““I do not know my best position” – Tuncay, The Guardian, March 2008
Saturday’s goalless draw between Stoke City and Aston Villa at the Britannia Stadium might have lacked the drama of previous encounters between the two Midlands teams, but the Potters can take heart from gaining another valuable point to all but secure a third season of Premier League football. A decent showing against Champions League contenders was overshadowed, however, by the petulance of popular forward Tuncay following his 55th minute substitution. The Turk could not hide his disappointment at his early departure and stormed down the tunnel and out of the stadium long before the final whistle. Although such behaviour is unbecoming of a Stoke player, his frustration was, to an extent, understandable, as he had endured another ineffective afternoon.
There was a sense of euphoria among Stoke supporters when the £5m signing of Tuncay was announced at the end of August 2009. The club’s highest profile acquisition in decades, here was a player who months earlier had been linked with the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, yet he came to the Potteries. While Tony Pulis was not renowned for signing cultured, ball-playing footballers, in many ways Sanli seemed like a good a fit for Stoke. Although somewhat diminutive in stature, he is surprisingly good in the air. Able to play anywhere across the midfield and in attack, he possessed the versatility beloved of the Potters’ manager, not to mention his stellar work rate, as indicated by his Turkish nickname of “Ceser Yuruck” or “Braveheart”.
However, a closer look at the Turk’s two year tenure at Middlesbrough raises questions about his suitability as a Stoke player. In a March 2008 interview with The Guardian’s Louise Taylor, Tuncay praised Boro boss Gareth Southgate for allowing him to play “with freedom”. Fans at the Riverside generally agree that Sanli was most effective when deployed in “the hole” behind a lone striker. For the Turkish national team, Tuncay has often played on the left of a fluid attacking front three, where he is given license to float in something of a free role. Barring a drastic overhaul of the style of play which had served Stoke so well, it was difficult to see where Tuncay would fit in. Certainly you will never see anybody operating in a free role in a Pulis team, where the focus is on shape and organisation and everyone must adhere strictly to their remit or else face the wrath of the manager. Moreover, in Pulis’ rigid 4-4-1-1 system, the player in “the hole” is the target man, tasked with flicking the ball on to an out and out striker. Neither role fits Sanli easily.
Unsurprisingly, the Welshman has this season retained the tactics which have got him this far, an approach vindicated by a glance at the Premier League table. This makes the signing of Tuncay all the more bizarre. Having signed the Fenerbahce legend on a substantial wage, Pulis did not seem to know what to do with him, making him wait four months for his league debut. Indeed, the Turk has been deployed in a number of roles for the Potters this season and has never seemed truly comfortable in any of them. He is too small and slight to effectively play as the withdrawn striker in Stoke’s 4-4-1-1, and while he has enjoyed more success as the orthodox striker, he has also appeared to be on a different wavelength to his team mates. When utilised out wide, Sanli has displayed a tendency to roam which is at odds with his manager’s philosophy of maintaining two solid banks of four.
Sanli has nevertheless provided glimpses of his undoubted ability. In spite of not being a regular starter this season, he is the Potters’ leading scorer in the league. In January’s home game with Fulham, Tuncay turned in a virtuoso display, relentlessly terrorising the Cottagers and inspiring his team to a 3-0 first half lead before limping off, to a standing ovation, just before the interval. With the manager unlikely to deviate from his trusted formula, it seems that Tuncay’s best hope of establishing himself is up front, where he has enjoyed the most success in his Stoke career to date. Dave Kitson, when on form, possesses a fine football brain and is likely to be more receptive than Mama Sidibe to the Turk’s intelligent forward play. Alternatively, Pulis could pull the trigger on the Fuller/Tuncay partnership, with the taller Fuller winning the flick-ons and the duo turning defenders inside out with their respective bags of tricks. With Stoke all but safe, there may never be a better time to experiment.
It would be a real shame if there proved to be no room for a flair player of Tuncay’s quality within Stoke’s successful but workmanlike system. However, Sanli should be counselled against further displays of petulance. No player is bigger than the club, and ultimately Stoke City’s progress will continue, either with Tuncay or without him.