Stoke City only really came to life during the second half of Tuesday’s draw with Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium. Shambolic in the opening 45 minutes, the Potters dominated the latter period, showing an attacking verve untypical of away performances during the Tony Pulis era. Ultimately, the Midlanders were unlucky not to emerge with more than Tuncay’s 74th minute equaliser for their troubles. On paper, it was a more ambitious team selection from the Welshman than anticipated, containing only one real controversy – right winger Liam Lawrence once again found himself relegated to the bench following his best game of the season in the home drubbing of Blackburn.
Amidst all the transfer window speculation surrounding the goalkeeping and striking positions, the yawning chasm that has developed on Stoke’s right flank has gone largely unnoticed. The team has lacked a consistent menace on the right for some time, to mirror the impact of the marauding Matthew Etherington on the left. The position did not seem problematic in August. Liam Lawrence’s return from injury in the latter half of last season coincided with a marked upturn in the Potters’ fortunes. Lawrence – the 15 goal star of Stoke’s 2007/08 promotion success – offered the work ethic and defensive awareness so beloved by Pulis, but also possessed clever attacking instincts and expert dead ball delivery. Having recaptured his starting place, he scored crucial goals against Blackburn and Hull to help preserve the Potters’ Premier League status.
However, it seems that the Irish international has never been entirely forgiven by his club manager for injuring himself by allegedly falling over his dog last October – an act of clumsiness which kept him out of the team for four months – and this season the Retford-born midfielder has found himself out of the team. Nevertheless, Lawrence has not always helped himself on the occasions when Pulis has given him his chance, turning in a series of lacklustre displays.
The Welshman’s decision to experiment with other options on the right wing has exposed the dearth of viable alternatives to the former Mansfield star. Rory Delap has proven an important anchor in the heart of the Stoke midfield, but when confined to a wide right position his inability to provide any attacking threat upsets the balance of the midfield. Nearly 34, Delap lacks the energy of yesteryear, and even his much vaunted throw has lost much of its efficacy – especially away from home, without the advantages of a smaller pitch or the notorious towel.
Dean Whitehead was deployed on the right side of midfield against Wigan, and while he exhibits greater mobility and a desire to join the attacking play, it is clearly not the former Sunderland skipper’s favourite position. Moreover, robbed of Whitehead’s commanding dynamism in central midfield, Stoke were at sixes and sevens in the middle of the park against the Latics. It was not until a reshuffle restored him to the centre that Stoke’s fight back was able to begin in earnest.
A late challenge for the right wing spot was made on Tuesday night by Tuncay Sanli. The tactical rejig which moved Whitehead back into central midfield also saw the Turk shifted out to the right to accommodate Ricardo Fuller. Tuncay has been deployed on either flank for the Turkish national side and was also similarly utilised during his Middlesbrough days. Tuncay’s repositioning on the flank saw Stoke play their best football of the night as he and Etherington constantly switched wings to torment the Wigan defence, eventually combining perfectly for the Potters’ equalizer. The Midlanders’ set up seemed far more balanced with the Turk playing in a wide midfield position, but Pulis thus far has been reluctant to give him a run of games in this territory.
With the right wing situation still unresolved, there are huge question marks over the respective futures of Delap and Lawrence. The ageing long throw specialist surely cannot have many seasons of top flight football left in him, while Lawrence’s frustration at a lack of first team opportunities and his tendency to deliver only sporadically when he receives them, suggest that his destiny ultimately lies away from the Potteries. As far as replacements are concerned, a loan move for cash-strapped Zaragoza’s Jermaine Pennant was mooted on deadline day but failed to materialise. The former Liverpool man will almost certainly be back in English football next season, but with whom? Similarly, Pulis is a long-time admirer of Middlesbrough’s Gary O’Neill, a player he handed a league debut to during his time at Portsmouth. If Middlesbrough fail to sneak back into the Premier League this season, O’Neill could opt for a reunion with his old boss.
It could well be the case that the addition of a flying right winger is the missing piece of the Stoke City jigsaw. His recent explosive form has Stoke fans dreaming of a team of Matthew Etheringtons, but adding just one more would be a giant leap forward.