Stoke City’s ascent from relegation favourites, to mid-table hopefuls, to a side challenging and succeeding in Europe has been a fairytale story. They’ve slowly but surely built upon solid foundation to the extent that few would begrudge them their European adventure. However, a worrying pattern is beginning to develop – success in Europe, followed by underperformance in the Premier League. With Tony Pulis still in possession of a reasonably small squad, are Stoke in danger of losing sight on what matters most, their bread and butter, the Premier League?
Stoke qualified for the Europa League last season after managing to reach the FA Cup final where they went onto lose to Man City 1-0. With the big-money signings of Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Cameron Jerome, not to mention the transfer coups of Jonathan Woodgate and MatthewUpson, a lot was expected of Stoke going into this season.
Perhaps too much was expected of them and therein lies the problem. I’ve been guilty of this myself already this campaign – heaping heady expectations on a side that at present, is failing to cope with the rigours of both European and domestic football.
Take a look at their record in Europe, in a fairly difficult group including Maccabi Tel Aviv from Israel, Besiktas from Turkey and Dynamo Kiev from Ukraine – teams which prompted Pulis to ponder aloud whether any of the three difficult away trips his side had to contend with could actually be classified as in Europe. But it’s fair to say that while a record of (Pl 4, W 3, D 1) is more than respectable in the Europa League, it is without question affecting their performances back home where they’ve already lost five of their opening 11 league games.
Only on one occasion have Stoke picked up a victory in a game directly after a European tie, relatively early on in the season before fatigue had begun to set in, in the qualifiers against FC Thun whereby they beat West Brom three days later at The Hawthorns. Since then it’s been slim pickings.
After a 1-1 draw away in Kiev on September 15th, they were hammered by a deeply out of sorts Sunderland side 4-0 away from home. After a 2-1 win at home to Besiktas on September 29th, they lost 2-0 away at Swansea. Next up came a 3-0 win against Maccabi Tel Aviv at home on the 20th October followed by a 3-1 away at The Emirates to Arsenal. The latest defeat directly after a European game would have hurt the most, though. Losing 5-0 to Bolton, a direct reversal of the humiliating onslaught at Wembley last season which set in a rot of form from which Owen Coyle’s side had yet to recover from until now, came just three days after a 2-1 win away in Tel Aviv.
It’s worth noting, even with their two remaining Europa League fixtures, that every single Premier League game has and will come just three days after a European tie, but more importantly, that every single one of them sees Stoke travel to an away ground in the top flight.
Pulis rather reasonably argued: “If we are representing England, you’d expect the FA to give you the best opportunity to do well. We know the dates early, so is there a chance we can work a system where we are not playing six away games. I think there has to be a change somewhere along the line where you actually sit down before the fixtures come out. Because we played two away games after two of our qualifying games, it’s a total of eight,
which is an unbelievable statistic. It is something we have to get on with, but personally I don’t think it is right. Why couldn’t we have sat down before the season started? We don’t want any favours, but we want an even run at it, which would be playing four at home and four away.”
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This does beg two questions, though – If Pulis has known about the balancing act that he was going to have to perform with concerns to league and European games for so long, then why is the pattern still so prevalent? Also, while the seriousness with which he is taking the Europa League is admirable, particualrly compared to the disdain with which it was treated with by the likes of Martin O’Neill and Harry Redknapp in the past and present, why is preparing for Premier League fixtures not of paramount importance when compared to European ties?
It’s tempting to get carried away with Stoke. Often derided as little more than a long-ball side with little in the way of either guile or creativity, this season they are the second lowest scorers in the league with just one more than bottom-placed Wigan. Out of their 8 goals, just one has come from anything other than a set-piece. They are a side that straddles the fine line between contradiction and truth all too comfortably.
They were routinely patronised in the media by those that saw the way that Stoke ‘went about their business’ (to paraprhase them) as the ‘wrong way’ to play football – bafflingly attaching some sort of moral code and hierarchy to the contrasting styles of football that exist and flourish within the game.
With their run to Wembley and subsequent elevation to European football, this then led to a disproportionate re-evaluating of history. All of sudden, Stoke fans in the media were worming their way out of the woodwork and being effusive in their praise at worst; sickeningly mawkish at best.
I’ve always been an admirer of Stoke, Tony Pulis in particular, since the day I gave him directions to get to Brisbane Road on a wet Monday night to watch Leyton Orient play. He was clearly a man passionate about his football, dispelling the ‘Tony Clueless’ nickname that had hung around his neck like an albatross from his time at Bournemouth.
It had been talked about in many quarters this term, particularly after another exceptional performance against a top four club, this time coming against Man Utd on Sky, that they had the potential to make a real play for a
top six finish this season. But it would appear that with finishes of 12th, 11th and 13th to their name so far and points tallies of 45, 47 and 46 points respectively that a seismic shift in their fortunes is likely to take place at a more controlled pace.
When asked about the potential of a European hangover affecting their league form, Pulis was typically honest stating: “‘we have looked at the stats and it is a mental thing rather than a physical thing. Our running stats in the games at Swansea and Sunderland were very good, but we didn’t look as sharp as maybe we could have been.”
There have been those that have got carried away by Stoke’s ascent, myself included. Failing to attach perspective and context to a side struggling to come to terms with competing on four fronts for the first time is unfair to them. Their European adventure thus far has gone swimmingly well, with the team taking to Europe like a duck to water (apologies, couldn’t resist the pun), but the affect that it’s having on them back home is clear for all to see.
At the moment, they are on a rotten run of just one win in their last five, with four defeats. A run that has seen them concede 13 goals in the process, when they’d conceded just three in their first five league fixtures. What has been admirable about the way Stoke have gone about their business during their time in the Premier League so far has been their consistency – so far this season, their league form has been wildly erratic, with the blame laying squarely at the door of their European exertions.
Stoke have drawn admiring glances from promoted sides for being in possession of all too rare a commodity in the Premier League clubs these days – ambition. They have it in bundles and they’re trying to adapt their style of play, by pursuing players of a higher calibre while also maintaining their identity at the same time.
Stoke are often a club haunted by clichés and fawningly laboured praise; they are a mid-table side on the up, however, Pulis would do well to remember his priorities, otherwise Stoke could be in for a more difficult season than even their biggest detractors could have envisaged.
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