Season Preview: Stoke City

by Kevin Coleman

It’s hard to believe nearly three years have passed since Stoke City returned to the top tier of English football and shocked all with their bang and bustle style of football; long punts forward, deep throws from Rory Slingshot Delap and hitting every opponent they faced with a savage barrage of set pieces, bringing them to a standstill.

Three years on and having secured their Premier League status for a fourth consecutive season, Tony Pulis’ men have well and truly established themselves as a top division club. It was a strange campaign for everyone in the mid-to-hi table bracket last year, especially for the Potters. Aside from getting all the way to the FA Cup final, Stoke won more games than six of the sides ahead of them in the table, however it was their failure to hang onto points which costed them most dearly in the long run – drawing half as many times as the sides above them, thus adding a lot more Ls to their record in comparison to their close opposition. A thirteenth place finish is not to be snuffed at though, and compounds the fact that Stoke haven’t been a Championship side that has been promoted, blasted through their first season in the Premier League before rapidly falling down in what is known as ‘second season syndrome’, before returning to the second division. Ipswich, Hull City and perhaps Reading are recent examples of this faith.

No, Stoke have gone about their work consistently, although never breaking above eleventh place, they have never dropped past a respectable thirteenth and as they’re about to begin their fourth season in the Premier League – Tony Pulis will have stuck a big red circle around that region in the table once again, as a target to meet come May.

Weirdly, last season Stoke had only dropped one point on the previous season’s 47-point finish, yet their cushion from safety fell from a rather comfy 17 points to sweat-inducing seven, meaning not until the penultimate game of the season could fans relax, safe in the knowledge that they had guaranteed themselves Premier League football for this season. Luckily they had, and one of the loudest stadiums in English football will be gracing our television screens once more this August.

Manager: Tony Pulis
Last Season: 13th
Odds: 2000/1
In: Jonathan Woodgate (Tottenham)
Out: Carl Dickinson (Watford, £500k), Abdoulaye Faye (West Ham, free), Eidur Gudjohnsen (AEK Athens, free), Ibrahima Sonko (Reading, free), Andrew Davies (Crystal Palace, loan), Matthew Lund (Oldham, loan), Zack Foster, Jack Harrison, Alexander Hedley, Cameron Mitchell, David Parton, Latom Wint (released)

Keys to the season

If Stoke could try and lose less, perhaps draw double the amount of games they did last season, they’ll be in a comfortable midtable position by the end of the season. Seriously though, Stoke’s form has been erratic and a trend seems to be growing that when they lose, they lose two or three in succession – suggesting that the side takes a little while to recover before unleashing hell for a few weeks. Their two best runs last season came off the backs of long losing streaks, including a five-game unbeaten run which included eleven goals having lost four in a row before that.

Another very noticeable trend in Stoke’s game is that when the won last year, it was often by a number of goals. Only five our of their thirteen victories were by a single goal, which may suggest that when push comes to shove in tightly fought games, Stoke tend to buckle and end up losing, or occasionally just tying the match. It’s precarious to say the least, Stoke will need to far more steely if they want to avoid getting sucked into the bottom five and a relegation battle right up until the final game of the season as happened last year.

The league outside of the top seven is getting much tighter and, as can be proved in last season’s final table, there are no safe cushions even as high as eleventh position. With the addition of three very strong sides from Championship, arguably three of the strongest collectively to be promoted in many a year, safety will be much more difficult than in previous seasons. If Stoke emulate last year’s lose-lose-win trend, they may not be as safe as they have been come May.

The Team

It isn’t really a squad that impresses at first glance, with names such as Glenn Whelan, Jon Walters and players who failed to impress elsewhere – Danny Pugh and Salif Diao – but as the cliché goes as a unit Stoke are well knitted together.

Boasting a sturdy defence with two very good goalkeepers to choose from in wily old Thomas Sorensen and young Bosnian stopper Asmir Begovic, Stoke have the foundations of a very strong team. Unfortunately there it tends to stop a little. In the wide positions Jermaine Pennant seems to have revived his career at Stoke, after a miserable spell at Liverpool and an even worse one in Spain, but whether or not he can continue his form which amassed six assists last season is another thing. On the other side Matty Etherington has been a beacon of consistency for Stoke over the years and continues to haul in a few assists and a handful of goals each season but saying that, he may not have much more left in the tank after a massive 40-game season for him. As well as hitting 30 this month, it could be a season where things begin to catch up on him.

Centrally is where guile and a little bit of creativity is replaced with work ethic and industry. Salif Diao is a hard working player, who will always put a shift in, but he’s far from the most comfortable of ball players and the same could be said for Rory Delap and Glenn Whelan, the Irish pair who often side together in the centre of the park. Collectively, and I don’t mean to sound harsh, it’s probably one of the worst central midfield selections in the Premier League over the last few years. I’m a big fan of Rory Delap and Glenn Whelan, and I can appreciated what the former offers for Stoke and have seen the effort Whelan puts in many a time for the Irish side, but at the end of the day they are very average football players.

The addition of Jonathan Woodgate is quite shrewd, but with Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth having built a strong partnership at centre-back, it’s hard to see him being anything more than backup going into the season.

Key Player

If Stoke can get the best out of Kenwyne Jones this season, they’ll be doing quite well. The tall Trinidad & Tobago forward has underperformed in the last couple of seasons but picked up nine league goals for them last year – and if he can knock on past the double figure range this season they shouldn’t find themselves in too difficult a situation by the end of the year. With his incredible aerial ability, they need to keep using their wide widemen to strong effect and keep pounding in those set pieces. Although opposition defences are becoming somewhat immune to the style of play they displayed in their first season a while back, sometimes once you pound at the door hard enough it’ll open up.

Fixtures

Chelsea (H), Norwich (A), West Brom (A), Liverpool (H), Sunderland (A)

It’s far from the easiest of starts for Tony Pulis’ side. Their opening two home games come against two top five sides while facing Norwich in their first home game back in the Premier League could be a potential banana skin. A tough trip to improving West Brom will be far from easy, nor will a trip up north to face Sunderland who have bought well this summer.

Realistically Stoke could be looking at three, maybe four points from their opening fives games if they can manage a draw at the Hawthorns or the Stadium of Light.

Where will they finish?

As mentioned earlier in this preview, Pulis will have marked out a high finish in the bottom half of the table as a target to meet and I can see them doing it once again, but it’ll be their toughest season yet give the strength of the sides around them and the potential of the clubs coming up from the Championship. I think they may falter a little bit along the way, but get enough to survive. Just. 14th

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