The stage was set for a convincing Stoke victory against Bolton at the Britannia Stadium. There was a carnival atmosphere on what had been dubbed “The Day of the Triffics” – a celebration of manager Tony Pulis and his achievements in leading the club to the promised land from the gloom of Championship mediocrity. The footballing Gods were not smiling on the Potteries however, and Stoke somehow contrived to squander a game they had never appeared in any danger of losing.
The most interesting aspect of the game was Pulis’ decision to finally do a bit of end-of-season experimenting. Normally, the rigid 4-4-1-1 system requires a deep-lying target man to win the flick-ons from balls launched in his direction to a pacy, out-and-out frontman. Injuries to Ricardo Fuller and Mama Sidibe however, led the Welshman to invert his usual striking set-up. The target man, Dave Kitson, now operated as the striker playing furthest forward, while Tuncay finally got the chance to play in his favoured position in ‘the hole’ just behind him. This modification yielded some of Stoke’s finest football of the season during the first half. With Tuncay playing as the support striker, there was initially less temptation to rely on the long ball as much. Continuing the experimental theme, throw-in duties – usually the exclusive preserve of Rory Delap – were shared, with less emphasis on the touchline rocket as Stoke’s primary attacking weapon.
The understanding between Kitson and Tuncay was evident from the outset. Their clever link-play brought the midfield into the game more. Stoke’s engine room so often resembles a wasteland, but with the Turk pulling the strings and Kitson always looking for the right pass, Dean Whitehead and Glenn Whelan were able to join the attack. Although Tuncay’s creative qualities are well known, Kitson’s contribution should not be overlooked. The flame-haired hitman, when on form, is an exceptionally clever footballer with a fine first touch, and his quickness of thought was vital to Stoke’s improved first half ability to retain possession. It also brought out a well-crafted opening goal, Kitson latching on to a through-ball that he was second favourite to reach before keeping his cool to slot home. The presence of Kitson, in this form, in the Stoke line-up makes the Potters a far less one-dimensional side. Had the midfielders been able to field two genuine attacking wide players, instead of the one-paced Delap and Liam Lawrence, they would surely have created a raft of chances, such was the telepathy between the front two.
It began to go wrong for the Potters in the second half when, perhaps unsettled by a resurgent Bolton’s growing pressure, they abandoned their first half mixture of long and short passing in favour of repeated punts up-field from Thomas Sorensen. This saw Stoke concede possession and struggle to keep the ball out of their half. The problems were exacerbated by the substitutions. It seems incongruous, as the changes were all positive attempts to win the game, made by a manager who is frequently accused of being overly cautious. Although both have struggled for fitness recently, Matthew Etherington and Ricardo Fuller – the squad’s two most influential attacking players – was designed to stretch a tiring Trotters’ rearguard and kill off the game. However, the withdrawal of Tuncay and Kitson (who was replaced by James Beattie) disrupted Stoke’s rhythm and caused a further decline in the team’s ability to retain possession – a factor which would ultimately cost them the game.
Moreover, for all the good football Stoke played at times, they failed to capitalise by taking their chances. Tuncay, Kitson, Whitehead, Robert Huth and Abdoulaye Faye all missed glorious opportunities to make the game safe, while the smart link-up play and dangerous balls across the box frequently found nobody with the killer instinct to put them away. The absence of a predator in the Potters’ arsenal continues to prove costly. No team can afford to be so profligate at this level, and so it proved as Stoke allowed themselves to be mugged in the game’s dying embers.
Hopefully, this sucker punch will not dissuade Pulis from shuffling his pack as the season winds down, but if they are to meet his target of surpassing last season’s points tally, they will not get a more “triffic” chance than the one afforded them by Bolton at the weekend. With one home game remaining against an in-form Everton, and visits to Craven Cottage, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford still to come, the Potters may struggle to pick up another point this season. It is up to Pulis to keep his squad’s mind on the pitch rather than the beach between now and May.