Without Wilkinson, Stoke’s defence reverted to the shambolic state of earlier in the season. The disruption of the strong central defensive partnership of Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross, with the German shunted to right-back to deputise for Wilkinson, left the Potters’ rearguard looking vulnerable throughout the 90 minutes. Huth, who has excelled at centre-back, looks far less assured as a full-back, where his lack of mobility and tendency to drift into the centre and leave the flank exposed can prove costly. Indeed, both of Wigan’s goals on Saturday came down the Stoke right, with Huth giving away a free kick in a dangerous area from which Danny Collins put through his own goal. The makeshift right-back was also turned easily by Tom Cleverley, who lived up to his name with some inventive play before firing in a deflected second for his team.
The last two games have seen Pulis to replace the unfit Pennant with Tuncay on the right wing to some effect, as clever passes from the Turk led to goals against both West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City. Yet the Stoke manager opted to start with the more robust Jon Walters on the right at Wigan, leaving it until the 82nd minute to introduce Tuncay, which proved too late to make an impact. Walters toiled, but ultimately lacked the incisive attacking threat and crossing ability of the injured Pennant, forcing the team to rely almost solely on Matthew Etherington’s pace down the left.
The rigidity of Stoke’s 4-4-1-1 system arguably accentuates the extent to which Stoke miss absent first choice players. Dean Whitehead’s move to right back last weekend deprived the team of his energy in midfield. Rory Delap’s awareness and throw were missed when he pulled his calf in October, while the team looked far less potent going forward when Ricardo Fuller’s shoulder injury made him unavailable for selection. This is partly because the players brought in to replace them struggled to do the same job as effectively; Tuncay, for example, is undoubtedly a quality player, yet cannot produce his best form in a forward position set up to favour the Kenwyne Jones and Fuller irrespective of whether those players are on the field or not.
4-4-1-1 has served the Potters incredibly well during their meteoric rise over the last three seasons, but perhaps the time has come for Stoke to look at different formations, in order to change things when Plan A is not working and get the best out of the players available for selection. It is no time to panic with the club on a five game unbeaten run, but the return of the right sided twosome cannot come soon enough for Tony Pulis.