Stoke City: why the outright praise?

by Brett Curtis

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 seven 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.

9 Responses

  1. Mark Beegan Mark Beegan says:

    Great article really enjoyed it

  2. Hopeful Stokie says:

    You make some fair points. Pulis’s transfer record, particularly the income from players sold, is definitely a low point of his managership, and something he and the club need to work on.

    Most stoke fans will tell you that the way the team play can be incredibly frustrating to watch. The lack of composure on the ball and the number of times possession is needlessly conceded can be infuriating.

    However this season, with the introduction of Nzonzi and Adam, I believe we are beginning to see a slow progression away from the “hoof it upfield” mentality towards a slightly more composed attacking style. I think the performance in the first half against liverpool and particularly the Chelsea game are evidence of that. I do get the feeling though that this attempt at evolving the team’s style of play may have been in response to pressure from both the chairman and the fans, which would be a cause for concern.

  3. Stick to history and wearing shit jumpers because that’s a few minutes of my life I’m never getting back..

  4. Kevin Askey says:

    A fair assessment of our progress(!) over the last five years. This year will indeed be key and I believe that tangible improvements are required in our playing style in order for Pulis to keep the majority of fans onside – the natives are getting restless!!
    Keep up the (well balanced) good work.

  5. Brett Curtis Brett says:

    Thanks for the (mostly) positive feedback guys, nice to see that the majority (in this case 2 out of 3!) of Stoke fans can take (balanced) criticism of their team on the chin.

  6. Lee from Stoke says:

    I have read several articles over the weekend about Stoke and their current set of statistics with regards passes and possession. Why has nobody in these articles mentioned the fact that we have played Reading away ( first game back in the Prem), Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool.

    We would never have the majority of possession in these games and if you’ve not got the ball, how can you pass it. We are a team that Is evolving. I have been a season ticket holder for over 10 years and have been one of Pulis’s biggest detractors but I can see that we have improved and I am
    Confident that we will finish in the top 10 this year.

    Time will tell but I’m happier this year than I have been since our first year in the Prem

  7. Peter says:

    Like Lee says we have had a really tough start to the season so the stats are always going to look bad at this stage. As for the spending, it had to be done be have stripped what once was a mid table Championship team into a strong Prem squad in five years. Obviously your not going to have any great players to sell because we are not a selling club hopefully our more valuable players are still in the squad! Look at it this way we went from a squad worth around £4M spent £83M that money is not lost it is in the squad and a squad that is keeping Stoke in the Prem which enables the funds to carry on the progression.

  8. Brett Curtis Brett says:

    Very good point that, Lee. A definite oversight on my part. I’m sure you will start to improve now – in a way, that’s kind of the point; this season could be make or break in some ways. I actually want to see Stoke start to play better football, and rise up the table. I think your fans, for one, certainly deserve that.

  9. squirrl says:

    The additions of Adam and Nzonzi have provided balance in midfield. Unfortunately, the full backs have very little positional sense and playing Walters up front, when Michael Owen is available, is pure nonsense.

    Pulis needs to understand the way that others in the top half of the premiership play and apply some of the lessons if he wants the team to finish in the top ten. At the moment, he is not putting together a viable option and gives the impression that he cannot see how to move on from long balls and set pieces.

    Skill and the development of skills in young players is the answer. There are teams in the Championship that are better to watch and look more capable of Premiership success than Stoke. It can go on only until there are an insufficient number of less-skilled teams to move down a league.

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