While Ameobi, who never looked entirely fit or focused in a Stoke shirt, is not blameless for his failure in ST4, in hindsight his plight offered the first hints that the rigidity of the striking roles in Pulis’ 4-4-1-1 system could prove problematic. The positions are clearly defined; the target man operates behind a main striker. The former is tasked with winning aerial balls and holding up play – a selfless, exhausting, demanding job. The latter, generally a rapid, inventive forward or penalty box poacher, prowls ahead of him, looking to feed off the target man’s flick ons.
The system has served Stoke well up to a point. Although Stoke have established themselves in the top flight with relative comfort, goals have proven hard to come by, despite spending around £27m on forwards since promotion. Stoke’s style focuses on retaining shape and keeping it tight first and foremost, and such a strategy is not conducive to going goal crazy. It is telling that no Stoke striker, in either the Championship or the Premier League, has scored 20 goals in a season during Pulis’ eight years at the club.
The target man role has been a particular concern. The only player to enjoy consistent success in the position is a survivor from the Championship days, Mamady Sidibe. Sidibe is a popular figure among the Potters’ faithful, who admire his loyalty, commitment and work rate, but the Malian is a long way from Premier League quality. Barely mobile, with a poor touch and horrendous scoring record, his success in Pulis’ system owes everything to his strength, height, and explicit understanding of his brief – not to score goals, but ruffle feathers. Pulis has invested heavily in searching for an upgrade, yet superior, more ambitious strikers have struggled to get to grips with what has become known as “the Mama role”. Starved of service with little support from two deep sitting central midfielders, the ball almost invariably played to head and not to feet thirty yards from goal, it is a position that has not catered to the strengths of the likes of Dave Kitson, James Beattie or Kenwyne Jones, but rather than adapting to accommodate such players, Stoke have merely shoehorned them in to do the same job in the same way, to the frustration of player and fans alike. There has been little sign of that changing this term.
With Sidibe now a fixture on the treatment table, and an off-form Ricardo Fuller almost certain to follow Tuncay out of the door this summer, Pulis’ hand might be forced to play to the strengths of his existing strikers or those he brings in to replace them. His reaction to this changing of the guard could be the most pivotal decision of his managerial career.