As I predicted last week, Stoke City are in big big trouble. They’ve made their Premier League name by playing rugged, physical, hard to stop football and that had seen them establish themselves as an elite force in the league up to this season. For the last 4 years they’ve bulldozed teams that cross their path and played a direct style in attack with a resolute and solid defence behind. They played with two quick tricky wingers who would get the ball in the box quickly to lead either to goals or set pieces. This year though, that hasn’t worked. So why not? There are a few key reasons; lack of flair, picking out of form ‘favourites’, very basic tactics, lack of pace & increasingly poor work in the transfer market that has led to an unbalanced squad.
Firstly, Pulis has ventured away from their usual tactical plan to a more basic defensive set up and any nod to flair has been utterly abandoned. Pulis has always valued endeavour over flair, but in the past he has found room in his teams for players that make things a little different happen. The side that got promoted to the Premier League did so guided by the unpredictable Ricardo Fuller. Since then, Pulis has deployed and improved the likes of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant out wide, who could both make something out of the ordinary happen, even if they weren’t quite so solid in defence.
He also had a few dalliances at trying to replace Fuller in the number 10 role but with little success. He has tried Sanli Tuncay and Eidur Gudjohnsen briefly but after showing some initial signs of life they were cast aside for more industrial players. This summer, he signed Charlie Adam to be his creator but that was a signing that was never going to work. Adam isn’t a hard worker, so when he didn’t create or score goals he was dropped. But why wasn’t he creating or scoring? Because he doesn’t have the talents to do so without a very specific type of player around him. At Blackpool he had a lightning fast attacking trio in front of him who could hunt down his passes. For every 50 yard pass that made the Match of the Day highlight reel there were another 4 that bombed in to the stands or one where he’s caught in possession and it costs a goal. Sir Alex Ferguson tricked Liverpool into signing him, and they couldn’t wait to unload him on to Pulis. He scored a lot of penalties and free kicks at Blackpool to boost his tally, but you need quick tricky players to win lots of those and Stoke don’t have any.
The loss to Aston Villa showed what a basic lack of pace Stoke have. Sure, they have some big and quite athletic players but no pure speed. Their quickest players like Jerome, Etherington, Shea & Pennant aren’t exactly track stars. Quite apart from the fact that they haven’t seen much action this year anyway. Villa came at Stoke with a team packed with pace and it was because of pace that they scored all 3 of their goals either directly or indirectly. Stoke can compensate for their lack of pace by dropping deep, but this is a way of grinding out 0-0, 1-0 type results. The irony is, this tactic would normally be reserved for a counter attacking team, but Stoke don’t have any pace to counter attack effectively. In fact, Stoke hardly ever counter attack, and it is for this reason. The de rigueur tactics in football are rapid counter attacking from a deep base and the possession dominating game based on tiki-taka principles and Stoke aren’t able to do either.
So, Stoke can’t counter attack and they can’t pass it. Pulis lamented the absence of Glenn Whelan, his ‘play maker’ against Villa. Whelan is OK but has a limited passing range. Of course, he can’t set a passing tempo without other players to pass the ball to. If he lays off a tidy pass and the ball is then pumped forward, what’s the point? The list of players comfortable passing the ball is about as short of the list of quick players. There’s really only Whelan and the inexplicably ignored Wilson Palacios who are properly comfortable in that type of game. The rest of the midfield are what could be described as coal stokers. They work in the engine room but they can’t drive the train. The train analogy is particularly appropriate because Stoke only play in straight lines. Or, a rogue train because Pulis’ post match press conferences often miss the points. Nice.
So, they’ve got no pace and no ball players, and that is because of increasingly poor operations in the transfer market. Pulis has done brilliantly at signing certain types of players. Every member of the starting defence has been a tremendous bargain and developed immensely. His worker midfielders are good at the job they do too, and could do so elsewhere in the league. However, when it comes to signing attackers or skill players, he hasn’t been so good. Peter Crouch, Michael Owen, Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome are the strike force. Owen isn’t what he was and the rest are limited by lack of goals. They are all good number two strikers, hold up men, but they need either a proper number 10 behind them or a goal getting partner. Crouch was at his best with Defoe alongside him, for example. It’s a similar problem to Sunderland. Too many ants, not enough butterflies.
The final gripe is that Pulis picks the same players regardless of form or output because they are his ‘favourites’. Now, every manager can be guilty of that, but Pulis does seem incredibly loyal to certain players. The real problem isn’t the players he picks as such, but it is as an affect of who he doesn’t. He prises the tenacity and reliability of Jon Walters above every player in his squad. He likes the raw physical presence of Kenwyne Jones and Ryan Shotton despite their limited technical capacity. He deploys the defence-only full-back pairing of Geoff Cameron and Marc Wilson. Both excellent at the back but offering nothing on the front foot.
The frustration for Stoke fans is that he hasn’t tried anything different. Why not start Crouch and Owen up front with two of his wingers? Why not copy Swansea and play all 3 wingers in a rotating carousel behind one of the strikers or Walters? Why not experiment with a 4-3-3? Is it simply that Pulis doesn’t believe in it, or that he can’t coach it?
Stoke have hit a wall because nobody saw that Pulis had taken them as far as he ever could without changing his style and approach. It’s not simply a case of too much long ball, as the problems are rooted far deeper than that. The problem is though, that it is far too late to do anything about it unless they try something radically new. But they won’t. And they will be relegated. The parallels to the Birmingham City team under the similarly negative McLeish of 2011 are stark for Stoke fans. That year, Birmingham weren’t in the relegation discussion. They had a good defence and a dull attack. They did enough early in the season to mask the lack of goals, but when they dried out they dropped like a stone as others found vibrancy. Sound familiar? Both teams have spent poorly and been hamstrung by tactical inflexibility. I can’t see Stoke avoiding the fate that befell Birmingham.Published 08 Apr 2013, 22:58 IST