Stoke continue to dismay critics


Last season was the first time in Stoke’s premiership life where they failed to improve on the previous years efforts, a result which led to many starting to raise questions over whether this was the beginning of a slide for the Potters. Last year was always going to be a difficult season to tackle given that the year before they had reached their first ever cup final and it was always going to be unlikely that they would produce a season that could match that. The FA Cup win did of course bring the excitement of European football however Stoke like so many struggled to find the balance between Europe and league football meaning that results at home were poor. In general last season there was a feeling of stagnation around the club and this was compounded by a disappointing 14th place finish, their lowest since they made their premier league debut. So it was easy to see why the vibes around the clubs chances this time were downbeat, however on the evidence we have seen so far it would appear that last year was just a blip and the old Stoke are back.

The Potters currently sit 9th in the table with a run of 10 points from a possible 12 lifting them to just a point off 6th place. They started the season relatively slowly taking six games to register a win, although this was largely due to the tough early season fixtures they faced rather than poor form. Nevertheless their slow start only gave the doubters more ammunition to fuel their belief that the Stoke approach was no longer working and it was only a matter of time before they would soon be involved in relegation battles. Negative press though is something that the Potters and Tony Pulis are more than familiar with given that their physical and in your face method is often not welcomed by so called footballing purists but it was clear to see that this negativity was to have no effect as Stoke climbed to mid table safety, a position that their performances this season have more than deserved. The negative press image of Stoke’s style is like water of a ducks back to both the thick skinned Pulis and the club itself and you have to credit them for sticking to what they know will get them results, rather buckling under the media pressure.

Stoke’s good form this season has been based around making themselves difficult to beat, a facet that has typified Pulis’ team but one which went missing last season. The Potters have lost just 3 of 15 games this time out which is the same number as league leaders Manchester, compare that to the 15 they lost last term and the improvements are obvious. Initially they struggled to win games and there was a worry that for as tough as they were to get a positive result against they didn’t look like winning enough games to get themselves up the table, which is highlighted by the fact they drew their opening four games. Regaining this toughness though has eventually given Stoke the belief to go and pick up wins, with Pulis’ method of making his team rock solid and initially building success from the back being vindicated by a run of four wins in five. Defensively there has been vast improvements on last year with the Potters conceding just 12 goals thus far, a record which can only be bettered by champions Manchester City who have let in 11. Last term they shipped an alarming 53 goals, a high number for a side so reliant on a water tight backline. The personnel have not been changed much with Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross still the mainstays, it would just appear that the Potters have refocused and got back to basics this term and for that they are reaping rewards.

Another hugely significant factor behind this seasons improved performances is Stoke’s dealings in the summer transfer market. Pulis is generally a hugely underrated manager when it comes to transfers and not wasting money, for evidence of this you need look no further than the signing of Matthew Ethrington at the end of the January window back in Stoke’s first season in the top flight. Ethrington made possibly the biggest impact of any signing during that window as he played a huge part in keeping the Potters up. There have been countless other impressive signings who have all pushed Stoke on such as Huth, Jermaine Pennant and Jonathan Walters. This season though he was under real pressure to freshen up a squad that was starting to stagnate and show its age, whilst for the first time he needed something to show those Stoke fans who had started to be influenced by the negative national media coverage towards the club. The season before the Potters were generally quiet in the transfer windows which was surprising given they are normally one of the more active clubs, which could have been a contributing factor to their uninspiring season. It seemed though that they learnt from their mistakes with Pulis bringing in several players this term, the most notable being Charlie Adam, Steven Nzonzi, Michael Kightley and Glenn Cameron.

Adam was a real astute piece of a business, for this was a player who only 12 months ago was being touted as a good buy for over three quarters of the premiership given his influential displays for Blackpool. In the end he joined Liverpool a move which never quite worked out, the problem being that Adam is only at his best when he has a team working around him and at Liverpool he was never going to be afforded this luxury. Pulis saw a perfect opportunity to add something that Stoke have never had since the joined the Premier league, a genuine quality passer of the footballer. A player who could really improve the current squad and add a new dimension to their play, whilst his superb dead ball talents were another obvious reason to make the signing given Stoke’s threat from set pieces. The Scotsmen has taken his time to adapt to life at the Britannia but in recent weeks he has been a real driving force behind their success and already it looks a wonderful piece of business by Pulis. If Adam was an easy pick as a strong signing then Stephen Nzonzi and Michael Kightly were less obvious candidates. Two years ago Nzonzi was being talked about as a potential signing for Arsenal following a hugely successful season at Blackburn however like so many at Ewood he struggled to find any real form under Steve Kean and his star faded badly. Pulis though took a gamble on the Frenchman on deadline day and it already looks a stroke of genius, for we are already starting to see the energetic and determined performances that we saw of him at his peak at Blackburn. Nzonzi has added fresh legs and a greater passing ability to what was at times last year a tiring and largely workmanlike midfield. Kightly was snapped up quickly by Pulis which was surprising given that the more highly rated Matt Jarvis was still available at the time available, however the Welshman’s move for the Wolves man has been more than vindicated by Kightly producing several impressive performances and playing a role in a significant proportion of Stoke goals. At one point in his career Kightly was being touted as an England international candidate before he suffered a series of successive injuries, last season though he finally got back to fitness and there were signs of him returning to his best. Signs which were picked upon by Pulis and the result looks to be yet another astute signing.

Tony Pulis get a huge amount of undeserved stick but you cannot argue with the results that he and his team achieve or that they should not act as a perfect model for any club newly promoted to the Promised Land. So often Pulis is labelled as a one dimensional manager but with the exception of last year he has developed his side year on year making steady improvements in both their playing style and the personnel available. It’s easy to still label Stoke as a long ball side but if you were to compare the current team with the one that was promoted five years ago you would see significant differences, yes they are still a strong physical unit but the football they play now is much improved on what we first saw. The direct style of play is still there and with good reason given the success it has given them, however had you placed the likes of Adam and Nzonzi in that newly promoted side it is unlikely they would have had the same impact as they are currently enjoying. Prior to this campaign the doubters were out given that last year was disappointing compared to previous efforts, which only shows just how far Stoke have come over the past five years. This season though looks to be a return to success for the Potters and to the dismay of the critics their star looks set to continue to shine bright for the foreseeable future.

Matt Carter