Where exactly has it gone wrong for Stoke City?
Tony Pulis’ Stoke have been a Premier League club for the entirety of this website’s short life. But, as Rob Doolan describes, both could be about to lose their place at the top table come the end of the season.
There is mutiny in the Potteries. With Stoke City appearing from nowhere to stake a late claim for a relegation berth, fans are beginning to turn in increasing numbers against Tony Pulis. In contrast to the city of Stoke-On-Trent’s Latin motto, Vis Unita Fortior — United, Strength is Stronger — disunity and disarray are enveloping the Britannia Stadium at the worst possible time.
While certain sections of the national media have attempted to characterise the situation as a case of ungrateful fans rounding on a successful manager at the first sign of trouble, in reality this has been brewing for a while. Although Stoke’s recent form is terrible, having picked up just five points this calendar year, there were clear signs that the team was regressing long before they became embroiled in the dogfight. In fact, since January 2012, the Potters have a win percentage of around 21%, picking up just 11 wins in 52 league games. Stoke are the lowest scorers in all four divisions this season, but that was also the case last season as well.
While gravity eventually comes calling for many middling Premier League sides, the rising frustration among Stoke fans stems from the feeling that things really shouldn’t have turned out like this.
In May 2011, Pulis couldn’t have been more popular in Staffordshire had he been made entirely of bacon and cheese oatcakes. He had just taken Stoke to the first FA Cup final in their 148-year history, and had won the hearts of the vast, vast majority of Stoke fans — even those who had been against his return to the club in 2006 following an initial tenure marred by dire, negative football and boardroom squabbling. Pulis, generously backed by chairman Peter Coates since, had masterminded a golden age for the Potters after some dark days bouncing between the second and third tiers, establishing them as a respected (if unloved) Premier League side.
During that memorable cup final season, there were signs that Pulis’ rigid 4-4-1-1, percentages-based system, hitherto based almost entirely around not conceding and sneaking something from a set piece (most notably Rory Delap’s famous long throw) was developing into something easier on the eye and less one-dimensional. Stoke were still physical, still direct, and it was still rare that they had more possession than their opponents, win, lose or draw. Yet where previously they’d been very cautious, and derided nationally as a byword for thuggish, ugly anti-football, now they looked to seize the initiative more often in games.
The arrival of Jermaine Pennant on the right flank to mirror Matthew Etherington’s threat on the left gave Stoke two flying wingers to really stretch opponents, while the pace and power of players like Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones in attack enabled Pulis’ side to bully teams high up the pitch. Stoke at their best set a breathless tempo that many sides couldn’t cope with, certainly at home. This improvement culminated in the team blowing Bolton away in a 5-0 win at Wembley in the FA Cup semi final, and destroying the likes of Newcastle, Wolves and Arsenal in the league. The final was lost, of course, but there was real hope that the form shown during that cup run could provide a platform for Pulis to continue evolving Stoke’s style, and turn them into a top 10 side.
It was then that things started to go wrong. Summer 2011 saw Pulis again given substantial funds to strengthen his squad. However, he seemed under the impression that his system could evolve by simply signing ‘better’ players. Of the £22m splurged on new recruits, the most significant portion was the £10m used to bring in 30-year-old Peter Crouch, which earned the previous summer’s record signing, Jones, a near-permanent place on the bench. However, Crouch, despite being both taller and technically superior to the Trinidadian, was much less fit to play as the lone striker in the 4-4-1-1, lacking the pace and strength to operate in that role in a long-ball, counter-attacking team. Throughout his career he has been well served by support from attacking midfielders and a smaller strike partner. At Stoke, he’s had neither of these things, and as a result has been left isolated and easy to mark.
Worse, none of that £22m had been invested in a new wide player, so when problems did arise with Stoke’s chief creative weapons — Etherington struggled for form and fitness, Pennant, inevitably, fell out with Pulis — there was no direct replacement. By Christmas, Pennant’s place had been taken by Ryan Shotton, a player who had spent most of his fledgling career flitting between right back and centre back.
The goals dried up. Though Crouch, despite the difficulties the system lumbered him with, proved himself a class act by weighing in with 14 in all competitions, the team struggled. Solid Europa League and FA Cup campaigns masked increasingly poor performances in the league, where Stoke recorded their worst finish since promotion, in 14th.
Nevertheless, there was still hope at the start of this season that Pulis would learn from the mistakes of the previous window and address the shortcomings in the team. Instead however, another £20m was spent on players who either weren’t good enough or who didn’t fit the system. Of the nine players to sign over the two transfer windows, just one, Steven Nzonzi, has played regularly. Two new wingers arrived, but Pulis quickly lost faith in Michael Kightly while young American Brek Shea, who signed in January, made two cameo appearances from the bench before disappearing without trace. Again, Stoke have been forced to rely on the ageing, increasingly injury prone Etherington as their one genuine outlet, and the lack of a similar threat on the right has again made him easy to snuff out — he is without a league assist to his name this season.
Charlie Adam was touted as the answer to Stoke’s creativity problems, but Pulis does not trust him to play in Stoke’s two man midfield, instead using the chunky Scot (sparingly) as a second striker, where he’s struggled. Michael Owen arrived to great fanfare, but even when fit it’s clear there’s no room for a poacher in a team that doesn’t create chances — especially one who’s only 5 ft 7”.
2012-13 has witnessed one solitary stellar Stoke performance, against Liverpool on Boxing Day in front of a rocking Britannia crowd. It was a game that saw Pulis return to what had worked previously, using two wingers and reuniting Jones and Jon Walters in attack. Suddenly the tempo was back as an indefatigable Stoke pressed and bullied The Reds into submission, winning 3-1. Unfathomably, that same XI hasn’t been picked since. A decent start to the season has given way to a nightmare 2013 in which the team has somehow become even more one-paced, one-dimensional and predictable, and easy to stop.
More worrying is that fighting spirit and togetherness crucial to the club’s success appears to have dissipated. The leaders on the pitch and in the dressing room have departed as age has caught up with them (Delap, Higginbotham, Diao, Fuller), and their higher profile, more gifted replacements don’t seem to possess the same, for want of a better word, ‘bottle’. The key ingredients are souring. Set piece delivery has suffered, with the centre backs only having one goal apiece to their name this term when they usually muster at least 10 between them. The defence, hailed as one of Europe’s best before Christmas, is increasingly porous. Stoke’s away form has long been abominable, but the home form is ebbing away as well.
Pulis has wrecked his own successful system but is proving himself too inflexible to change. All he has been able to do is bemoan continuing bad luck and “not getting the breaks” in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Weak, slow and lifeless, the current team’s woes are epitomised by Ryan Shotton’s ineffective long-throw – a poor substitute for Delap’s in a team that’s a pale imitation of the one it was four years ago, let alone two.
There has always been the sense that Pulis is comfortable being the underdog, the man who can get plucky Stoke City punching above their weight. 40 points appears the limit of his ambitions. Yet expectations are the price of success, and the run to the cup final showed fans a side that could play good football and had the top 10 within their reach. Five seasons in and £100m spent, Stoke are regressing, and teams like Swansea and West Brom, assembled on a fraction of their budget, have surpassed them playing much better stuff.
Factor all that in, and it’s hard to see how Pulis can survive even if Stoke do. Hopefully, if/when he does leave, he’s allowed to do so with his head held high. He’s delivered some of the club’s best moments in decades, and he’ll always have that sunny day at Wembley when Bolton were vapourised.
There’s no doubt that Tony Pulis cares about Stoke City. I just hope he cares enough to walk away with his legacy intact and those memories unsullied.