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Student Contributions

Jacob Dirnhuber
Lower Sixth
School House

It’s all about Stoke

It’s all about Stoke

For Arsenal fans, a glance at the premier league table is depressing to say the least. The club traditionally known for their defensive steel and unwavering resolve now languish in twelfth place at the time of writing, five points away from the final Champions League spot and nine from 1st place. What is more shocking is that they have conceded fourteen goals in six games. For the fans of Stoke, casting an eye over the table is a far more agreeable experience. Their team sit proudly in seventh place at the time of writing, unbeaten at home and having conceded a single goal at the Britannia. That is a far more impressive feat considering they have already welcomed three teams who are expected to finish in the top four — Liverpool, Chelsea, and the champions, Manchester United. Stoke collected 5 points from these games, conceding only once, to the Manchester United side who had famously dismantled Arsenal in an 8–2 victory. Many managers would be lapping up the plaudits for this minor miracle, but Tony Pulis has his detractors.

Stoke’s ‘agricultural’ style of play is effective but not attractive. Footballing purists frown upon them, some even believe that they have gained what they did through cheating. There is a belief that teams should attack with impunity, in order to preserve the spectacle of the Barclays Premier League. Football fans to not want to be subjected to 90 minutes of last-ditch defending broken by a solitary goal, typically from a set piece and Stoke’s only shot of the game. Teams like Wigan, Bolton, and more recently, Swansea, try to play like Barcelona, and whilst it may work spectacularly in two or so games, the cold, hard facts speak for themselves. Whilst Wigan were scrapping for premier league survival on match day 38 last year, Stoke were comfortable, unattractive, and crucially safe. Blackpool’s heroic failure was lamented by many, their football may have been beautiful, but they were relegated. Stoke fans do not care however. Watching their team may not be pleasing for the neutrals, but boy, it is for them. It is a credit to the entire club that the Britannia is now regarded as a graveyard for title-chasers, the hardest place to come away with three points out of the top four. So how did Pulis and Co. achieve this?

Stoke buy the players they need for their system, instead of doing what so many managers in England are guilty of, they cut the holes to fit the round pegs, rather than using a set system and forcing the players to adapt. Many teams play with a style unsuited to their players, and pay the price for doing so. Stoke target a certain type of player, who slots into the team’s evolving style. The defenders and central midfielders are what would be described as ‘no-nonsense’. At the moment, Pulis seems to favour traditional English wingers, of the hard-working chalk-on-the-boots variety. The strikers excel with their backs to goal and in the air, although there is normally at least one ‘technical’ player on the pitch.

When they first arrived in the premier league, the preferred method of service to the strikers was a long ball from the centre-backs. One of the strikers would knock it down for a runner who would either burrow his way into the penalty area and take a shot, or better, strike it at an enemy player in order to win either a corner or a throw in. Stoke’s Irish midfielder Rory Delap is renowned for his long throw-ins, and Pulis found a way to utilise this weapon to its maximum potential. Once the throw in was won, Stoke’s considerably sized team would take their positions in the penalty area and simultaneously charge into the six-yard box, their momentum and muscle giving them a huge advantage when it came to attacking the incoming ball. Stoke ended up scoring the most goals from set-pieces and throw-ins, and finished in a solid, if unspectacular, 12th position.

The following summer, they strengthened with the acquisitions of Robert Huth and Tuncay Sanli, both from newly-relegated Middlesbrough. German international Huth was brought in to partner Ryan Shawcross in central defence, whilst Sanli was purchased in order to add some continental flair to Stoke’s rugged and at times, one-dimensional play. He took upon the role of the ‘technical’ player, the one who could be relied upon to produce a moment of magic when Stoke needed it most. Stoke finished 11th, with Tuncay’s most telling contribution a sublime back-heel to equalise at the death against Manchester City. Despite this, he was shipped out to Wolfsburg and replaced by Eiður Guðjohnsen from AS Monaco. However, the two most important transfers that summer were those of the ex-Liverpool and Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant and Sunderland’s Kenwye Jones. With the addition of Pennant, Stoke now had a credible threat down both sides, two wingers who could provide the ammunition that Jones and Walters would thrive upon, whilst not shirking from their defensive responsibilities. Stoke finished a disappointing 13th, but qualified for the Europa League via a 5–0 FA cup semi-final thrashing of Bolton Wanderers. The contribution of Pennant and Jones was vital, as Stoke comfortably broke their previous scoring record of 38 with a 46 goal haul in the league. Last summer, Stoke announced their intentions to the Premier League; they would not settle for mid-table mediocrity. They purchased the Spurs duo of Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios. Both players have the physique expected of Stoke signings, but unlike in the past, they both have far greater technical qualities than recent signings have had. They combine the muscle with the magic, in the past Pulis had to settle for specialists, now he can field the hybrids.

The secret of the success is that nobody wants to play like Stoke, which means that their players are relatively safe from the bigger clubs. Who fits in at Stoke will have trouble adjusting to the passing game of more competitive teams. Last season, plaudit-laden Blackpool had their season destabilised by Liverpool’s courting of their star midfielder Charlie Adam, who was not the same player after he was denied his dream move. Adam flopped for the remainder of the season, and Blackpool were condemned to the championship. Wigan lost Charles N’Zogbia, the man who single-handedly kept them in the league, to Aston Villa, who in turn waved goodbye to their star wingers Stewart Downing and Ashley Young. Stoke prepared for the summer safe and secure in the knowledge that their players would remain un-courted. They may have purchased stars such as Crouch and Palacios, but perhaps come the end of the season; they will remain un-pursued, not because they would not fit into other teams, but because those other teams cannot equal their own. Stoke are revolutionising, and this will not go unnoticed for long.

It may be frustrating when our teams go to the Britannia, it may be painful to watch, but Stoke fans don’t care, and they shouldn’t. Remember the result, and not how you acquire it. Unlike so many unfortunate teams, Stoke are in the Premier League for the long-haul.

3 October 2011

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