They’re not the most fashionable side in the Barclays Premier League and they’re certainly not the most stylish but, over the last four seasons, Stoke City, under manager Tony Pulis, have managed to establish themselves as Premier League perennials. However, after reaching the knock out stages of the Europa League last season (the first time the Potters had qualified for Europe’s second competition since 1974/75), things have started to go awry for the Staffordshire side and Premier League wins have become a rare, unexpected luxury. Can Tony Pulis’s men turn things around or should Stoke fans truly be worried.
Stoke arrived in the Premier League after gaining automatic promotion from the Championship at the end of the 2007/08 season. Having endured a top flight absence of twenty three years, little was expected of the Potters upon their return; an opening day defeat to Bolton persuaded many that their moment in the limelight would prove to be only fleeting. However, the predictions of doubters had to be revised, and quickly so, as the Potters’ strong home record saw them prove their critics wrong and comfortably avoid the drop by finishing twelfth at the end of the 08/09 campaign.
Tony Pulis took over at the Britannia during the early part of the 02/03 season but was sacked at the end of the 04/05 season, following a disagreement between him and the club’s Icelandic owners over his transfer policy and the funds made available. Dutch manager, Johan Boskamp was named as a replacement, however his tenure would prove a short one-leaving at the end of the 05/06 season whilst the club was in the midst of a takeover bid by former chairman Peter Coates. Coates succeeded in ousting Gunnar Gislason and resumed control at the Britannia, where his first move was to re-appoint Pulis as the club’s manager.
Cutting his managerial teeth at Bournemouth where he was Harry Redknapp’s assistant, Pulis then went on to manage Gillingham, Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth (with a varying degree of success), before taking over at Stoke. Having secured Premier League survival at the first attempt by making the Britannia into a fortress where even the top teams could be sure of a rough ride, Pulis set about establishing the club as mainstays of the Premier League.
The £14m+ spent by Pulis on players in preparation for the Potters’ first Premier League season proved to be a worthy investment and, as Pulis’s ambition grew, his chairman obliged by matching this ambition monetarily. Another £5.75m was splashed out in January as the goal of survival was attained easily. The following season over £20m was spent on bringing new players in to the club, with the arrivals of Roberth Huth, Dean Whitehead and Asmir Begovic, amongst others. Stoke improved their lot on the previous season by finishing the campaign in eleventh place.
Gaining a reputation as a physical side that were tough to beat but didn’t score too many goals, Pulis again went into the transfer market before the following season. In an attempt to add more creativity and a more potent goal threat, nearly £13m was spent on new players (including Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters), whilst several others- including Jermaine Pennant- arrived on loan. James Beattie and Dave Kitson were a couple of the names who departed the club but only nominal transfer fees were received. Despite the money lavished on attacking options, Pulis could only guide his side to thirteenth position in the table by the end of the campaign. However, a run to the FA Cup final (where they were defeated by City), brought a sense of pride to Potters fans and secured Stoke a place in the 2011/12 Europa League.
Conscious of the extra strain that European competition would bring upon his squad, Pulis again looked to strengthen and, in the summer of 2011, persuaded his chairman to stump up over £18m for players, which included Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios. The new signings seemed to give the squad that extra depth which would be required for relative success, both domestically and in Europe, and Stoke began the season well. The Potters lost one of their first six matches, taking points off Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United at the Britannia in the process and, despite a run of four consecutive defeats shortly afterwards, they sat eighth in the Premier league by mid-December and had qualified for the knock out phase of the Europa League.
Everything seemed to be on the up, with Stoke seemingly set to cement a top ten finish for the first time since re-joining the top flight. Since then however, the wheels have rather fallen off the Stoke bandwagon. From December 17th 2011 until the end of the season in May, Pulis’s men managed just four Premier League victories in twenty-two games. Two of those victories came against Blackburn and Wolves –teams that were relegated at the end of the 11/12 season. Valencia put paid to any faint hopes of European glory that Potters’ fans might have had by recording 1-0 victories home and away, knocking the Staffordshire club out of the Europa League.
Things haven’t picked up for Pulis or for Stoke since the new Premier League season began. Neither results nor performances have improved despite the club forking out another £15.6m in transfer fees during the summer. The Potters have won just once all season, making it just five wins from thirty-two Premier League games, and last week’s defeat by Norwich City- another club who’ve not enjoyed the best of starts- set the alarm bells ringing.
Stoke’s problem is fairly simple; they lack creativity and therefore goals. In spite of Tony Pulis’s stated desire to add a little more flair, play a little more football and gradually evolve his side from simply using their physicality, Stoke are actually playing with less flair, creating fewer opportunities and scoring less goals than ever before than ever before. The Potters have managed just eight goals all season and only twenty-six in their last thirty-two games. Played out over a season of thirty-eight games, this second statistic equates to around thirty goals in a season. Simply put, this is a massive problem for Pulis; no team has maintained top flight status with a final goal tally of thirty or less since Manchester City managed it, a full six seasons ago.
Since guiding Stoke to the Premier League, Tony Pulis’s net spend is over £75m. £31m of this has been spent in the last two seasons (including the current one), with the vast majority being spent on attacking players such as the sfore mentioned Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones but also more recently on the likes of Charlie Adam and Michael Kightly, however these signings have had little positive impact over the last calendar year and Stoke are, in effect, moving backwards. Pulis’s response to his side’s alarming loss of form has been to blame referees for Stoke’s results and to go on a personal crusade on the subject of diving in an attempt to divert onlookers from the obvious dearth of attacking creativity afflicting his side.
So, should Stoke fans be worried? The short answer is yes. This is not simply a bad start to the season, the Potters are in the midst of an awful run which has lasted the best part of a year. Once a side has gotten into one of these slumps and failed to arrest it quickly, it can be close to impossible to stop the rot. Stoke aren’t creating chances, they aren’t scoring goals, yet they are still conceding goals. Not by the bucketload, it has to be said, however it’s a worrying point, particularly when the manager appears to have no answers to the side’s predicament.
Looking ahead, Stoke’s next two games are huge and could have a significant impact how their season will eventually unfold. The first is against an improving QPR at home, a game in which Mark Hughes will be desperate for his side to register their first win of the season. The second is an away trip to Upton Park where West Ham have been impressive this term, losing just once in six matches so far. Stoke need to win at least one of those games; if they don’t, worry should turn to panic. Fulham and Newcastle are set to visit the Britannia before November’s out and Pulis will be eager to take points off them, before a tough December sees his team face Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and a trip to the Hawthorns to take on a very strong West Bromwich Albion side.
Finally, Ryan Shawcross, Stoke’s stand out defender over the last several years, appears to be firmly on the radars of top clubs including Manchester United and Tottenham. Stoke are set to offer Shawcross a lengthy, improved deal in a bid to head off offers from the Premier League big boys. However, with the situation at the Britannia as it is and the size and reputation of the clubs that are reportedly interested, Pulis’s loyal servant may well have his head turned in January. Losing Shawcross would be a massive blow for the Potters as, alongside Robert Huth, he has formed one of the most solid, unforgiving central defensive partnerships in the league. Even with Shawcross, this season is shaping up to be a huge challenge for Stoke, without his steel at the back the challenge may prove too much.
Pulis image by Staffs.live . Shawcross image by Ronnie Macdonald