Club Focus – Stoke City – Learning to love life on the road

Stoke City are currently the top flight’s form away side. The Potters’ excellent weekend victory at Upton Park extended the team’s undefeated run on their travels into its fourth month, having not tasted defeat on the road in the league since Boxing Day’s loss to Manchester City.

Tony Pulis’ men currently lie a very respectable 10th in this season’s away form table. It has proven quite a turnaround in fortunes from last season, when Stoke’s appalling record away from the Britannia Stadium threatened to torpedo their hopes of survival. The dramatic improvement underlines the progress made by Pulis’ team in their second Premier League season. It was vital that the Midlanders cured their travel sickness this season, given the likelihood that they would struggle to reproduce the home form that ultimately kept them up in their maiden Premier League campaign. So it has proven. Without that same element of surprise, Stoke have fared less well at the Britannia Stadium. Forewarned is forearmed, and teams visit the Potteries well aware of the challenges of the Britannia “bear pit” – such as the intimidating crowd and small dimensions of the playing surface – and are often better equipped to deal with them.

Although the Potters’ away record this term might, at first glance, not seem noticeably superior to last season – they currently have just one extra win – their success has been in grinding out draws from games which would previously have been lost. The trademark determination and discipline instilled by Pulis in his sides has been more evident than ever. The Potteries outfit were heavily defeated at grounds such as Goodison Park, Ewood Park and the Reebok Stadium in 2008-09, but have emerged from each with a precious point for their troubles this campaign. The Stoke manager has shown more ambition on the road this season. Whereas previously he had sent out teams to defend for their very lives, with little focus on attacking play, Stoke have more often than not sought to ruffle their hosts on their travels during 2009/10. Although the team has continued to find goals difficult to come by, the “park the bus” approach has steadily given way to a slightly more enterprising game plan and some dangerous counter attacking. Central to this tactic is Matthew Etherington.

The tireless ex-West Ham winger offers a valuable outlet with his pace and propensity to run at defenders, alleviating pressure on the Potters’ defence and offering a genuine attacking threat. The same can be said of Ricardo Fuller, as was evidenced by his stunning individual goal against the Hammers. The arrival of Tuncay has had a similar effect to a lesser degree. Although the jury is presently out on his tenure in the Potteries thus far, the Turk seems to prosper more away from the Britannia Stadium, where he is afforded greater freedom on larger pitches to get behind defenders. The likes of Sanli, Fuller and Etherington win the set pieces and long throws from which the Potters are most dangerous, with opposing teams’ efforts to thwart Delap’s touchline bombardments by moving their advertising hoardings closer to the pitch bearing little fruit.

The top flight experience Tony Pulis added to the squad during the summer has also had an impact. The signings of Dean Whitehead and Robert Huth hardly inspired excitement amongst the Boothen End faithful; Huth however, has shown himself to be a far tougher obstacle for home sides to negotiate than the likes of Ibrahima Sonko, while Whitehead, Sunderland’s captain for several seasons, has brought vitality to a midfield which often seemed lost and lifeless on larger surfaces beyond the frontiers of Stoke-On-Trent. As marked as improvement in the team’s away performances have been, they now face a true test of their mettle on the road in the season’s dying embers. Of their four remaining away games, one is a difficult trip to Craven Cottage and their final two are at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. If Stoke City’s away form continues therefore, the Potters may well have a say in the destination of the Premier League trophy.

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