The problem with Stoke City is complacency not brutality argues Greg Johnson…
Next season Tony Pulis will be the second longest serving manager in the Premier League after Arsene Wenger, but in that time, what has he achieved with Stoke City?
Compared to the standards most other clubs measure themselves by, not a lot. Silverware has been non-existant and plaudits scarce, with the only stability being the certainty of an annual clamour for 40 points each season.
While provincial clubs to struggling to keep their head above water in the top-flight is nothing new, since their promotion in 2008, Stoke have spent £80M, and currently rank as the third highest net spend in the division.
Rather than trophies, popularity or sustainability, Pulis’ greatest accomplishment is the fear factor generated by his team of brutish giants and jilted cast-offs.
Stoke are the scourge of the Premier League, and they revel in their reputation. In fact, the league itself revels in their infamy, with the Potters now an unlikely asset to the branded tapestry of the English game.
Regardless of what Richard Scuadmore and his PR team would have you believe, the Premier League is not the greatest league in the world. It can’t even be considered to be the most exciting league for attacking football while the Bundesliga remains rampant; lacks the technical excellence and glamour of La Liga; and falters when it comes to Serie A’s varied and competitive title races and tactical nous.
Instead, the greatest strength of the Premier League is the diversity of styles and playing approaches featured within its roster of 20 clubs, with Stoke the most severe strain.
They are as key to the whole charade as the evil villain in a pantomime, or the characters the make up a superhero’s gallery of rogues. Acting as a natural counterpoint to the likes of Arsenal and Swansea City, they beautify sides favoured by the purists through their opposition and add a richness to the division through their awkward difference.
When in-form, Stoke are a challenge that must be met – a randomising factor to keep teams honest and predictions interesting. Their football isn’t beautiful yet it doesn’t need to be, and it would be wrong – perhaps even patronising – to try and prettify what they’re about.
For those who enjoy a degree of brutality and direct football, Stoke City can be an incredibly satisfying team to watch. Peter Crouch’s wonder goal against Manchester City last year was extraordinary not just because of the fortune involved in its finish, but the route the ball took to the gangly striker’s foot. A long ball from Begovic headed to Pennant by Crouch and back without once touching the floor – a quintessential response to their ideological rivals obsessed with keeping passes on the deck.
Not unlike the most angular, blocky examples of Brutalist architecture, Stoke’s football is played as if obsessed with functionality and limiting frills, to the point where their pragmatism almost becomes its own dogmatic ideology. The midfield is a null-zone to be bypassed in attack or butchered in defence; the wings an assembly line within a narrowly defined corridor rather than a wide route to improvisation; universality through strength and size rather than total football in the shape of Geoff Cameron and co.
For those unappreciative of their way of playing, Stoke can come across as incredibly low rent. In a world of increasingly twee players and intricate tactics they appear cold, remorseless and regimented, seeking to dominate games with their relentless physicality, like spring-footed tyrants with sharp elbows and aerial superiority.
Stoke don’t exist to win hearts of minds but to terrify opponents, empty bowels and supply a blunt hit of obnoxious, irresistible defiance with every goal, block and challenge. At their best they’re football’s equivalent to a Hollywood bad company film – a detachment of last chancers once described by their baseball cap wearing, tracksuited Welsh colonel as the league’s Battersea Dogs Home for unwanted and abandoned footballers. At Stoke, the forsaken are encouraged to brood over their presence at the club, growing hungry for the chance to strike back at the sophisticates and footballing establishment that shunned them.
Their’s can never be a tale of redemption however – once a player has submitted themselves to methods of Tony Pulis its difficult to see them escaping to a more progressive team.
Rather than wrestle with aesthetics, the real issue with Stoke is waste and complacency. That 40 point target has become a mental block for Pulis and his players who, this year especially, appeared to switch off as they approached their target figure, dismantling their impressive defensive record from earlier in the season.
It’s unrealistic for the club to ever aim to trouble the highest quarter of the league table, but setting his sights on the breadline each year isn’t good enough for a manager who has spent so much. Europa League qualification should be the bare minimum, not avoiding the drop.
Perhaps the time has come to dimiss Pulis? Wolves’ sacking of Mick McCarthy showed the dangers of doing away with a manager making an old fashioned style of football tick over at the top, but arguably the club should have replaced him a summer or so before a relegation that looked increasingly inevitable.
Then again, the Stoke City of today wouldn’t be the same with Tony Pulis, and the Premier League would miss their most notorious bullies whether they were defanged or faded away. Here’s hoping Pulis’ home for footballing mongrels without pedigree and bitter rejects continues to hoover up the obsolete Number Nines and living traditions that no longer fit in elsewhere at other clubs.
Perhaps Stoke are merely biding their time until Andy Carroll and Connor Wickham become available to add into their sea of six-footers, and complete Tony Pulis’ master plan. They may never become world beaters in a title-chasing sense, but with the funds available it is Pulis’ duty to develop Stoke to their logical extreme rather than stand still behind a verbal blanket of excuses and referee complaints.
Another year of relegation flirtation next season and he may lose his plundering rights in the Premier League for good.