Have Stoke City really evolved enough?
It’s not rocket science to label Stoke a side that adopts a somewhat direct style. Watch any of their games and you see a unique style of play, a throwback to an earlier generation when English football was blood and thunder, a sharp contrast to the patient, possession based technical style of football which we now witness at many of the stadia around the country ranging from the Emirates to the DW. In an era when a particular style of play dominates, Stoke offer something different to the homogenised product. That uniqueness, far from being celebrated, has been castigated in some quarters.
The criticism of Stoke and their style is well known. Opponents level such assertions against them normally when Stoke have gained a positive result. And it’s primarily the foreign managers and players who take Stoke to task regarding their style. Andre Villas-Boas pronounced himself pleased with a point at “one of the most difficult places to visit in the Premier League“, following Chelsea’s scoreless draw at the Britannia in August 2011. Villas-Boas highlighted Stoke’s impressive home record and their approach to the game as being “a very, very particular way to play“. Arsene Wenger meanwhile no longer conceals his disdain for the Stoke approach.
Tony Pulis now leads Stoke into their fifth Premiership campaign during which time they have sampled a run to the FA Cup Final and a Europa League campaign when Valencia answered the vexing question of whether foreign teams could play on a cold night at the Britannia Stadium. Unfortunately for Stoke, when the roles were reversed, they were unable to pay in the heat of the Mestalla and crashed out of the Europa League 2-0 on aggregate.
Upon their entry to the Premier league back in season 2008/09, Stoke City could be considered a plucky underdog even if the Guardian’s season preview suggested the extent of their ambition should be to finish above Hull City and secure more than seventeen points thus avoiding the then record low points total for the league which Stoke set in season 1984/85 when they were last relegated. Stoke successfully beat both targets imposed by the Guardian and finished comfortably in 12th place with 45 points. The robust, long ball style which had served them so well in the Championship had remained in place. Stoke retained faith with the system and survival ensued. Now, it would surely be time to build a more progressive style of play as the process of stabilising the club as a Premiership side took hold. The club would compete for key signings whilst evolving a more aesthetically pleasing style of football. Some marquee signings have arrived in the Midlands such as Eidur Gudjonsson, Peter Crouch, Sanli Tuncay and now Michael Owen has joined too. Yet the football on offer remains the same.
There appears to be a growing clamour for Stoke to suddenly change style, to become more progressive. To evolve. For Tony Pulis to suddenly announce that the Potteries will now be home to an English variation of tiki-taka. Have Stoke shown any signs of evolution of their footballing identity since their début season? More pertinently, should Stoke change anything about their approach to the game?
Under Pulis Stoke set up with a traditional 4-4-2 formation although more recently one striker has been dropping off slightly as they adopt a split striker formation. Quite often Pulis has gone with centre backs or midfielders in the full back positions. This “square pegs in round holes” approach may not find favour but it does give Stoke a sense of defensive stability with the full backs tucking in close to the centre backs. The situation has remained broadly the same in each of the seasons to date. Stoke use a direct style of play and seek to deliver the ball into the box at the earliest opportunity.
The long ball, the use of two traditional wingers and the 4-4-2. All great, traditional pillars of the British game which have slowly been eroded since the late 1970′s. Yet visit the Britannia Stadium and these qualities are celebrated and flourish. Stoke retain a unique position in the Premiership. What’s more, Pulis sees no requirement to change the style of Stoke and has claimed that fans prefer their unusual style: “They (Swansea) keep the ball everywhere. They play a very continental style and are happy to go back, square and sideways, but I’m not so sure our crowd would like it because they like it up and at ‘em.”
The “up and at em” approach of Stoke has drawbacks most notably in the number of cautions and sending offs incurred. Stoke finished 18th in the Premiership Fair League in season 10/11 before finishing bottom last season.
Stoke are certainly a competitive team and it would seem likely that Pulis would encourage his team to physically test the opposition across the whole pitch. Following the draw with Manchester City in March 2012, Pulis commenting on the Premiership and its physicality noted: Stoke do commit a high level of fouls per game in relation to the majority of teams in the division but this has dropped down from when they first entered the top flight. Their first season back in the Premier League contained the highest level of fouls and could partially be explained by Stoke attempting to establish themselves and compete for every ball. “No club — and this is why it will be exciting right until the end — goes anywhere, or should go anywhere, to any ground and do sometimes what Barcelona and Real Madrid do to teams in Spain. And that is just play a game and just walk through it.”
Tony Pulis has spoken of the idea of evolutionary progress for the side. Following their 5-0 win in the FA Cup over a supposedly aesthetically pleasing Bolton side (a perpetuated myth that seemed to become a truth for a time), Pulis was keen to articulate this idea: “The team that won this semi-final is much different to the one which started out in the Premier League two and a half seasons ago in that we have become more expansive. It’s a case of evolution not revolution.”
Why are Stoke undergoing subtle changes to their style? The answer is probably a combination of factors which firstly involves the constant upgrading of players within the squad. Stoke do change the squad considerably each season with significant number of arrivals and departures as Pulis seeks to improve the players at his disposal. This has not always proven successful with the likes of Gudjonsson and Tuncay struggling to make any sort of impact.
Those who claim not only do Stoke play a style of football in the past but that Stoke are tactically bland or even lacking tactically fail to acknowledge the contribution that Stoke make to the Premiership. True, Pulis may not provide complex, detailed instructions to his players about how they should seek to exploit the opponents central midfield area but they do make opponents think about the approach which they bring.
To that end, Stoke are evolving. For those who suggest they are not, its worth remembering that evolution is a slow process. Stoke are not going to turn in a technical, passing side such as Arsenal but they are incorporating little details within their play.
Simply put, if they do not evolve they will struggle. Teams have already shown they can adapt against Stoke to overcome them, therefore Stoke need to offer something different too. The style imposed by Pulis has brought them this far but it needs to be altered slightly. This is not a criticism of the style of play – merely a consideration that the style should change for purely pragmatic reasons. Pulis surely recognises this, hence the slight changes.
Clearly, Stoke have remained comfortably in the Premiership in each of their season’s to date with a style of play which may not be aesthetically pleasing but which is effective. And some supporters of the approach taken by Stoke will argue that what else do you expect when the financial disparities of the Premiership are so vast?