The Stoke manager elected to park the bus on Merseyside, leaving out four of his more influential players in Matthew Etherington, Ricardo Fuller, Kenwyne Jones and Rory Delap, to go 4-5-1, with John Carew ploughing a lonely furrow on his own up front. On some level, Pulis’ caution was perhaps understandable – Liverpool are resurgent under Kenny Dalglish and the Potters’ boss clearly hoped to quieten the buoyant Kop in the early going by stifling the home side, something his team did fairly effective in the opening 45 minutes. The problem with such an approach, however, is that it only takes one mistake to undo everything, and so it proved straight after the restart. A typically reckless tackle from Salif Diao gave Liverpool a free kick in a dangerous position, and nobody tracked Raul Meireles when the ball broke loose in the area. There would be no way back for Stoke.
By leaving out so many of his first choice players, Pulis left himself at the mercy of events on the pitch, just as at Fulham a fortnight ago. In that game, the Welshman bemoaned the dismissal of Ryan Shawcross, which he claimed derailed his plans to make a treble substitution involving Fuller, Jermaine Pennant and John Carew. It was a similar story against the Reds, with centre back Abdoulaye Faye’s injury reducing Pulis’ options in terms of attacking changes. It is a curious gamble to leave one’s best forward players on the bench and pray that the game is still salvageable by the time they are introduced, but it is one that Pulis has used with mixed success throughout his tenure at the Britannia Stadium.
What was most galling for the travelling Stoke support was the team’s near-total lack of attacking intent, failing to win even a corner, and managing just one solitary shot on target all night. Carew’s frustration at being completely isolated became increasingly evident, with even a belated switch to 4-3-3, with Fuller and Pennant playing either side of the big Norwegian, making little difference.
Both Pulis and Assistant Manager David Kemp pointed to the team’s hectic fixture schedule, with three games in just six days beginning with last Sunday’s FA Cup victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, as the reasoning behind the drastic changes made. Yet just five first team regulars started at Molineux, perhaps suggesting that the management team does not trust his players’ fitness to withstand two games in a week, let alone three.
With two dire league performances in their wake, along with a frustrating transfer window that has arguably rendered the squad weaker than it was on December 31st, Stoke’s season is in danger of going off the rails. A positive result in Saturday’s lunchtime game against Sunderland, back on home turf at the Britannia Stadium, is vital.