For all the undeniable progress made by Stoke City in only their second ever Premier League campaign, Tony Pulis’ men are still finding goals difficult to come by. Only Portsmouth and Wolves have found the net fewer times than the Potters this season.
The ever-excellent Stoke fanzine The Oatcake amusingly highlighted in its weekend issue that Wayne Rooney has notched only three goals less than the entire Stoke team put together in 2009/10. If the club’s top-flight development is to continue apace, the players are going to have to become more prolific in front of goal. To some extent, the problem lies with the strikers. Saturday’s defeat to Tottenham offers a handy case study. In a fiercely contested, fairly even game, Spurs’ finishing was decisive when it had to be. The Potters’ forward line, by contrast, spurned two gilt-edged opportunities – Ricardo Fuller blazing over from six yards with the goal at his mercy, while Mamady Sidibe stumbled at the crucial moment when one-on-one with Gomes late on. Fuller is a mercurial magician, whose pace and casual wizardry add so much to Stoke’s attacking play, but his return of one league goal all season is desperately poor, especially when compared to his respectable 2008/09 tally of nine. Sidibe meanwhile, has never been prolific, and while he has played the role of willing workhorse more effectively than anyone in Stoke’s ascent in recent years, he has rarely looked the same player since rushing back from a cruciate ligament injury in October. Tuncay is the Potters’ leading league scorer with a modest four, but even he has struggled as his search to find his best position within Pulis’ system goes on.
The failure of the Midlanders’ front-men to regularly find the net has once again opened the door for Dave Kitson to stake his claim. The flame-haired hitman, once the Potters’ record signing at £5.5m, had seemed destined to remain a big money misfit. However, having survived exile to Reading and the Middlesbrough, Kitson has bounced back yet again. He was by far Stoke’s Man of the Match in the loss to Spurs, linking up cleverly with his strike partner and pulling his markers wide to create space. A skilful and intelligent footballer when on form, Kitson added an extra dimension to Stoke’s play as the team looked to mix up their passing, where they had previously been tempted simply to launch the ball towards the head of Sidibe. What Pulis’ team continues to lack is a classic ‘poacher.’ The presence of such a striker in the side last season proved crucial, as James Beattie’s knack of being in the right place at the right time fired the Potters to Premier League survival. This term however, Beattie has looked a shadow of that goal-scorer extraordinaire. Given the issues surrounding his attitude, fitness and of course the aftermath of his dressing room fracas with Pulis (which is still rumbling on), Beattie has almost certainly played his last game for the club. His failure to recapture last season’s form has deprived his team a valuable source of goals, and it seems the need for a ‘fox in the box’ is still very much in Pulis’ thinking, given his somewhat fanciful January efforts to attract Ruud Van Nistelrooy to the Britannia Stadium.
Stoke’s lean scoring habits have deeper lying roots than the striker situation however. Pulis’ system has proven highly effective, but the rigid 4-4-1-1, and dedication to the doctrines of defensive caution and maintaining ‘shape’ at all times, are hardly conducive to creating hatfuls of chances. The Boothen End faithful like to ironically sing: “We Only Score From The Throw In”, but the truth is that beyond Rory Delap’s missiles and other set-pieces, the team often does not offer a great deal in terms of an attacking threat, and playing the percentages will only take you so far.
The need for a creative force in central midfield has frequently been cited as the best way of rectifying this problem. Yet it is difficult to see how such a player would be accommodated in the Stoke setup, given that the manager likes his central midfielders to sit fairly deep and get the ball wide where possible. A more realistic change would be the introduction of a right winger with pace to mirror the impact of the excellent Matthew Etherington on the left. A rapid, attacking winger on the right flank would bring balance to the midfield and sharpen the Potter’s cutting edge. Pace is a commodity in short supply in Pulis’ side, with the exceptions of Fuller and Etherington, and an injection of velocity anywhere in the middle or up front could only be an asset in putting teams under pressure and causing panic in opposing defences.
The Potters travel to Upton Park on Saturday where they will face a West Ham team in dire straits. With four points still to attain to reach that magical total of 40, the team in red and white will need to develop the killer instinct which has been lacking so often this campaign.