The manner in which Tony Pulis’ Stoke have established themselves in the Premier League hasn’t been to everybody’s taste, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be lauded for what is undoubtedly an impressive achievement. After his reappointment in 2006, Pulis and Stoke earned automatic promotion to England’s top flight on the final day of the 2007/08 season.
Despite initially being favourites for relegation the following season, Stoke surprised many in the first year back at the top. Victories against Arsenal, Aston Villa, Spurs and Man City would be indicative of the force that Stoke would come to represent – not necessarily feared but always respected.
Pulis’ finest achievement would come in the 2010/11 season as he guided Stoke to a place in the Europa League, courtesy of their place in that season’s FA Cup final (Man City, the winners, had already qualified for the Champions League).
In order to facilitate their European ambitions they signed, among others, Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios, Jonathan Woodgate, and Matthew Upson. In fact Stoke’s current squad boasts a selection of players who have played for some of the top teams in English football including: Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool and Tottenham.
Stoke’s ambition should not be doubted. Over the last five years Stoke have spent over £68m on transfers despite having only sold players to the effect f £8m over the same period. The only teams to have a higher net spend during this time were Chelsea and Manchester City.
However, having made such investments are Stoke in serious danger of regressing next season? Last season Stoke finished 14th with 45 points. – their lowest position and points tally since they rejoined the Premier League.
Clearly the burden of European football will have affected their performances yet this is also the strongest squad Stoke have had in decades. Stoke may have established themselves in the league, and may have clawed their way up to European football but as many a Premier League manager will testify: establishing yourself as a European club is considerably harder than doing it on a domestic level.
Without a change in direction for next season Stoke’s hopes of continuing to rise through the table could be severely hampered. Regardless of the extra games they had to play, Stoke were a far less effective side than they had been in previous seasons. They conceded more goals than in the previous two seasons and their record at The Britannia was also considerably worse than the two previous years.
Stoke may be in possession of players with a higher level of technical ability but until Pulis manages to use them with the same level of efficiency that he did with his previous, more rugged, players Stoke will continue to struggle.
After such a defined, effective strategy of physical football have sacrificed tried and tested tactics in search of club progression. A season in to this semi-transformation and the club has regressed domestically.
Next season could be pivotal, established Premier League sides can always go down, just ask Leeds, Newcastle of West Ham, and money doesn’t buy security.
Moreover, having already spent considerable sums of money it seems unlikely that Peter Coates would be willing to invest similar funds again.
In Pulis Stoke have an astute manager who has proven his worth both tactically and in the transfer market but another season like 2011/12 and Stoke could find themselves fearing relegation once more. They’ve come a long way since 2008 but if things don’t change at The Britannia it could be a short journey back to where they came from.