Club Focus – Stoke City – Blueprint to Quality Street

A solemn promise was made this week by Tony Pulis that his team would not be easing up as their season winds down. Even as Stoke City’s mathematical safety was confirmed over the weekend, the Welshman at the helm vowed to fight for every point between now and May 9 when their campaign ends at Old Trafford. With around £3-4m in prize money likely to be the difference between finishing 9th and 13th, Pulis has one eye on boosting his summer transfer kitty. In spite of the near-£40m spent since promotion – and continued progress on and off the pitch – last Sunday’s stalemate at Molineux highlighted the shortcomings still evident in the Potters’ line-up.

Although the defence was as stalwart and reliable as ever, the team struggled to retain possession and “that little bit of quality in the final third” – a Pulis mantra since he first arrived in the Potteries in 2002 – was sorely lacking in the absence of the talismanic Ricardo Fuller. Without the Jamaican to torment the Wolves defence, Stoke had few means of creating chances beyond an endless succession of long throws from Rory Delap, with only Matthew Etherington consistently providing the forwards with any ammunition. Pulis will be aware that serious upgrades are needed, as rumours of summer moves for Jermaine Pennant and Paul Scharner might indicate.

In looking to evolve as a Premier League side, Stoke could do worse than follow the example of Bolton Wanderers, Saturday’s visitors to the Britannia Stadium. The Bolton of the Sam Allardyce, with their 4-5-1 formation, were not unlike Stoke – well-organised, cautious and not averse to utilising a player with a long throw – although neither Ivan Campo nor Nicky Hunt’s missiles had the potency of Delap’s. However, Allardyce gradually introduced a dash of invention into his team, with first Youri Djorkaeff and later the likes of Jay Jay Okocha and Stelios Giannakopoulos. Although Bolton did not drastically alter their style, remaining robust and direct, they added some game-changers to the mix, and were eventually rewarded with a League Cup final appearance and European football.

This writer has, in recent Club Focuses, highlighted the perception that Pulis’ 4-4-1-1 system, while undoubtedly effective, was too rigid when the situation required the team to adapt. The lack of a ‘Plan B’ when Fuller is not available manifested itself again against Wolves as the forward line toiled to little effect with negligible service. Incorporating at least one ball player – virtually anywhere in the side – could make a massive difference. The team has surrendered over twenty points from winning positions this season – even if the much discussed flair players do not arrive, improving the side’s ability to retain possession and successfully close out games would be a marked step forward.

That seemed to be the plan when Tuncay arrived in the Potteries in August, but the Turkish captain has been expected instead to fit into the existing, unchanged shape of the team, with decidedly mixed results. That is not to say that Tuncay should be written off. A full pre-season in a Pulis squad often seems to make all the difference to a player’s form and adaptability, as Matthew Etherington, and to a lesser extent Dave Kitson, have discovered to their benefit this campaign. The addition of some better quality ball players might also prove the key to getting the best from the Turk.

It is both unrealistic and undesirable to expect City to transform from their current playing style to a fluid passing game overnight. Such drastic changes seldom prove beneficial, as Sammy Lee found to his cost when he attempted to ‘play more football’ at Bolton when he succeeded Allardyce. While Pulis’ system is unlikely to change, it can evolve – by no means purely for aesthetic purposes, but in the name of adding more strings to the Potters’ bow in terms of attacking prowess for those rainy days when Plan A is not working. It is very much a case of evolution, not revolution, and there is no reason why the Bolton blueprint cannot be Stoke’s guiding light to Premier League prosperity.

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