Stoke City: why the outright praise?

There it was again. Another Stoke City draw, and more praise from a MOTD pundit, this time Mark Lawrenson. Last week it was Alan Hansen, who basically said the biggest positive you can give Stoke is that they won’t go down. It’s difficult to disagree, particularly amid the late signings of Charlie Adam and Steven Nzonzi to bolster a previously weak central midfield.

But is survival really enough now? Stoke are currently in their 5th season back in the top flight of English football under Tony Pulis. They have finished 12th, 11th, 13th and 14th – always attaining at least 45 points, but equally no higher than 47 points. Throw in an FA Cup final and a Europa League appearance last season and, on the face of things, it looks like Tony Pulis is working miracles.

And that is what Lawrenson and Hansen would have you believe. Until you look deeper. For a start, relative domestic cup success is fine, but it is no longer evident of genuine progression at a football club; Kenny Dalglish and Alex McLeish will testify this, after both being sacked despite actually winning one.

Last season, Stoke finished on the same amount of points as they did in their debut season in 2008/09, and two places lower, despite spending close to a net total of £50m since. Indeed, over the last five seasons, Stoke have spent £83m gross and, on average, £15m net per season, placing them 3rd in a net spend table – behind only Manchester City and Chelsea. 

Clearly, that is a remarkable figure; and the lack of progress in terms of league placing and points gained since promotion should place Pulis’ “miracle workings” under more scrutiny. For every Ryan Shawcross, there has been a Jonathan Woodgate; for every Matty Etherington, there has been a Wilson Palacios; for every Peter Crouch, there has been a Kenwyne Jones.

But perhaps the most unforgivable nature of Pulis’ record in the transfer market is his apparent inability to recoup transfer fees on players that are either no longer required or, far more rarely, outgrown the club. In five seasons, Stoke have received a remarkably low figure of £8m in transfer fees, despite signing 35 players and breaking their record transfer fee six times. In terms of gross spend, rather than net spend, they actually only rank ninth; yet have still spent £36m more than Wigan, a side that has also managed to survive relegation despite smaller resources and less continuity.

There is also the small matter of Stoke’s playing style. Now, I should note that I do not particularly believe in a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to play football, but even an ardent Stoke fan would admit they can be difficult to watch. The days of relying on Rory Delap’s brilliantly unique long throw may be over; the long balls, physical dominance and defensive full-backs, however, firmly remain.

This season, Stoke have had the lowest average possession in the league (37%), whilst also completing the fewest percentage of passes (69%). They have scored the fewest goals from open play (two) and completed the fewest amount of dribbles per game (2.7). Stats should never be used in isolation; when combined with watching matches, however, it becomes clear that Stoke are technically lacking and the worst passing side in the league – at a time when the emphasis on passing a football to feet has never been more popular.

Indeed, 19% of their attempted passes are considered ‘long balls’, with their players winning more aerial duels per game than any other side (25.7). Clearly, it is a tactic that is ugly but effective – with Peter Crouch a familiar focal point – as once again they sit in a lower mid-table position (12th) with slightly over a point a game. From 7 league matches so far, they have only won one and scored six; but equally they have only lost one and conceded five. 

And in a way that sums it all up. For every justifiable criticism one can make of Stoke City and Tony Pulis, there is always a response to counteract it. No one can take away his numerous undoubted achievements: Stoke’s first ever FA Cup final trip, their first appearance in Europe since 1975, or managing to make Jonathan Walters a respectable Premiership footballer. But, particularly with no European distractions this time around, this was the season Stoke should have been looking to finally secure themselves as a top-half club; rather than perceive avoiding relegation as ‘enough’.

Tony Pulis has made Stoke notoriously hard to beat and, as Alan Hansen pointed out, they likely won’t get relegated. But, after five years of consistent spending and little evolution on the pitch in return, that isn’t enough to warrant outright praise.

Brett Curtis