Many of the same comments would be made by Manchester United fans about the teams of the 1990s and the last decade. The truth is that when you watch these great sides in their entirety, rather than a selection of highlights reels on an end-of-season DVD, for every memorable five-goal victory, there will be an instantly forgettable 1-0 somewhere, which as any good coach will tell you, is worth just as many points.
As stated earlier, this is not a deliberate attempt to mislead, merely an extension of the fact that fans remember the great games far more readily than they do the god awful ones. The reality is that both are as significant as each other. Organisation, physicality and the grind factor will only get a team so far – Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang, the epitome of these accolades, won one FA Cup and never qualified (or would have qualified) for Europe through their league position in over a decade at the top level.
The current Arsenal team, who occupy the complete opposite end of the footballing spectrum, lose games they should not because of an adherence to purist principles that makes their manager look a footballing Joan of Arc. (For the record, in a one-off game, they could not handle Vinny, Robbie Earle, Fashanu et al at their prime – not in this lifetime or the next). Without the ability to sit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, and apply elements of both, there is a glass ceiling.
Stoke’s journey since becoming a Premier League side in 2008 has been one which has gone largely unnoticed by the media. Yes, they still like to use the Delap missile, and if the government is looking for a cheaper alternative to Trident, they could do a lot worse. But from being a side who positively oozed ‘Plough Lane 1989’ in their first season at the elite level, they have slowly evolved into one that still applies their physical strengths while adding an ability to play constructively in the right areas of the pitch.
The additions of Matthew Etherington, Tuncay and now Jermain Pennant are the most obvious indicators that their manager, Tony Pulis, intends to keep a solid spine that can compete with anyone while adding another dimension from wide positions. This has aided them no end, with their domination of the second half of their recent game at Newcastle so total that the 2-1 victory somewhat flattered their opponents.
Saturday saw them up against Blackburn, another side with a reputation for brain over brawn and a crude, overbearing style. In a straightforward wrestling match, Stoke vs Blackburn is a bankable draw. The Potters won because they played the better football, and they will be absolutely fine again this season. Having picked up ten points out of twelve, they sit comfortably in the top half after getting an unfortunate run of fixtures at the start of the season. Any side who possess their steel and competitive edge is dangerous in cup competitions too.
When Owen Coyle took over at Bolton, many Trotters fans rejoiced as they not only got rid of the unpopular Gary Megson, but they had a replacement who it was believed was a devout believer in the beautiful game. This may be another instance of selective amnesia. His Burnley side did indeed play some aesthetically pleasing football in the 2008-09 season, most notbaly in their Carling Cup run that put paid to three Premier League sides.
However, no team gets out of the Championship or even comes near to it without the ability to seize the key moment of a game and render the rest of it as ugly as possible. Coyle’s Burnley did this on many occasions (this is not meant as an insult – it is what good teams do) and his Bolton team have acquired a knack for this sweet and sour cocktail at the start of the current season.
Kevin Davies looks a better player for being used only when he is the best option, not as the default one, and Johan Elmander finally looks like an £8 million player now he performs in a team that plays more thoughtfully in the last third. Their link-up for the Swede’s goal at the Hawthorns at the weekend was superb, and follows a measured yet destructive spell of telepathy against West Ham earlier this season that combined the old Bolton with the extra string they have added to their bow. Coyle seems to have learned the right lesson about his predecessor and what he left behind. Megson got a lot wrong at the Reebok and alienated many supporters as a result, but he got a lot right too.
This writer would be astonished if either side is in any serious danger come the end of the season, and it is not beyond the realms that one of them could find themselves in European competition next season. Both can play, both can win ugly and both get the absolute most out of the personnel that they have. – the first sign of good management.