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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Should Stoke Abandon Plan B and Return to Route One? by Adam Howard

by Adam Howard for World Football Commentaries

20th February 1972:  Gordon Banks, the Stoke City goalkeeper gives instructions to his team mates.  (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Stoke City and England legend, Gordon Banks.

Everton’s 1-0 victory at home to Stoke City was no classic yesterday, but as an Evertonian I am delighted we’ve come away with three points against a Stoke side who are very difficult to beat – we drew both fixtures against them last season – and who are very slowly starting to move away from their much bemoaned route-one tactics that have served them so well in their past two seasons since promotion.

However, Stoke have started quite slowly this season, despite a fair bit of transfer activity in the summer when they spent at least £15m on Kenwyne Jones, Marc Wilson and Jon Walters as well as bringing in Jermaine Pennant and Eidur Gudjohnsen. For a team that took two comfortable mid-table finishes (12th and 11th respectively) in their two Premier League campaigns to date, putting quality players into their soccer jerseys should give them a springboard to greater things.

Stoke City v Manchester United , Premier League 24/10/2010  Nani of Manchester United in action with Ryan Shawcross of Stoke Photo Marc Atkins Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

Ryan Shawcross of Stoke against Nani of Manchester United.

In the past, Stoke have been a side that it has been very difficult to break down, both home and away, and thus a team that have been very difficult to beat. They frustrate teams who may have more talented squads than they do, and it has worked really well for them. They certainly haven’t played the nicest football, but football is first and foremost a results business and their aforementioned mid-table finishes speak for themselves.

But with consistency comes greater expectation and I knew it would only be a matter of time before Tony Pulis had to try to improve the way that his team played. His route-one, physical tactics have worked well for him, but with consistent Premier League football, the fans begin to expect prettier football too. And Pulis is trying to bring that to the Britannia stadium.

Stoke City v Manchester United , Premier League 24/10/2010 A general view of the Britannia Stadium ticket office, home to Stoke City FC Photo Marc Atkins Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

In Matthew Etherington, they already had a winger who was capable of producing magic and Jermaine Pennant is a player brought in to do similarly on the other flank. Eidur Gudjohnsen is also a very intelligent player who has an elegant touch and will make things happen, in a similar vein to Sanli Tuncay who again, was already on their books. In short, Pulis has a side there that has the potential to play some really good stuff.

But I think that their increased ambition is undermining the solidarity that has been the basis of their success, relatively speaking, in the Premier League thus far. While I completely understand the desire to ‘improve’ the quality of the football that they play, changing a winning formula is always a risky business. Because although he has been much criticised for the tactics he’s employed in the past, Pulis will be quickly blamed if his attempts to improve it go awry.

And it looks as though they may be doing just that. The recent match against Everton saw Stoke come up against a team in form – the Toffees are now unbeaten in five league games – but struggling to put the ball in the net. With their famously dour defence, Stoke should have fancied their chances of keeping a clean sheet and maybe being able to snatch a win if they could get through Everton’s similarly obdurate backline.

Britannia Stadium Stoke City v Blackburn Rovers (1-0) Premier League 02/10/2010 Stoke manager Tony Pulis Photo: Roger Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

Stoke City boss, Tony Pulis.

As it turned out though, a pretty dire first half gave way to a lively second and while Everton had arguably the best of the game, Stoke were giving it a go. Indeed, minutes before Yakubu broke his long goal drought and the deadlock, Stoke had had a goal ruled out for a foul on Leighton Baines in the build up, and they were probably in the ascendancy at the point.

As ever though, increased ambition going forwards means sacrificing a little solidarity at the back and Everton pounced. Just as Stoke looked to be making a play for all three points after seeing out the first hour or so, Everton recognised that there was a chance to take advantage at the other end and Yakubu duly took it after good work from Cahill in the run up.

As a pretty vocal critic of some of Stoke’s football over the past few seasons, I find myself a little surprised here to be suggesting that Pulis may want to be a bit careful about how ambitious he wants to be. I have hated to watch Stoke play over the last two seasons, but I’ve always admitted that it is a very effective way to play football, and at the end of the day the fans go home happy if they’ve seen a victory – no matter what sort of football their side has played.

Indeed, for much of Everton’s start to the season, David Moyes’ men were crying out for a bit of straightforward, route-one stuff that would have frightened the opposition defenders and got the ball in the net. The Toffees started very slowly indeed, but were playing really quite nice football throughout, especially in defeats to Blackburn and Aston Villa where we really bossed the game possession wise but simply could not convert.

Britannia Stadium Stoke City v Blackburn Rovers (1-0) Premier League 02/10/2010 Jonathan Walters (Stoke) Photo: Roger Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

Jonathan Walters of Stoke City.

While I love to see the likes of Arteta and Pienaar and Baines combining in lovely flowing moves, at that point, when we were sitting bottom of the table after a few matches, I would have been quite happy to bring back the 90’s Everton tactics of lumping it forward and bustling the ball in the net. Thankfully, it hasn’t come to that, with our dominance starting to turn into a cutting edge, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing some route-one stuff to turn things around.

And I think there may be some Stoke fans wondering if they might not be better going back to their much maligned but obviously effective strategies of the past two seasons. While Pulis must certainly be praised for trying to improve the aesthetic nature of their football, it must not be a change made at the sacrifice of good results.

Of course, some people will read this article and say “Whoa there a minute Adam, aren’t West Brom and Blackpool taking the league by storm playing good football?!” And they’d be correct. Currently, Blackpool and West Brom are taking games to the opposition, and a lot of teams are failing to live with their admirable drive and ambition. But I would be wary of declaring those sides just yet.

Only a few seasons ago Hull City were flying high after 10 or so matches of their first Premier League season, and yet come the final day of that campaign, Phil Brown was treating the KC Stadium to an ill-advised sing-along after their narrow escape from relegation. And only last season, Burnley came out of the traps apace and played some great football on the way to beating Man Utd and Everton early doors, but where are they this season?

The simple fact is that the likes of Blackpool and West Brom will need to be able to resort to some Stoke style tactics before too long. When the other teams, who do have largely a better calibre of player than the promoted sides, work out how to play against them and manage to shake off the latent complacency that comes with facing a promoted side, they will stutter.

And when that happens, they will need to be able to close ranks like Stoke have done over the past two seasons, to frustrate and infuriate bigger and better teams. Being able to defend so stoutly and attack with such vigour is a talent in football and a very useful one at that.

I wonder if Tony Pulis will realise that before his side are dragged down into a relegation scrap this season, or if he will continue to try and change his team for the better while making them worse.

About the Author

Adam Howard
is the founder of They Think It’s All Over…

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