Club Focus – Stoke – Bittersweet Christmas for Potters

Stoke go into the new year with mixed emotions after a festive period that shone a beacon on their strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. The Boxing Day win over Blackburn at Ewood Park underlined the progress that Tony Pulis’ men have made this season. The Staffordshire side enjoyed a relatively comfortable victory at a ground where only Arsenal and Chelsea had won during the campaign so far, launching themselves to the dizzying heights of eighth in the Premier League in the process. The game illustrated the improvements in Stoke’s set up since last season.

Whereas the team had struggled previously to create goalscoring opportunities, with only Wolves and relegated Hull and Portsmouth having fewer shots in 2009/10, the five clear-cut chances Stoke fashioned at fortress Ewood, along with the two goals scored, are representative of the Potters’ increased goal threat, thanks to the presence of players like Kenwyne Jones in attack and Jermaine Pennant on the right wing. Moreover, while the Midlands outfit suffered last term from a knack of conceding late goals, this season they top the table for the number of goals scored in the last 10 minutes, a statistic that speaks volumes about the renewed commitment and conditioning of Pulis’ players.

The contributions of fringe players such as Jon Walters and Marc Wilson at Blackburn also highlighted the strength in depth that the Potters now possess in certain departments. The hard working Walters is not the most beloved player among the Boothen End faithful, but his strength, boundless harrying and clever touches, such as the lofted ball to Ricardo Fuller that set Stoke on the way to their decisive second goal on Boxing Day, have been very much underrated. Similarly, the injury time strike from the barely-glimpsed Marc Wilson, only just on as a substitute, presented Potters fans with the unusual sight of a midfielder appearing in the opposition penalty area, and the young Irishman finished with some aplomb.

Yet at home to Fulham on Tuesday, Stoke turned in a lifeless display in sinking to defeat against a tea, who had been without an away win since the start of last season. Two goals in the first ten minutes proved the difference between the teams, with the visitors shutting up shop and the Potters having few ideas how to redress the balance. The loss exposed the inflexibility of Pulis’ 4-4-1-1 system. Mark Hughes’ well-organised side were well-prepared for their aerial onslaught, Fulham’s tall defenders dealing comfortably with both Rory Delap’s long throw and the long balls constantly pumped in Jones’ direction. Hughes was also alive to the danger to Stoke’s wide players, doubling up on Pennant and Matthew Etherington and more often than not snuffing out the Midlanders’ primary line of supply.

Stoke fans might also have been concerned by the manager’s reluctance to even slightly alter a system that patently was not working. The changes made, such as the introduction of Tuncay and Wilson, were made with slavish dedication to the existing formation, whereas an additional, more attacking player in midfield, or the replacement of the target man, Jones, with a smaller, quicker player, might have proven more successful, or at least offered something less predictable.

Everton are next to visit the Potteries on New Year’s Day, but the dawn of 2011, and with it the opening of the transfer window, brings Tony Pulis to something of a crossroads regarding the direction of his team.

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