It is testament to the progress Stoke City have made in recent seasons that few pundits seem to be tipping them for a relegation struggle this season. After two seasons of stability, the Potters are now almost part of the furniture in the Premier League. Yet there is a feeling in some quarters that Stoke may have already reached the summit of what they can achieve at this level. Barring a disastrous season for one of the big boys, a top eight berth looks beyond them. Ninth place and a cup run is, realistically, about the best that a club of the Potteries outfit’s stature can hope for.
Not that such an outcome is anything to be sniffed at – indeed, it would mark fine progress made. However, we have seen other promoted clubs, having established themselves, hit a glass ceiling and begin to stagnate as the novelty of being in the top flight wears off. Teams like Charlton, Bolton, Middlesbrough and Wigan all saw attendances fall as expectations rose and mid-table stability turned to mid-table mediocrity. Going into 2010/11, the burning question is this: could this be the season that the Potters’ faithful demand a more entertaining brand of football for their money?
It is no secret that Stoke do not have a reputation as a side that’s easy on the eye. They are rigid, robust, direct and physical, and have achieved considerable success under Tony Pulis playing this way. While the presence in the team of players like Matthew Etherington and Ricardo Fuller underline that the Midlanders are capable of playing football, they have rarely strayed from the blueprint of long throw and long ball. The team, and Pulis’ tactics, often seem one-dimensional, with no real way of adapting if Plan A isn’t working. The arrival of Tuncay last season seemed to herald the dawn of a new era, a genuine flair player to bring something new to the Potters’ arsenal.
However, the Turk was made to wait months for his first league start, while similarly positive options such as Liam Lawrence and Glenn Whelan found themselves joining him on the bench as the manager opted for the security of three defensive midfielders in his four man midfield. To his credit, the tactic was successful, as Stoke battled their way to an improved league position and points tally. Goals proved hard to come by however, and if Stoke prove the bookmakers right and settle into a comfortable mid-table groove, it is feasible that those in the stands could grow weary of such effective but unenthralling fare.
The other side of the argument is, of course, that the quality of the football is not that important. The league table does not award points for style. Results are what matter, and the standard of play has not stopped the Britannia Stadium being close to capacity for the majority of the team’s home Premier League games to date. It is easy to forget that Stoke spent years in the wilderness of the second and third tiers before the team of Pulis and Chairman Peter Coates guided them back to the promised land, and during those barren years Stoke-On-Trent was hardly awash with sashaying, samba football either. Those dark days saw numerous gutless, apathetic performances from Stoke City teams not fit to lace the boots of the current side, routinely turned over by the likes of Northampton and Bristol Rovers. Pulis has forged a team that might be unspectacular, “ugly” even, but one that generally gives everything from the first whistle to the last, and has bloodied the nose of high-profile teams including Arsenal, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City. Perhaps the lack of sexy football, for many fans, is a small price to pay for having a team that they can once again be proud of.
Another question lending itself to this debate surrounds the number of promoted teams who have established themselves in the top division playing attractive football since the dawn of the Premier League. Beyond Kevin Keegan’s cavalier Manchester City team of a decade ago, it is difficult to think of any. Perhaps Stoke are merely doing what it takes, and their game will evolve over time.
Evolution is certainly an admirable objective, especially given that the Potters’ game plan relies heavily on two players in Fuller and Rory Delap who are on the wrong side of 30. Moreover, the team’s inability to retain possession was a big factor in their conceding so many late goals last term. A few modifications to the undeniably effective system could see both results and the entertainment factor improve.
Few issues divide Stoke fans more than the importance of entertainment. For some, having a successful team after years in the doldrums is entertainment enough. Others want to see more of the beautiful game. To some extent, both views are understandable, but it will be interesting to see how the Britannia Stadium reacts over the course of the campaign. Perhaps there is such a thing as “third season syndrome” after all.