Club Focus – Stoke City – Improved Potters start to gel

Stoke’s vanquishing of Blackburn on Saturday finally saw the team’s performance match their recent results, as they turned in comfortably their best display so far this season. Those expecting a last-on-Match-of-the-Day war of attrition between two dour, direct, physical sides would have been pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be an entertaining match. Having seen his team go behind in every Premier League game so far in 2010/11, Tony Pulis picked a more attacking line up, and was rewarded with a bright start from his team, who were almost immediately on the front foot. An even first half gave way to a dominant Stoke showing after the break, with the Potters unlucky not to add to their solitary goal. Given that only Wolves and relegated Hull created fewer chances than the Potteries outfit last term, Pulis must have been delighted to see his side fashion myriad opportunities against Rovers.

The return of Jermaine Pennant from a hamstring injury was the key to Stoke’s improvement. His pace and willingness to run at his full back opened up a second front on Blackburn, taking some of the pressure off Matthew Etherington on the left. Between them, the two wide men stretched Rovers’ defence to breaking point, fizzing in crosses from all angles. Pennant’s inclusion gave the Potters’ midfield a far more balanced look, with two holding midfielders in the middle and two flying wingers, as opposed to the two central holders and a third defensive midfielder on the right flank that had often rendered Stoke’s forward play lopsided and predictable.

Sam Allardyce had clearly identified Kenwyne Jones, with four goals in his last four games, as the Stoke danger man, and the Trinidad and Tobago star took quite a battering from Blackburn’s bruising centre backs. This allowed his strike partner Jon Walters, playing just behind him, to step up to the plate. Himself a former Blackburn player, Walters had a point to prove having struggled in recent games. Here he showed himself to be an intelligent target man, displaying mobility and a quality touch to create space for himself and link the play well, bringing the wingers and Jones into play. He opened his Premier League account in some style with the game’s only goal, coolly clipping Etherington’s through ball over the advancing Paul Robinson.

Going into this game, the chief concern from the Midlanders was the fitness of Ricardo Fuller. The talismanic Jamaican striker had dislocated his shoulder at Newcastle last Sunday, so it was something of a surprise to see him take up a place on the bench. For four seasons, Fuller has been the team’s primary creative threat, and Stoke have been largely bereft of invention without him. Pulis’decision, therefore, to use him this term as an impact sub, and have his toothless team toil defensively for an hour before introducing him, has been a source of frustration for many Potters’ supporters.

Yet the pace in the side and the balanced midfield meant that against Blackburn, Stoke coped fine without Fuller, creating the bulk of their many chances before he entered the fray. This had to be encouraging for the Midlanders’ management team, who are perhaps wisely planning for life after the mercurial but injury-prone 30-year-old.

Having kicked off with three consecutive defeats, Stoke City go into the international break just four points off second place, unbeaten in five games in all competitions. When normal service resumes, it will be interesting to see if Pulis has the courage of his convictions to stick with this more enterprising Potters’ set up.

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