Club Focus – Stoke – Stoke paying the price for tactical approach

Having escaped with a scarcely deserved victory over Sunderland last weekend at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke were forced to endure a dose of karmic payback on Saturday. They did so by slumping to an injury-time defeat against Birmingham despite having been the better side for much of the game. It was never likely to be a contest for the neutral, given the low-scoring teams involved, and Stoke were further hamstrung by the absence of their chief creative threat; the injured Matthew Etherington. Nevertheless, the Potters started brightly, causing the hosts problems down the flanks through ex-Birmingham star Jermaine Pennant and the confident Jon Walters, and the team’s first half display showed promise. The second half saw Alex McCleish’s side wake up and start to play like the home side, but the Potteries outfit continued to provide a threat in and around the box.

Beyond a Seb Larsson effort that flew just wide, the Blues gave Stoke precious little to worry about. However, with just 20 minutes remaining and the game finely balanced, Tony Pulis seemed to wave a white flag by replacing Pennant with defensive midfielder Glenn Whelan, and with a stroke of magic he removed any width from the side and robbed it of its lone outlet. This baffling change was compounded by Pulis’ decision to wait until the 80th minute to introduce Ricardo Fuller, despite yet another ineffective display from Kenwyne Jones. They appeared to settle for a draw in what was very much a winnable game, but the Potters’ boss ensured his men went home empty handed.

It was Stoke’s fourth consecutive away defeat in the Premier League, and what is worrying for Pulis’ team is that their problems of late are almost entirely self-inflicted. At a time when more creative options were needed, they now have fewer in their ranks than at this stage last season. The failure to replace Tuncay means that there is now no effective cover for Etherington, who has provided more assists than any other Stoke player this term, while reducing the number of impact players in the squad – Ricardo Fuller was the sole attacking option on the bench at St. Andrews.

Of equal concern is Pulis’ return to an ultra-cautious approach. While Stoke were more creative at Birmingham than in recent away showings, Pulis again made a puzzlingly conservative change that effectively neutered Stoke as an attacking threat, just as he did at Fulham last month. Meanwhile, Wigan’s weekend point at Anfield made a mockery of Pulis’ ability to essentially write off Stoke’s opportunity for grabbing points in their recent trip to Merseyside, in which he deployed a backs-to-the-wall 4-5-1 formation. It is a far cry from earlier in the season, when the Potters seemed to treat every game as winnable.

Why, then, when Stoke seemed primed for an assault on the top half of the table, have they retreated into their shell? Tony Pulis has spent much of his managerial career as the underdog – is he beginning to struggle under the weight of expectation? Pulis has always maintained that it will take three seasons for Stoke to establish themselves as a Premier League team. Those three years are nearly up, and it is still a mission that is all but accomplished. What comes next will say much about the direction of both the club and its manager.

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