch. It'll be interesting to see how the new system works against lesser teams that get men behind the ball and ask us to break them down, but the signs so far have been hugely positive.
What is the expectation down at The Brit these days?
MH: By and large, expectation in terms of what we can achieve has always been fairly reasonable. Most sensible fans accept we're not going to be challenging for the top six any time soon, but a top-10 finish is the joint aim for everyone associated with the club. We should have managed it in the last two seasons really so it'd be hugely disappointing if we didn't this time around. The biggest expectation from the stands, though, is that we show an ambition to win every game we play in. A lot of Stoke fans had become very tired of Pulis' defence-minded attitude by the end of last season, and I really believe the tide would be turning against him by now had we continued in the same vein. Thankfully, we've improved beyond recognition, and hopefully we can maintain that throughout the season.
What have you made of Sunderland this season?
MH: Sunderland are in a similar position to Stoke, really. You finished last season poorly and haven't exactly started this one on fire, but I suspect supporters would have taken every one of the results beforehand had the fixtures been more spread out. The difference between Stoke and Sunderland is that we have changed our way of playing whereas Martin O'Neill doesn't seem to have changed too much. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I can understand why some fans might be getting a tad worried given your poor end to last season. As an outsider, obviously I've noticed your reliance on Steven Fletcher, but also the poor form of Stephane Sessegnon, a player I usually worry about. I'm not too sure moving Seb Larsson inside is working too well, either.
This fixture last season proved a feisty old affair with extreme weather conditions (and eventful and slow trips home, I understand?!), a controversial red card, and ultimately a Sunderland win. Any element of payback involved in this one from a Stoke perspective?
MH: Yes, I'm exiled in Manchester these days and didn't get home until 10pm last season so even a clear motorway this year would be an improvement. The sending-off did cause a bit of debate at the time, but I certainly don't feel as if we're on a revenge mission. There isn't enough of a rivalry between the two clubs for this to feel like anything other than a bog-standard Premier League home game. But it'd be hugely disappointing to be beaten by Sunderland two seasons on the trot at home so I suppose there's that extra motivation.
If Stoke are going to win this one, then who are the danger-men Sunderland need to pay special attention to?
MH: Our best player since he come in has been N'Zonzi, and we'll be hoping he can really boss the midfield on Saturday. Adam in front of him has started slowly but had his best game at Old Trafford so perhaps he's due a barnstormer in a game we're likely to see more of the ball. Peter Crouch is the obvious aerial threat, Kightly will be good for a shot or two, and, as mentioned, you can expect Cameron to get forward from right-back. These days, I don't think we can be nullified simply by cutting out the service to Crouch.
And what about Sunderland? Who or what are you wary of?
MH: Conversely, if we can keep Fletcher quiet I think we've got a good chance of keeping you out altogether. But Johnson always has a good game against us, while James McClean is another good player, albeit he doesn't seem to be in top form this season. I would usually say Sessegnon, but the same applies to him.
MH: It's a tough one to predict as you're the first team we've played since changing system that will get men behind the ball to frustrate us. In all the other games, we've caused problems on the counter. Still, we really are playing some terrific stuff at the moment so I have to back us - 2-0.
Many thanks to Mark for his time. You can follow his work, including his trademark Monday Moan feature as well as find all the football news and content you could ever want over on TEAMtalk.
You can also follow Mark on Twitter by clicking HERE.