With two upcoming televised games against big four opposition, the red and white parts of Stoke-On-Trent are hoping Tony Pulis will hold his nerve. Despite the stiff challenge posed by the illustrious visitors to the Britannia Stadium over the next fortnight, with Arsenal in the FA Cup following Saturday’s league game against Liverpool, Stoke know that at their strident home ground they are a match for anybody. The burning question is: does Tony Pulis share this belief?
Despite investing heavily and strengthening the squad during the close season, the teams and tactics selected by the Welshman have been markedly more cautious this term. In 2008/09, with the loudest fans in the Premier League creating a cauldron of noise to spur the team on, the Potters, while never overly adventurous, at least sought to take the game to teams at the Britannia. The Stoke City of 2009/10 however, have often seemed to allow their will to win to be smothered by a fear of losing. Never has this been clearer than in the manner in which Pulis has set up his teams to play against the Premier League’s top teams.
The four points dropped by Liverpool in their two games against Stoke last season cost them a shot at the title. During the home game against the Reds last January, Rafa Benitez’s men were fortunate to escape with a draw. Yet when the two sides met in September this term there was no sign of the battling spirit previously shown by Stoke. Against a vulnerable Liverpool side fielding inexperienced defenders such as Emiliano Insua and Daniel Ayala, Pulis waved a white flag. Creative players such as Ricardo Fuller and Liam Lawrence were ‘rested’, and the Potters’ lack of ambition was epitomised by the selection of the limited but willing workhorse Richard Cresswell, who was selected on the left-wing as part of a five-man midfield. The result was a tame 4-0 surrender to the Reds.
The following month, when Chelsea visited the Britannia Stadium, the Stoke manager opted to play three centre-backs in a back-five and deployed an ultra defensive-minded four-man midfield. The plan seemed to be a masterstroke when Faye headed Stoke in front, but there was a degree of inevitability surrounding Florent Malouda’s injury time winner. Given the Midlanders’ home record and the advantages they have exploited to develop it – the narrow dimensions of the pitch and the ferocity of the crowd – was there really any need to approach the game with such timidity?
The Potters’ refusal to even attempt to attack a Manchester United team recently humbled by Burnley on September 26, the game was profoundly disappointing for Stoke supporters and neutrals alike. The previous season’s Boxing Day fixture saw Stoke match the recently-crowned European champions for 83 minutes before a late Carlos Tevez goal sealed it for United. Stoke had their chances, battling for every ball and throwing themselves into every challenge with such vigour that Sir Alex Ferguson would later identify his team’s win as the most important of their title-retaining season. However, the Potters’ display in the corresponding fixture this term was a million miles away from their Herculean efforts last December. Yet again the manager’s team selection made it clear that damage limitation was the order of the day and the 5-4-1 formation, again shorn of the invention of Ricardo Fuller, Liam Lawrence or Tuncay Sanli, barely produced a shot on goal in a limp 2-0 defeat.
Obviously, it would be foolish to suggest that Stoke ought to be winning these games against the illustrious quartet or even European chasers such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, given the gulf in resources between these clubs and the Potteries outfit. Nevertheless, what is disconcerting for Stoke fans is the backwards step taken in approaching these games. Last season, using their meticulously well-organised 4-4-1-1 system at home, Tony Pulis’ men beat Arsenal and drew with Liverpool, while not disgracing themselves against Manchester United and Chelsea. Why then, has the management team decided to ditch the tried and trusted formation for games against the same opposition in favour of a dramatically more negative approach? Given the extra £25m invested in the team since this time last year, shouldn’t Stoke be better equipped to take on the big boys, rather than suddenly running scared? The frustrating issue for the Boothen End faithful is that there seems to be no obvious explanation for this sudden change of heart.
A strong showing from the Potters in these next two games, even in defeat, would at least maintain some degree of momentum after their improved showing against Fulham last week. Rather than worrying about Liverpool and Arsenal, perhaps it’s time that Tony Pulis let the big guns worry about Stoke City for a change.