Given their poor league form of late, Stoke City could probably do without the stern test posed by the visit of Fulham tonight. The Potters have won just one of their last nine Premier League games.
The club’s winless streak continued during an admittedly tough run of matches over the Christmas period, with three consecutive defeats to Aston Villa, Manchester City and Birmingham. Although the team’s performances in these games arguably did not warrant a total of zero points from a possible nine, the Potteries club is desperate to avoid an uncomfortable slide towards a relegation battle. Stoke’s recent slump has shone a beacon on the squad’s deficiencies, and Tony Pulis will be hoping to clear out a significant number of fringe players to fund yet another assault on the transfer market during the January window. Most supporters are in agreement as to which departments require strengthening.
The key to Stoke’s season lies in central midfield. In spite of the £40m invested in the playing staff since promotion two seasons ago, and the number of midfielders accumulated in that time, the Potters still lack anyone in the middle of the park who can consistently pass a ball with any degree of accuracy. The midfield remains a barren wasteland, bereft of any guile or creativity. This will have to change if Stoke are to evolve from the route one style of play which no longer carries the same element of surprise exploited by the Potters last season as a newly promoted side. The introduction of a flair player into Stoke’s midfield could also allow for the harnessing of Tuncay’s talents up front, providing the Turk with the service he needs to bamboozle Premier League defences.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence thus far to suggest that Pulis is in the market for a creative central midfielder. The Welshman has yet to sign this type of player at any stage of the near seven-year period spanning his two spells in charge of the Potteries outfit. Former Stoke midfielders Dave Brammer and Dominic Matteo, both Pulis signings, have each claimed on local radio in recent months that the manager likes his central midfielders primarily to focus on sitting deep and assisting the defence while the wingers do the attacking. If one subscribes to the theory of such a Pulis-enforced midfield ‘cage’, as Brammer coined the system, would appear to argue against the imminent arrival of a flair player any time soon.
In the absence of any creative reinforcements heading to Trentham Lakes, most fans would settle for some dynamism in the middle of the park – a player who could keep the ball well and dictate the pace of a game. The Potters have been linked in the national and local media with a £9m bid for West Ham’s Scott Parker, who would appear to fit the bill nicely. However, for all the Upton Park club’s well-documented financial woes, one suspects that if Parker does depart, it will be to a bigger club than Stoke.
The right side of midfield should be another priority for the Potters. For reasons which remain a mystery, Liam Lawrence, so important to Stoke’s rapid rise over the past few seasons, has found himself out of favour this term, in spite of the fact that his replacements, Rory Delap and Dean Whitehead, offer far less attacking threat than the Retford-born adopted ‘Irishman’. Moreover, when suspensions have given Lawrence his chance to stake a claim, he has failed to take it, looking sluggish in his two recent outings. A right winger with some pace – a commodity in short supply in the Stoke team – is ideally what the Midlanders require.
Since the summer of 2008, Pulis has spent almost £10m searching for an upgrade on target man Mama Sidibe. However, almost 18 months later, the non-scoring Malian continues to feature heavily. The Potters’ boss has clearly given up on Dave Kitson and the club will listen to any and all offers for the flame-haired hitman. James Beattie is likely to follow him out of the Britannia Stadium following his poor form and much-publicised altercation with Pulis at the Emirates. Given the manager’s reluctance to persevere with the exciting Fuller-Tuncay partnership, a mobile target man who offers a greater goal threat than Sidibe is essential. Former Stoke loan star Kenwyne Jones has been heavily linked, but as with Parker and West Ham, one wonders why Sunderland would sell such a fans’ favourite and who they could realistically replace him with at such a crucial stage of the season. Stoke might be better served exploring the foreign market.
With the Stoke-On-Trent outfit just four points away from the Premier League relegation zone, their season, perhaps more than any other top flight club, hinges on what happens in January. Tony Pulis cannot afford to get his wheeling and dealing wrong this window.