Does the style of a football team matter? Stoke City get short shrift in media coverage for their direct approach to football. They utilize a well-drilled defensive line, which aims to break-up opposition possession and get the ball forward for tall target men to hold up and bring in other players. Many of their goals come from Rory Delap’s famous long throw-ins and set piece conversions. Player/ coach Salif Diao recently described manager Tony Pulis’ thinking: “The coach (Pulis) is using a simple statistic: more than 60% of goals are scored from inside the box. So why 15 passes in the midfield if you can reach it in just one pass?”
In contrast, Blackpool have gained numerous plaudits for coming into the Premier League and trying to play a fast-paced, attacking brand of football. Ironically, this widely appreciated strategy may lead to their undoing and relegation, as players’ fatigue appears to be taking its toll towards the end of the campaign. No fear of relegation for Stoke. In fact, since Tony Pulis rejoined the team in 2006, Stoke have improved their league position year-on-year, settling in the middle of the Premier League over the last three seasons. It’s hard to conclude their style of play is not successful.
Given Stoke’s resources, five seasons of continual progress is a commendable return. Their record transfer fee is only 8m, paid for Kenwyne Jones in August 2010. A modest amount compared with many of the flasher teams in the division (Jones = about a quarter of an Andy Carroll).
Yet, having now established them as a solid, if unremarkable, Premier League side, does Pulis now have an obligation to improve Stoke’s manner of play and provide more entertainment to the paying fans? And in a wider context, since Stoke benefit financially from being part of the Premier League, should the league insist upon a more attractive game being played? Can such a subjective idea as ‘attractive style’ even be enforced?
Prior to Jones’ acquisition, Pulis appeared to be making moves towards a more expansive style of football, particularly with the introduction of Tuncay in August 2009 and Eidur Gudjohnsen in August 2010. However, both players were marginalized during their time at the club and both left the club in January (Tuncay to Wolfsburg, Gudjohnsen loaned to Fulham). There is also the emergence of Matthew Etherington, who is clearly a talented winger (his goal last week was one of the best I’ve seen this season) and the recent addition of Jermaine Pennant, adding more creativity to the wings. However, both players have flourished by playing within the already-established direct style of play – getting the play forward quickly – rather than acting as catalysts for a new approach.
Seemingly all Stoke City supporters are united in their appreciation of Tony Pulis and feel no need to question the playing policy. There is often a feeling of indignation; that they are being unfairly singled out and picked on. This has been highlighted again this week, ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final fixture with Bolton Wanderers. For many years Bolton came under similar criticism for a perceived long-ball game containing little, or no, creativity. Since Owen Coyle has taken over, there appears to have been a change in philosophy towards a more possession-based, passing game; introducing players more comfortable with the ball at their feet such as Stuart Holden, Vladimir Weiss and Jack Wilshere (on loan from Arsenal last year). Stoke’s direct style may well evolve in a similar fashion over time, as they build upon their top-flight status, but Pulis points out: “I don’t take any notice of what people outside this club say.”
One of the joys of playing football is working out how to beat the other team, especially when the opposition appears more technically adept. In December, Andy Gray preposterously questioned Lionel Messi’s ability by suggesting he and Barcelona would find Stoke a difficult team to overcome. Though based in madness, it does point to the underpinning philosophy Tony Pulis employs: to win. Although his style may not gain many cosmetic admirers, there is something undeniably satisfying in overcoming the odds, being the underdog and silencing the critics.
picture by rwkvisual on flickr.