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Uncertain shapes hampered Stoke's season

  •   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 …
TRP
SENIOR ANALYST
Modified 22 May 2013, 20:20 IST

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.

The midfield trio in Man City game clearly shows the dominance in the middle and increase in grounded passes, rather than the direct style shown in the pic on the right. Credits: www.squawka.com


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.

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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.