Club Focus – Stoke City – The Stamford Bridge Massacre

While it was always a touch unlikely that Stoke City would emerge from Stamford Bridge with any kind of positive result this weekend, the sheer magnitude of their defeat was still something of a shock. It would be easy to point to possible excuses for the demolition of the normally-hard-to-beat Potters. A pumped-up Chelsea knew they had to win after Manchester United threw down the gauntlet the previous lunchtime, and Stoke are not the first, or even the second team to ship seven goals to the rampant Blues this season. Questionable officiating aided Chelsea’s cause to some degree in the early going as well, with Salomon Kalou’s two-footed lunge which may have ended Thomas Sorensen’s World Cup dream being rewarded not with a red card, but rather a goal.

Yet anyone who has followed the progress of Tony Pulis’ team this season will know that any and all excuses for this meek surrender ring hollow. Stoke, regardless of the calibre of the opposition, have shown themselves to be far more capable than their gutless showing at Stamford Bridge suggested. The Potters had only conceded 16 goals away from home all season prior to this game, yet conceded almost half that tally in 90 shambolic minutes. It was Pulis’ heaviest defeat as Stoke manager in seven years at the club, and the Welshman must be seething at a display which flew in the face of the hard work ethos he has spent years cultivating at the Potteries outfit. This was the display of a team with one eye on the beach. The usual well-drilled organisation and harrying was replaced with an unfocused mess. Stoke were bereft of ideas in attack, with zero support for Ricardo Fuller on the few occasions when he got behind the Chelsea defence by the touchline. Myriad unforced errors yielded possession cheaply, with the culprits neglecting to chase back to attempt to regain the ball. Important players such as Matthew Etherington, Robert Huth and Glenn Whelan phoned in their performances.

In some ways, perhaps Stoke’s apparent end of season collapse is understandable. The team deploys a high-tempo, physical style which is bound to take its toll over the course of a season, and it was arguably to some extent inevitable that the foot would stray from the gas pedal after the primary goal of safety was secured. Tony Pulis publicly vowed that his team would not be relenting in their quest to better last season’s points tally of 45, citing the financial benefits of finishing as high up the table as possible. Maybe stressing this factor gives the players little incentive to keep the pressure on simply to raise additional funds that might be used to replace them. Whatever the reason for Sunday’s abject showing however, the lack of professionalism displayed was disconcerting and unbecoming of a Pulis-fashioned team.

Of most concern was the second consecutive tantrum from a substituted Stoke player, as Dave Kitson showed clear dissent and appeared to gesture at Pulis as he barged past him towards the tunnel. Following hot on the heels of a similar display last weekend from Tuncay, such public acts of petulance do not paint a pretty picture of the dressing room. Kitson’s attitude has been questioned throughout his two-season tenure in the Potteries, but his recent good form had seemed to point to a player who was finally settled. The dissent from the striking duo has once again raised debate about Pulis’ man-management abilities, following on from the still-unresolved incident with James Beattie at the Emirates in December. Unity and team spirit have been the key factors in the Potters’ recent ascent and have been carefully fostered over the years by Pulis through various team-building exercises such as go-karting weekends and army boot camp training. The Welshman has often spoken of his eagerness to protect the camaraderie of the dressing room by only bringing in players with the right DNA to succeed at Stoke City. He is finding out, however, that to improve in the Premier League, managers have to deal with the egos and baggage of the modern day, millionaire top flight footballer – a creature with whom Pulis has had relatively little experience in his managerial career to date. Juggling the thorny issue of dressing room morale and on-field improvement will offer the biggest test yet of the Stoke manager’s man-management credentials.

Tony Pulis has clearly not taken Sunday’s 7-0 reverse lightly, cancelling both his scheduled appearance on that evening’s Match Of The Day 2 and the players’ planned day off on Monday in favour of forcing them to re-watch the replay of the thrashing. The Britannia Stadium hosts Everton in the Potters’ final home game of the campaign this Saturday. For all the progress made and plaudits earned however, this season cannot end soon enough for Stoke City.

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