In terms of positives, Pulis’ men showed their customary work ethic and commitment, continuing to search for a goal as the minutes ticked away. Previous Stoke teams, during the club’s Championship days, had a tendency to roll over and die once a mid-table finish was assured, so the fight evident in this display could only have encouraged the Potters’ faithful, even if they ultimately lacked the quality to make the desired impact.
The Midlanders defended resolutely, claiming a third consecutive clean sheet. Danny Higginbotham’s bravery and leadership were in full effect as always, while alongside him at centre back Abdoulaye Faye enjoyed his finest game in some time, proving a granite-like presence at the back whilst offering constant threat from set pieces at the other end of the pitch. At left back, Danny Collins’ recent improvement continued with a strong defensive showing, displaying hitherto unseen strength in shepherding the ball to safety.
Stoke could also take heart from their almost total dominance of the first half, during which they forced numerous corners and throw ins. Matthew Etherington did not have his best game of an outstanding season, but his clever interplay with Dave Kitson did hint at the football that this Potters’ team is capable of playing.
However, for all the team’s possession in the first period, Pulis’ side were frequently shown up for their one-dimensional play in this Staffordshire derby. Stoke were hugely reliant on playing for set pieces, but the numerous high balls they launched into the danger zone were dealt with comfortably by Marcus Hahnemann, and the Potters offered very little attacking threat from open play. This owed much to the absence of Ricardo Fuller, injured in scoring against Hull last weekend. The Jamaican’s pace and wizardry on the ball create space and opportunities for both himself and his team mates. When Etherington is not on song, service from midfield is minimal, and Stoke’s forward line of Kitson, Sidibe and later Tuncay were starved all afternoon. The weakness of the right wing position exacerbated Stoke’s toothlessness as Dean Whitehead offered little offensively – and the Potters were crying out for some invention on that flank without Fuller and with Etherington somewhat subdued.
The lack of a killer instinct in the final third however, was notable on the occasions when Stoke did create opportunities. The side lacks a goalscorer – rarely, when the ball was played across the box, was there a forward in red and white who gambled by darting into a scoring position. The decline of James Beattie has deprived the Potters of a regular source of goals – no Stoke player has more than four in the league this season. What is especially problematic for the Potteries outfit is that the rigidity of their system does not easily accommodate a “fox in the box”. The two striking roles available are that of hardworking target man or pacy livewire – therefore a more prolific upgrade of one or both of these positions would be the best that Stoke can hope for in the summer sales.
The system’s inflexibility can in itself be a problem. The loss of Sidibe to injury midway through the second half robbed the team of a target man. The manager opted to replace the Malian with an extra midfielder in Liam Lawrence and utilise Delap as an attacking midfielder behind lone striker Tuncay. This however, had the effect of isolating the Turk and further diminishing the Potters’ attacking threat.
Tony Pulis will doubtless consider another valuable Premier League point away from home as justification of his methods, and it is difficult to quibble too much with such a stance. The Welshman has the luxury of the same stick-or-twist options in terms of tactics and team selections against Bolton on Saturday. Visitors to the Britannia Stadium will be hoping that this time Pulis’ conundrum heralds more entertaining answers than were on display at Molineux.