Only few followers of the English game would have known that Stoke City is the 2nd oldest football club in the world after Notts County; infact rarely does an EPL fan raise any voice about this outfit that Tony Pulis had brought to the League in 2008, except when their team faces Stoke and that suddenly becomes the toughest away trip in the league.
The Welshman has definitely left a mark on the football purists in England. His open prophecy of a rough tackling game with emphasis on a long ball out of defense or a long throw into the goal, has indeed led to the buildup of a team that was thought to be unique initially, but it has suffered drastically this season.
Having scored just 35 goals in the entire campaign, Stoke are above only QPR on 30 goals in the EPL. There was a similar concern last season and club legend Ricardo Fuller’s sale in the summer did not brighten future prospects. Pulis’s dip in the market brought in Charlie Adam and Stephen N’Zonzi, two players who looked perfect for Stoke’s style. Though Adam’s tenure at the club until now has not reached the heights that it had promised initially, N’Zonzi along with Goeff Cameroon have brought in some rare rays of light.
On paper Stoke City has a large squad, but Tony Pulis’s team selections have been very much restricted to a lot that started the season well. Another aspect that Pulis can now be blamed for in hindsight is the fickle manner in which he kept changing the shape of his team. Last season the Welshman was known to stick to his midfield duo with towering attackers, and again this season’s start saw Tony return with a midfield duo of Whelan and another tackler: either Palacios or Whitehead. Resolute defending is always expected at the Britannia, and that combined with some lethargic attacking by Crouch upfront saw the Potters draw their first 4 games.
The first top 4 game for Pulis came against Manchester City and it was this game where Pulis tested his new shape of a midfield trio for the first time. This game also saw Charlie Adam’s arrival on the scene alongside N’Zonzi. It was the need to integrate Adam into this squad that saw Pulis change his shape, as leaving out the tough tackling Whelan was against his original morals. Now with an extra man in midfield there was much more play through the ground in the centre, than the usual punting of the ball to Crouch’s head from the defence.
Though this change brought around a drastic increase in the passing rates within the XI, Pulis got Charlie Adam’s position all messed up. Adam had burst into the EPL scene as a ball distributer in Blackpool, and a similar role in Liverpool. But at Stoke due to the presence of the tackling Whelan and the inspiring box-to-box N’Zonzi, Adam did not find a place at the halfway line. He was rather used as a No.10 player, told to link up with the flick-ons laid down by Crouch. This role negated the Scotsman’s main asset and so he was not able to affect his initial games against Man City and Chelsea.
With most pundits shouting out for Pulis to revert back to the tactic of playing Adam deep, it was 1 impressive Frenchman who was not allowing the manager to do so. N’Zonzi was the Fans’ Player of the Year after his first season in the EPL at Blackburn, and there is little doubt that he won’t be granted the same title this time around by the Stoke faithful. N’Zonzi had previously attracted the attention of the big clubs due to comparisons to Patrick Viera in his lanky style of play. A typically physical edge to his game that saw the midfielder distribute the ball to the wings with ease and then stride forward saw him go into the team-sheets as the first name alongside Whelan.
So it was these 2 who blocked Adam’s return to the deep role, until the Manchester United game where Pulis chose to play Adam next to N’Zonzi. This was mainly due to the injury Whelan suffered against Liverpool which saw Whitehead come into the squad, and Pulis used Whitehead as the one to close down Carrick. Adam’s influence from deep was clearly visible in this game and Pulis’s insistence of pushing Adam ahead in the later parts of the campaign are one of the reasons for Stoke’s lack of goal scoring chances.
Speaking about goals for Stoke City, John Walters has been their top scorer with 11 goals. Every season Walters falls into the category of one of the most underrated players in the League, and here he stays again this time around. Majorly played on the right side of attack, Walters is the routine out-ball for Peter Crouch flick-ons from the centre. Just like Arsenal’s midfield in the past 8 weeks have been seen to dovetail from the left to right in order to create play for Theo Walcott, similarly when played on the right wing the pass from midfield or defence to Walters becomes the most played in every game.
Pulis started Walters again as an attacking right winger at the start of the season, and the Irish striker became the route of wayward long balls from Adam and Shawcross. From the Man United game onwards in which Charlie Adam was moved into a much more central role, Pulis shifted to a sort of 4-3-3. This meant that Walters and Etherington on either flank became wide forwards instead. So Crouch was allowed to move freely into a deeper role and then play in the wide forwards. This formation would have been a major boost for Stoke’s midfielders but they barely could make the most of it; Adam was rarely allowed to turn and rake out a pass in midfield, so most of his attempts at a long ball were inconsistent. Whelan or Whitehead acted as the deepest midfielder and so looked for the other 2 midfielders on most occasions and hence was rarely adventurous. The only plus was that N’zonzi was getting much more space to develop into a proper box to box player.
Though Pulis preferred to follow a slight variation of this formation for the rest of the season, he again changed Walters’s role in the setup. In games like the one against Spurs, Pulis unsurprisingly placed the defencive minded Shotton on the right in front of Cameroon in order to stop Bale. To fill the gap in the centre, Walters was pushed into the position behind the striker. This definitely added steel to the No.10 spot, as can be seen by the Irish striker’s tackles and track-backs.
Stoke’s biggest success of the season was the Liverpool game on Boxing Day that the Potters won 3-1. Again this game saw Walters in the centre of attack, this time behind Jones with Kightly and Etherington on the wings. When Walters played on the flanks he used to be told to be direct at goal rather than to look for Crouch’s head, and Etherington on the other flank was similar too. But Kightly’s presence on the wings with Walters adding to the height in the box meant that Stoke utilized the crossing factor to the fullest.
Ironically, it was the period after this game where Stoke suffered as they won just 3 more games in the rest of the season. The Liverpool game was immediately followed by games at City and Chelsea, and Pulis inconsistently changed back to a deep 3 man midfield with Walters on the flanks. The trio in midfield were lousy for a couple of months in terms of tackling and marking; a stat against Man City saw the trio of Adam, N’Zonzi and Whelan put in just 1 tackle together and even that was unsuccessful.
While Stoke’s midfield cut a sorry figure in terms of their tackling and marking, it is Pulis’s usual defencive setup that has earned the fury of many a manager. The duo of Huth and Shawcross were consistently present throughout at the centre of defence, and rather than in their tackling the duo are more important to the team in terms of their long ball distribution. Stats show that Huth’s distribution to the forwards in much more consistent than his English counterpart.
Tony Pulis has created a certain style of fullbacks who defy the word in every sense. Initially starting with the duo of Shotton and Wilson, Pulis’s fullbacks were always much narrower than most teams, and a lack of width provided by the wingers upfront meant that most of the play was direct and through the centre.
Wilson’s leg break saw Andy Wilkinson getting a much more prominent role, and he was able to provide a bit of respite by occupying a wider zone and looking to get the crosses in. A direct comparison of Wilson and Wilkinson would show that the former was much more involved in defending centrally in the box and his passes upfront were mostly to the wide man rather than the striker in the box.
Non overlapping fullbacks, towering centre backs clearing away balls, rough midfielders incapable of tackling and a familiar tall head bobbing upfront; Pulis has definitely left his stamp on the Premier League. Most Stoke fans were satisfied till last season with their team pushing up to mid-table after spending the least in the League; but after witnessing a close shave with relegation even though there were substantial players brought in, the Potters’ fans will not be looking for a man in a tracksuit and cap prowling on the touchlines again.