Thomas Sorensen will return to Villa Park with current side, Stoke City, for only the second time on Saturday – hoping to exorcise his Aston Villa demons once and for all. Sorensen was sidelined and then released as a high-profile victim of the Martin O’Neill revolution in 2008. The Dane fell out with the Villa manager over O’Neill’s decision to replace him with on-loan Scott Carson, and the resentment between the two lingers on, with Sorensen telling The Guardian in April: “I haven’t shaken Martin O’Neill’s hand since I left and I don’t think I will again”. It seems incongruous that Denmark’s No. 1 (a man who is in the all time Premier League top ten for clean sheets recorded and at 32 just entering his prime as a goalkeeper) should wind up in the summer of 2008 at newly promoted and relegation tipped Stoke. That he did is testament to both Tony Pulis’ ability to sell the club to players, and just how far the Dane’s stock had fallen during his time at Villa.
Sorensen’s acrimonious exit from the Birmingham based club has been to Stoke’s enormous benefit although prone to the odd blunder, such as his role in Hull’s winner in early November. Sorensen has made the headlines recently for his tremendous record in saving penalties, stopping an astonishing three spot-kicks in his last four games for the Potters. The former Sunderland custodian has expressed his contentment with life in the Potteries, telling Danish newspaper Extrabladet in October: “I’ve never had a greater profit and a greater joy in playing football than I have now”.
While Stoke fans are rightly proud of their goalkeeper’s status as a penalty saving specialist, Sorensen’s saves from the spot have masked the rather worrying fact that Stoke are suddenly conceding penalties with an alarming frequency. A strong and well-organised defence has always been the strongest suit of Pulis’ Stoke teams during the combined seven years of his two spells at the helm. However, the number of penalties given away is symptomatic of a creeping defensive sloppiness.
Eight of Stoke’s impressive 13 clean sheets last season came after January, when Tony Pulis finally settled on a regular back four consisting of Andy Wilkinson, Abdoulaye Faye, Ryan Shawcross and Danny Higginbotham. However, the addition of £8m worth of defensive reinforcements in the close season in the form of Robert Huth and Danny Collins has arguably had the effect of breaking what did not need to be fixed. Stoke’s six clean sheets to date in 2009/10 do not tell the whole story. Pulis’ eagerness to shoehorn his new acquisitions into the team has made for a less confident back line. Huth, a left-footed centre-back, has been deployed, bizarrely, at right-back in place of the dramatically improved Wilkinson. The German has looked like a fish out of water in the role, but of even more concern are his performances in his preferred role in the heart of the Stoke defence, where his penchant for giving away cynical fouls in dangerous areas threatens to cost Stoke dearly.
Question marks also hover over the left-back slot. It seems that Danny Collins was signed to replace the competent Higginbotham at full back, but the Welshman, another central defender by trade, has also struggled. He was dropped for the recent league game against Wigan, and Assistant Manager Mark O’Connor’s assertion that the selection of the right-footed Wilkinson over Collins was designed to stop Wigan’s wingers suggests that the management team is losing faith in the ex-Sunderland man’s defensive capabilities.
Most worrying of all however, is the form of captain Abdoulaye Faye. An inspiration last season, Faye appeared sluggish this term and has been continually guilty of losing the man he is assigned to mark. Whether complacency or a lack of fitness is to blame, the Senegalese man-mountain is a pale imitation of the colossal figure who terrified Premier League attackers in 2008/09.
The Stoke back four will need to raise their game if they are to have any chance of preventing an in-form Aston Villa side from running riot on Saturday. With Huth suspended, Collins should earn a reprieve as Wilkinson reverts to right back. Elsewhere, Liam Lawrence, having recovered from illness, is competing with Rory Delap for the right wing berth. Should Tony Pulis opt to utilise Mama Sidibe’s height and strength as a battering ram in what is likely to be an ultra-cautious approach away from home, Ricardo Fuller is the striker most likely to make way after Tuncay’s man of the match display against Wigan.