With Premier League security safely under lock and key, Tony Pulis could be forgiven for feeling somewhat experimental with just five games remaining. Since Fulham look set to escape censure for resting several players in their recent defeat to Hull, other top flight managers may feel able to play the squad game with impunity. The Potters boss faces a dilemma however, with each rung on the Premier League ladder being worth an additional £750,000. Stoke currently lie in 10th place, and a top half finish could make the club all the more attractive in the summer to potential transfer targets. Pulis has rarely been known as a particularly experimental manager in the past, preferring to stick rigidly to the 4-4-1-1 formation that has served him so well to date. Nevertheless, there is a perhaps surprising array of options available to the Welshman should he decide to tinker with his system, or the personnel within it.
The most popular switch among the Potters’ faithful would be to partner Ricardo Fuller with Tuncay in attack. Pulis has so far generally selected either one or the other alongside a more conventional target man this season, expressing his belief the pair are too similar to play together. Perhaps a target man is required, given the extent to which the Midlanders rely on the long ball. It would certainly be harsh to drop the rejuvenated Dave Kitson, arguably in the best form of his Stoke career. However, the prospect of a Fuller/Tuncay strike duo remains mouth-watering. On the previous occasions when the two have played up front together, during December’s home draw with Wigan and September’s thrilling Carling Cup defeat of Blackpool, the normally creatively-moribund Potters created bagfuls of scoring opportunities. At 6”3, Fuller should be more than capable of winning the ball in the air and can hold the ball up well with his trickery. With Matthew Etherington providing quality delivery from the left, Tony Pulis could do worse than giving the Jamaican/Turkish strike force a try.
Another option would be looking at different formations. Granted, teams do not get used to new tactics overnight, and 4-4-1-1 has proven a vital part of the Potters’ rise. However, Pulis’ detractors – with some justification – have noted his teams often lack a Plan B. It is true the Potteries outfit are often one dimensional in relying on direct punts up field. With Stoke’s ball retention remaining a problem, and Tuncay still searching for his best position in their set-up, now might be a good time to explore a 4-5-1, with the Turk pushing forward as part of a three man central midfield to assist lone front man Fuller. Such a system could prove particularly effective away from home, where keeping the ball becomes even more crucial. A 4-5-1 could also offer a new lease of life to captain Abdoulaye Faye. Erratic at the heart of the Potters’ defence this season, Faye played some of his best football at Bolton Wanderers as the sitting member of a central midfield trio.
This stage of the campaign might also offer opportunities for the fringe members of Stoke’s squad. Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic has yet to start a first team game since his £3.5m move from Portsmouth in January, and with Thomas Sorensen, like Faye, cutting a less imposing figure this term, it could be the optimum time to bed in the lanky Bosnian. Danny Pugh has been a loyal squad player who has rarely led the side down, and when deployed in central midfield displays a drive and composure possessed by few others in the Stoke engine room. Then there are the youngsters. Louis Moult, a 17-year-old striker, made his first team debut in March’s draw at Burnley and has the work ethic so highly prized by his manager. The versatile Matthew Lund is another highly-rated youngster who made it to the Potters’ bench earlier in the season, can play in midfield or attack, and was plucked from the famed annals of Crewe’s academy.
In spite of such speculation, it seems unlikely that Pulis will radically alter either tactics or personnel between now and the end of the season. The mantle of “tinker man” is not one that rests on the Stoke manager as comfortably as his trusty baseball cap. The Welshman will want to finish as high in the table as the possible, and Sunday’s visit to Molineux us the closest the Potters will get to a local derby as long as Port Vale continue to languish in football’s doldrums. Pulis can hardly be blamed for sticking with what has largely worked – neutrals however, might be surprised at the depth of alternatives available at Stoke City.