x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Stoke City's present plight not hard to fathom

Stoke's only league win in 2013 has come against Reading. A side built from the back have a solitary clean sheet during that stretch.

Stoke City's slump has seen them slip into a relegation fight in the closing weeks of the Premier League season.
Stoke City's slump has seen them slip into a relegation fight in the closing weeks of the Premier League season.

It was unlike Stoke City. Indeed, it was unlike any professional football team, let alone one which, in the first half of the season, had the Premier League's best-drilled defence.

As Christian Benteke powered away to score Aston Villa's third goal at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, three of his teammates surged forward alongside him.

No Stoke City players accompanied them. It was four against one, the goalkeeper Asmir Begovic hopelessly outnumbered long before he was beaten.

Stoke had committed men forward to search for an equaliser, but it was still uncharacteristic.

It provided an image to sum them up.

Suddenly, it seems, things are falling apart.

When they overwhelmed Liverpool on Boxing Day, they sat securely in eighth place, just five points off the top four.

A sixth successive season of top-flight football appeared assured.

Not now. Their past six games have produced two goals and one point.

Stoke's only league win in 2013 has come against the division's poorest team, Reading. A side built from the back have a solitary clean sheet during that stretch.

And when a watertight defence develops leaks, familiar failings become more important.

Stoke's style of play has long been criticised, but regardless of their aesthetic appeal, there is factual evidence of their struggles to score.

This season, like last, they have been the division's least prolific team and had the fewest attempts at goal. Indeed, in 2012/13, no club in Europe's top five leagues worked opposition goalkeepers less.

The emphases on hard work, rather than skill, on physical power instead of technical excellence, on positional discipline - meaning freer spirits cannot be accommodated - are typical of Tony Pulis.

A sergeant-major of a manager, who is an advocate of national service, he has fashioned an army squadron. Stoke can bombard opponents but, all too often, they cannot create.

Pulis may be reluctant to compromise, but he is not blind to Stoke's shortcomings.

Last summer he signed Michael Owen, a bid to ensure comparatively few chances resulted in more goals, and Charlie Adam, a supposed set-piece specialist who could add invention to the midfield.

His ideas were not wrong; he just recruited the wrong players. The oft-injured Owen has rarely been available and barely touches the ball when on the field. The overrated Adam creates too little to compensate for his defensive deficiencies. Both are on the bench Pulis decided that the trade-off was not worth it. He has returned to his solid citizens and Stoke find themselves trapped in a straitjacket they donned willingly.

The last five years suggest there is a glass ceiling for Pulis's brand of football. Stoke have never finished in the Premier League's top 10. While the FA Cup run in 2010/11 and the tiring Europa League campaign 12 months later are mitigating factors, there are none this year. In an excellent spell from August to December, it seemed a breakthrough season.

In a terrible 2013, it looks like one where they will lose their prized status among the elite.

Stoke have become unusually sloppy, a reliably efficient side losing some of their effectiveness.

In the stands, there has been a groundswell of discontent about their annual spring slide and the continuing lack of entertainment.

So it is now that one of Pulis's proudest boasts becomes relevant. In 21 years and 888 games of management, he has never gone down. It is all the more impressive as, for a period in the middle of his career, the Welshman was seen as a relegation troubleshooter, parachuted into struggling Championship clubs to keep them up, no matter how.

The ends justified the means.

And so they must again, if Stoke are to survive.

Whatever the gripes about Pulis's tactics, it is too late to change. Their salvation could lie in defensive or direct football. With two of their three remaining home games coming against Manchester United and Tottenham, it is time for the Britannia Stadium to reclaim its mantle as the most intimidating ground to visit.

The Stoke supporters have the mentality of an underdog; they derive particular pleasure from embarrassing the famous and the favoured.

With away games at two of the teams below them, QPR and Sunderland, Stoke have to display their trademark obduracy. Preventing relegation rivals winning and they should stay ahead of them.

It is a short-term strategy because, in their lowest position of the season and in the worst form of anyone except Reading, it is all about the here and now.

In the broader picture, there has been an end-of-an-era feel about Pulis and Stoke. The sense is that he has taken them as far as he can, that the best they can hope for in the future is another slog through the lower reaches of mid-table.

While there is nothing shameful in that - Stoke may better appreciate their most successful manager in 40 years, when he is gone - if he is to hang up his trademark baseball cap with his reputation intact, he first requires his side to provide reminders of the reasons he has prospered. Many would say Stoke are hard to watch, but now, more than ever, they need to be hard to beat.

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