Evolution is the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations
It’s not rocket science to label Stoke as a long ball team. Watch any of their games and you see a unique style of play, a throwback to an earlier generation when English football was blood and thunder, a sharp contrast to the patient, possession based technical style of football which we now witness at many of the stadia around the country ranging from the Emirates to the DW. In an era when a particular style of play dominates, Stoke offer something different to the homogenised product. That uniqueness, far from being celebrated, has been castigated in some quarters.
The criticism of Stoke and their style is well known. Opponents level such assertions against them normally when Stoke have gained a positive result. And it’s primarily the foreign managers and players who take Stoke to task regarding their style.
Andre Villas-Boas pronounced himself pleased with a point at “one of the most difficult places to visit in the Premier League“, following Chelsea’s scoreless draw at the Britannia in August 2011. Villas-Boas highlighted Stoke’s impressive home record and their approach to the game as being “a very, very particular way to play“. Arsene Wenger meanwhile no longer conceals his disdain for the Stoke approach.
Tony Pulis now leads Stoke into their fifth Premiership campaign during which time they have sampled a run to the FA Cup Final and a Europa League campaign when Valencia answered the vexing question of whether foreign teams could play on a cold night at the Britannia Stadium. Unfortunately for Stoke, when the roles were reversed, they were unable to pay in the heat of the Mestalla and crashed out of the Europa League 2-0 on aggregate.
Upon their entry to the Premier league back in season 2008/09, Stoke City could be considered a plucky underdog even if the Guardian’s season preview suggested the extent of their ambition should be to finish above Hull City and secure more than seventeen points thus avoiding the then record low points total for the league which Stoke set in season 1984/85 when they were last relegated. Stoke successfully beat both targets imposed by the Guardian and finished comfortably in 12th place with 45 points. The robust, long ball style which had served them so well in the Championship had remained in place. Stoke retained faith with the system and survival ensued. Now, it would surely be time to build a more progressive style of play as the process of stabilising the club as a Premiership side took hold. The club would compete for key signings whilst evolving a more aesthetically pleasing style of football. Some marquee signings have arrived in the Midlands such as Eidur Gudjonsson, Peter Crouch, Sanli Tuncay and now Michael Owen has joined too. Yet the football on offer remains the same.
The new signings are well versed in the style of Stoke with Charlie Adam stating that:-
“You play to your strengths in the Premier League. If you can put the ball up to Crouchy, why not do it because he’s an England international?
There appears to be a growing clamour for Stoke to suddenly change style, to become more progressive. To evolve. For Tony Pulis to suddenly announce that the Potteries will now be home to an English variation of tiki-taka.
Have Stoke shown any signs of evolution of their footballing identity since their début season? More pertinently, should Stoke change anything about their approach to the game?
Stoke Set Up
Under Pulis Stoke set up with a traditional 4-4-2 formation although more recently one striker has been dropping off slightly as they adopt a split striker formation. Quite often Pulis has gone with centre backs or midfielders in the full back positions. This “square pegs in round holes” approach may not find favour but it does give Stoke a sense of defensive stability with the full backs tucking in close to the centre backs. The situation has remained broadly the same in each of the seasons to date. Stoke use a direct style of play and seek to deliver the ball into the box at the earliest opportunity.
The long ball, the use of two traditional wingers and the 4-4-2. All great, traditional pillars of the British game which have slowly been eroded since the late 1970’s. Yet visit the Britannia Stadium and these qualities are celebrated and flourish. Stoke retain a unique position in the Premiership.
What’s more, Pulis see no requirement to change the style of Stoke and has claimed that fans prefer their unusual style.
“They (Swansea) keep the ball everywhere. They play a very continental style and are happy to go back, square and sideways, but I’m not so sure our crowd would like it because they like it up and at ’em”
The “up and at em” approach of Stoke has drawbacks most notably in the number of cautions and sending offs incurred.
Stoke finished 18th in the Premiership Fair League in season 10/11 before finishing bottom last season.
Stoke City Defence
Stoke have been heavily criticised for their physical approach but the number of tackles made and the tackling success rate dropped to its lowest level last season although the figures were broadly similar across each of the seasons measured.
Stoke City Tackling Breakdown
There is also nothing spectacular about the number of tackles which Stoke attempt. They sit comfortably in mid-table on this measure. What would be of more interest is determining the type of tackle which Stoke make. Do Stoke commit a high number of a particular type of tackle? The intensity of the tackle cannot be measured either. There can be a significant difference between the physical force used by Stoke when tackling compared against the likes of Arsenal.
Stoke City Fouls Breakdown
Stoke are certainly a competitive team and it would seem likely that Pulis would encourage his team to physically test the opposition across the whole pitch. Following the draw with Manchester City in March 2012, Pulis commenting on the Premiership and its physicality noted:- Stoke do commit a high level of fouls per game in relation to the majority of teams in the division but this has dropped down from when they first entered the top flight. The first season contains the highest level of fouls and could partially be explained by Stoke attempting to establish themselves and compete for every ball?
“No club — and this is why it will be exciting right until the end — goes anywhere, or should go anywhere, to any ground and do sometimes what Barcelona and Real Madrid do to teams in Spain. And that is just play a game and just walk through it”
There is no doubt that Stoke would encounter difficulties with their style of play were they participating in a league on the continent but in the Premiership where a high degree of physical contact is permitted, the style of Stoke can thrive, pushing the limits of what physical contact is permitted.
Next Page: More breakdown in Stoke City stats, the transfer market and EPL Wages (must read)