Premier League 14th
FA Cup Quarter-Final
League Cup Fourth Round
Europa League Round of 32
Following the euphoria of their Europe sojourn last season, the Stoke City fans, the players and the manager Tony Pulis can be forgiven for the lacklustre league form that saw them finish 14th – their lowest league position in their time in the Premier League. While of course the added travelling exertions of a European campaign had an effect, Pulis and his backroom staff would be wise not to solely blame that for their patchy league form.
Indeed, since they blasted their way into the big time through Rory Delap’s long throws and their forward power-play, the Potters have slowly been going backwards. Under fan pressure to adjust their style of play to a more “footballing” approach, Pulis’ glamour signings such as Tuncay, Eidur Gudjohnson and Wilson Palacios have either not been given a chance or failed to perform. Pulis has struggled to marry a more attractive style while remaining committed to the combativeness that characterised performances at the Britannia. The proof has been in the results: from being 17 points clear of relegation at the end of 2010 to only nine points at the end of last season.
Perhaps wary of Blackburn’s demise as they sought to alter their style, Pulis’ reaction has been to clear the decks of the under-performing luxuries. Jonathan Woodgate and Ricardo Fuller have been allowed to depart and in their place come signings straight from the Pulis mould: hard-working, hungry and with something to prove. Winger Michael Kightly has arrived from Wolves together with the versatile Jamie Ness from Rangers, the similarly adaptable Geoff Cameron from the MLS and Goran Popov from Dynamo Kiev. The latter will look to solve Stoke’s problem at left-back. Such arrivals have been compared to the signings of Abdoulaye Faye, Danny Higginbotham and Matt Etherington in 2008-09; honest players that can be counted on to give 100% in a variety of positions.
The addition of Kightly has the fans at the Britannia particularly excited. They were left exasperated by Jermaine Pennant’s “efforts” on the right-wing last term, but with Kightly augmenting the consistent performances and delivery of Etherington on the left, the likes of Peter Crouch, Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters up front can be expected to thrive. The possibility of Michael Owen arriving to play alongside Crouch is also one to savour.
In midfield, if more can be coaxed out of Palacios then Stoke could really have a midfield and striking presence to be reckoned with, particularly with the backline being marshalled by Robert Huth (barring any long-term ill-effects as he recovers from viral meningitis) and Ryan Shawcross, one of the great prides of the Britannia. Additionally, with Delap finally being eased out of the picture, a replacement long-throw specialist appears to have been found in Ryan Shotton, who remains raw yet talented with ball in hand.
While the Stoke faithful may not witness the excitement of previous years, a much needed return to stability in terms of results and playing style on the pitch should keep the fans satisifed. Manager – Tony Pulis: The 54-year-old Welshman enters his seventh year of a remarkable reign as Stoke manager facing an acute challenge: does he continue his attempt to change Stoke’s robust style of play or does he revert to the tried and tested methods which have brought the Potters their success?
Key signing – Michael Kightly: A winger plucked from non-league football in 2007, last season Kightly finally overcame two years on the treatment table to become one of Wolves‘ only bright spots in a dismal campaign. Comparable to the inspired signing of Matt Etherington in 2009, who similarly came to the Britannia with something to prove.
Key sale – Jonathan Woodgate: The ex-England defender whose arrival was celebrated as a coup 12 months ago headed home to the North East following an underwhelming season. Though admittedly having just returned from almost two seasons on the sidelines, Woodgate often appeared to be running through treacle, particularly during an ill-fated spell at right-back.
Keep an eye out for… Stoke going back to basics. The summer signings seem to point to a return to the industrious, workman-like performances that shocked the Premier League after Stoke’s promotion back in 2008. This will be epitomised by the continued appearances of Ryan Shotton, armed with a monster long throw and groomed as Delap’s “successor”.