To call Stoke’s performances this season “inconsistent” would be like describing Usain Bolt as “a bit nippy.” It seems that every encouraging display is followed by a disappointing one.
One of the root causes of the Potters’ Jekyll and Hyde form has been Tony Pulis’ staunch refusal to field a settled midfield. This “horses for courses” approach has yielded mixed results. The Potteries outfit have picked up more points away from home than at this stage last season, but the Britannia Stadium’s reputation as an intimidating fortress has been tarnished by several mediocre home showings. However, the role played by the midfield quartet in the club’s convincing defeat of Blackburn at the weekend suggests that a solution may have been found.
As the Potters finished their maiden Premier League season on a high, the midfield virtually picked itself. Promotion hero Liam Lawrence and new arrival Matthew Etherington occupied the flanks while Rory Delap’s experience anchored the midfield, allowing Glenn Whelan to get forward. Although defensive responsibilities will always feature highly in the priorities of a Tony Pulis midfield, at home Stoke feared nobody and were prepared to take the game to their opponents. During the close season, supporters eagerly anticipated the injection of some creativity into the central midfield positions, and a playmaker was widely seen as the missing piece of the jigsaw in the Potters’ evolution into a multi-dimensional, bona fide Premier League side. Instead however, the Stoke manager spent around £8m on adding yet more graft in the form of Dean Whitehead and Diego Arismendi.
Even more concerning was that Pulis appeared to have bought wholesale into the concept of Second Season Syndrome, and decided that caution was the watchword for the 2009/10 campaign. Out went the attacking instincts of Lawrence and Whelan, while Delap was shoehorned into an uncomfortable and ineffective right-wing role. It was frustrating for Stoke fans to watch two defensive midfielders sitting deep in a midfield “cage” which seemingly forbade them from crossing the halfway line. Stoke surrendered possession and the initiative to their opponents, seeking instead to sneak a goal on the counter-attack – even in winnable home games against the likes of Portsmouth, Wigan and Wolves. It seemed a depressing, retrograde step after two seasons of dramatic progress, and no explanation was forthcoming from the management team for the change in approach.
The various merits and problems inherent in Pulis’ midfield “cage” have been embodied by Salif Diao. Having been limited to the occasional cameo over the past two years due to problems with form and fitness, Diao returned from limbo to the starting line up when Stoke travelled to Goodison Park in October. The Senegal midfielder’s performance that day, and equally effective displays at Tottenham and Aston Villa suggested that Diao’s tough tackling qualities could still be well-harnessed in absorbing pressure against the big guns away from home. The problem was that Pulis has played him at home as well. The Welshman has made no secret in the past that he considers the ex-Liverpool man the best midfielder at the club, but on the narrow playing surface of the Britannia, a deep-lying, screening destroyer is not the type of player that Stoke need. Diao’s presence in the team sapped Stoke of any verve or dynamism in the middle, and the Potters struggled to create scoring opportunities – in fact no Premier League team has fashioned fewer chances this term.
There have been signs in recent weeks however that the Stoke manager has realised the need to dispense with both Diao and the cage. Although the Senegalese midfielder was used to painfully dull effect at Sunderland last Monday night, the Welshman dropped him for the last two home games, against Arsenal and Blackburn, and was duly rewarded with six goals and Stoke’s most enterprising football since promotion. If Dean Whitehead was initially part of the problem, he is now showing himself to be part of the solution. The former Sunderland captain turned in a string of anonymous performances as he struggled to adapt to Stoke’s rigid system following his arrival in the Potteries. However, since being given licence to roam, Whitehead has grown increasingly influential, and his energy and tenacious ball winning have seen him develop into the heartbeat of the Stoke midfield.
Against Blackburn, the restoration of Lawrence to the right wing gave Pulis’ side a far more balanced look. The Irish international removed some of the groaning pressure from Matthew Etherington’s shoulders by providing an attacking threat on the opposite flank. The Potters’ third goal saw the two wingers combine with some intricate passing before the superlative Etherington twisted and turned and casually curled his shot beyond Paul Robinson. It was a goal worthy of gracing any game and a slap in the face for those detractors who dismiss Stoke as peddlers of “anti-football.” If Tony Pulis can keep the faith with this midfield, there might be even richer rewards to follow.