Saturday’s pulsating 2-2 draw with Wigan Athletic at the Britannia Stadium provided numerous talking points – not least the small matter of a 60 yard wonder goal. From Stoke City’s perspective however, far and away the most significant development was the inclusion of Tuncay Sanli alongside Ricardo Fuller in attack.
Tony Pulis sprung a surprise by opting to partner the Turk alongside the Jamaican, having previously asserted that he felt the two forwards were too similar to play together. In the aftermath of the James Beattie saga however, the Potters’ boss had little alternative, given injuries to both Beattie and Mama Sidibe.
One could easily understand Pulis’ scepticism regarding a possible Fuller/Tuncay partnership. The Welshman, during both of his spells at the helm has always played with a traditional “target man” alongside a smaller, faster striker, and neither Fuller nor Sanli are likely to be confused with Emile Heskey in terms of physical presence. The early season form of Dave Kitson had suggested that Stoke were prepared to evolve their style of play and move away from their slavish dedication to direct football. Kitson, while strong in the air, is a more nuanced link player than either Sidibe or Beattie, and with him in the side, the Potters were more inclined to keep the ball on the ground. However, Kitson’s departure to Teesside, coupled with the indecent haste with which Sidibe was rushed back from a serious knee injury sustained last March, hinted that Pulis was planning to revert to his tried and trusted methods. Indeed, in many ways the acquisition of Tuncay in August seemed a bizarre one on Stoke’s part, as it was hard to fathom where a playmaker of the Turk’s stature would fit into the Potter’s rigid system. At Middlesbrough Sanli was most effective playing just behind an out and out striker. However, in Stoke’s 4-4-1-1 formation, the player operating in “the hole” is the target man – the one relied on to win the aerial duals and flick the ball on. Tuncay appears too slight and small for such a role, and his early cameos from the bench bore the hallmarks of a footballer looking lost and unsure of what was expected of him.
With Fuller’s mercurial talent rendering him nigh on ungraspable, it was therefore imperative that Tuncay, on finally receiving his opportunity, should present a strong case for his long-term selection, and nobody who witnessed his display against Wigan could dispute that he passed his audition. The issue of dealing with the long ball was dealt with cleverly, with Fuller, the stronger, taller of the two, dropping back to flick the ball on while Sanli pushed forward from his deeper role. This must now be Stoke’s long-term front pairing. Creating chances has proven a real problem for a team high on work rate but bereft of creativity and invention – yet the interaction of Fuller, Tuncay and Etherington produced a veritable hatful of chances by the Midlands club’s standards.
If the partnership is to flourish however, the service from midfield has to improve, and this must lead to changes in personnel in the middle of the park. Salif Diao has re-established himself as one of Stoke’s “untouchables”, and has played an important role in alleviating the pressure on the team away from home with his tough tackling. However, a deep-lying, screening defensive midfielder is not necessary at home in a 4-4-1-1 formation. A central midfielder with more guile and attacking verve is required to get the ball into the strikers’ feet and provide an alternative to the long punt up field. Until the transfer window reopens, Glenn Whelan is the closest in the current squad to this type of player, and it should be he, rather than Diao, who starts games in midfield at the Britannia Stadium. Similarly, Rory Delap offers very little on the right side of midfield, his once-mighty long throws having long since diminished in their potency. Some genuine competition for Liam Lawrence should be a priority come January – preferably a player with that vital commodity – pace – of which there is a dearth throughout the Stoke side- aside from Fuller and Etherington.
A difficult trip to Villa Park on Saturday could prove too tempting for a naturally cautious manager such as Tony Pulis to restore Sidibe to the side for his height and defensive capabilities. This writer hopes, however, that the Stoke boss holds his nerve and unleashes the Turkish-Jamaican connection on the Potter’s fellow Midlanders this weekend.