Club Focus – Stoke – Why it is getting harder to defend Stoke’s defenders

For years, Tony Pulis’ teams have been recognisable by their strong defensive backbone. Indeed, a watertight back line has, in many ways, been the bedrock of his success with Stoke City in recent seasons. In the Championship, his back four set a club record for clean sheets, and the 12 successful shutouts the Potters managed during their maiden Premier League season in 2008/09 were a big reason why the club was able to dumbfound the pundits and stay up so comfortably.

Over the course of the last two season, however, cracks have begun to show, and the once-miserly Stoke defence has grown increasingly porous. A number of basic individual errors are costing the team with alarming regularity. Last season, the number of goals conceded from set pieces was well into double figures, in spite of the Midlanders’ own reliance on them in their attacking play. Similar lapses in concentration have carried over into this campaign as well, the Potteries outfit slumped to three consecutive defeats in their last three Premier League outings, with the decisive goals all stemming from careless, sloppy defending.

A major, long-standing problem with Stoke’s back four lies in the full back positions. Pulis’ preference for four centre backs across the defence adds height both in defending set pieces and in attacking from corners and free kicks at the other end. However, such a move has already sacrificed mobility and positional awareness in the full back slots. Both Robert Huth, who clearly hates playing at right back, and Danny Collins, who took a disastrously long time to acclimatise to life as a Stoke player despite having spent much of his career as a left back, have a tendency to get sucked into the centre, allowing wingers the time and space to whip crosses over and constantly punish the Potters.

The distribution of his defenders from the back must also be giving Pulis cause for concern. Time and again, aimless long punts upfield lead to the team surrendering possession and being put straight back under the cosh once more. The centre backs, and captain Ryan Shawcross especially, are just as guilty of this as the full backs. To his credit, Danny Collins has improved dramatically during this campaign, and his simple, tidy use of the ball, and the understanding he has developed with Matthew Etherington has become perhaps the first rung on the ladder of improving the defence’s passing. This could be further improved by bringing in a right back who is comfortable on the ball and who gets tighter to the opposing left winger.

There has been much talk among Stoke fans of pairing Huth in the centre of defence alongside Shawcross, but another option might be to sign a more cultured, ball-playing centre back to partner the young Stoke captain. The best teams seem to have at the heart of their rearguard such a combination of silk and steel, after all.

Stoke, under Pulis at least, will always be to some extent a direct team, but if they are to develop into a team less wasteful in possession, and recapture their parsimony at the back, then a defensive makeover is urgently required.

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