Club Focus – Stoke City – United in strength, but Stoke could be stronger

Stoke City can have very few complaints at the moment. The Potters currently sit eight in the Premier League and are enjoying a four game unbeaten run that has seen them drop just two points in games against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Midlands rivals Birmingham and West Brom. Yet the injuries to Jermaine Pennant and Andy Wilkinson on Saturday have provided something of a concern. The two had formed an effective understanding on the Stoke right in recent weeks, and the extent to which Pennant’s hamstring injury and Wilkinson’s exacerbated knee knock will disrupt this partnership is still, as yet, unknown. The winter months are usually the time of the season when the mettle of a side is really tested, as injuries and suspensions kick in, and the new 25-man squad ruling has magnified this examination.

One only has to look at the Stoke bench these days, strewn with Champions’ League winners, Confederations Cup Silver Ball Winners and assorted internationals, to see the strides that the Potteries outfit have made in terms of strength in depth since promotion in 2008. Tony Pulis prizes versatility highly in his recruitment of players, with various members of his squad able to cover a multitude of positions. The weekend draw with Manchester City underlined this, as Dean Whitehead dropped from central midfield to deputise for Wilkinson at right back, while Tuncay – introduced as a replacement for Pennant on the right wing – was shoved up front late on, a position from which he would play a pivotal role in Stoke’s last-gasp equaliser.

Pulis’ belief in versatility has certainly proven useful, and this coupled with the ever-improving quality of Stoke’s squad appears to suggest that the Potters are fairly well-equipped to deal with any problems that injuries and suspensions might throw up. There is little to choose from between the club’s goalkeepers or central midfielders, while the likes of Tuncay and Eidur Gudjohnsen wait in reserve should any misfortune befall any of the first choice attackers. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and cracks start to appear. The indifferent form of ageing centre backs Abdoulaye Faye and Danny Higginbotham does not exactly breed confidence about their ability to fill in for either member of the Anglo-German axis of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth at the heart of the Stoke defence.

While, in many respects, Stoke’s midfielders are much of a muchness, Whitehead’s exit from the centre of the park on Saturday robbed the engine room of a dynamism that the team struggled to recover. Neither has the playing style evolved sufficiently that Pulis’ men can comfortably do without Rory Delap and his touchline missile.

Up front, the Midlanders possess on paper the strongest strike force seen in the Potteries in decades. However, an injury to Kenwyne Jones would deprive the team of strength and a key goal threat that would be hard to replace, while Stoke look even more impotent without the talismanic, unpredictable Fuller.

The January transfer window is traditionally quiet compared to its more extravagant summer brother, but in spite of the strong squad available to him, there is still plenty of scope for Tony Pulis to be one of the more active managers in the new year sales.

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