Stoke City have emerged from the Championship under Tony Pulis and established themselves as a decent Premier League outfit. Their style is dependent on hold up play from the front men and an unusual specialist; throw in taker Rory Delap. Stoke’s no-frills approach has led to many detractors but their determination to bypass midfield passing play has been effective so is it worth condemning them or the teams who fail to beat them?
If styles make matches then the exemplar of the Premier League would be Arsenal VS Stoke City. Arsenal hinge their play on short passes whilst Stoke’s primary option is a long ball up to big target men. Even a cursory glance at the stats from February’s match shows the difference in prerogative from both teams: Stoke completed 116 passes whilst Arsenal completed 340, Stoke’s left winger on the day (Danny Pugh) completed just 5 passes (3 of which were backwards) whilst Arsenal’s left side (Samir Nasri) completed 37 passes, and finally Stoke’s holding midfielder (Abdoulaye Faye) completed just 5 passes whilst Alex Song completed 41. These stats only strengthen the obvious: one team places a greater emphasis on possession leading to chances whereas the other relies heavily on long balls from defence to attack, missing out central midfielders.
More interesting than these stats substantiating the obvious is the utilisation of Rory Delap. His inclusion and output elucidates a point of causation: Pulis has supplemented his tactical choice with a specialist. Looking at a five game stretch between mid May and April Delap completed 67 passes and took 86 throw ins. Some people may think this is a slightly misleading statistic in so far as Stoke’s style causes more balls to be knocked out of play and every single throw in from the halfway line or farther is taken by Delap. But this should not mask the fact that Delap is a throw in specialist before he is a midfielder. In terms of intention I believe it is an indictment on the club’s current style to have a player in midfield that passes less than he takes throws but its effectiveness cannot be discounted.
This is symptomatic of Stoke’s general style of play; often the full back or central defender (or goalkeeper) gets the ball and hits it long towards the target man (either Sidibe or Kitson) who then plays it to Ricardo Fuller. A variation is that play goes out to the wings from the defence (either to Etherington, who beats his man and gets a cross in, or to Lawrence – when he plays – who looks to cross and provides some threat from distance shots). Either method (long ball or wing play) lessens the involvement of central midfielders, which generally means Delap plus one other are completely bypassed. This goes some way in mitigating the above stats; it is an intentional ploy probably more to do with current personnel than pre-thought ideals. At least I hope it’s not an ideal.
Any manager’s primary objective is victory, especially where newly promoted teams are concerned. Pulis has implemented a highly direct style that is proving a difficult task for many Premier League sides to overcome. What’s more reassuring from a tactical point of view is that Pulis is attempting to add some creativity to his central midfield (purchasing Uruguayan Diego Arismendi last year is a positive move) and is reportedly looking for one more player in the same position.