Since arriving into the Premier League in 2008, Stoke City have stayed comfortably afloat but never surprised anyone. Tony Pulis’s combative Potters established an identity as the Premier League’s resident warriors, consistently grinding out points and attracting both plaudits and haters for their physically emphatic defending and “Route One” style attack. Stoke earned twelfth in their Premier League return, following with eleventh in 2009-10, thirteenth in 2010-11, and fourteenth in 2011-12. In addition, the Potters progressed to the knockout stage of the 2010-11 Europa League after qualifying as FA Cup finalists. After slumping to a fourteenth place finish last season though, Stoke City have battled their way as high as eighth place in the 2012-13 campaign and currently sit ninth at the turn of the year. Stoke’s high-flying cannot be credited to a rejuvenated tactical attack: their twenty-one goals in twenty one games have them on pace for only two more tallies than last year’s thirty-six. However, Stoke has been unusually stingy at the back, conceding only twenty goals in twenty-one games, third-fewest in the Premier League. In addition, they claimed only nineteen points in the 2011 fixtures that provided twenty-six points this season. This year’s stark contrast with Stoke’s leaky defense shipping 53 goals in 2011-12 points the way for the Potters’ road to success: keep on defending.
Asmir Begovic: Standing on his Head
In 2011-12, Asmir Begovic tussled with Thomas Sorensen for the Stoke City top spot, and neither covered themselves in glory. However, in 2012 Begovic was a new man, and his performances have lead Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko to salute his countryman as “the best keeper in the league” this term over his City teammate and England number one Joe Hart. The Bosnian ‘keeper has overseen 9 Stoke clean sheets this season, already equaling last year’s number. Furthermore, Begovic has only conceded twenty goals, and without the crapshoot of penalties (Stoke’s conceded 4) that number decreases to 16. Where Begovic truly begins to sparkle is in comparison to some of the Premier League’s leading shot-stoppers, Manchester City’s Hart and Chelsea’s Petr Cech. Begovic leads the trio with nine clean sheets to the other pair’s eight, and his 59 saves only trail Cech’s 61 (Hart has 37). Both Cech and Hart have conceded only 19 goals, while Begovic has allowed 20, but subtracting penalties Begovic would lead all Premier League ‘keepers with 16 open play goals allowed (Cech has 17, Hart 18). In true Stoke City fashion, though, the area where the Bosnian shines is in the air; although neither Cech nor Hart is noticeably vulnerable to high crosses, Begovic has claimed 44 high crosses this season to Cech’s 20 catches and Joe Hart’s mere 16. Furthermore, he has yet to mishandle a high cross, a reliable stat that Hart and Cech cannot claim.
Perhaps more important to the Stoke revolution, though, is Begovic’s serious improvement from his shakiness last season. Besides scuffling with Thomas Sorensen for playing time, Begovic made four errors that lead directly to goals while only playing about half his side’s games. This season Begovic has made three errors leading to goals, half of Stoke’s six from last year. Stoke as a whole have renewed their focus at the back, in fact: the team has committed only four errors leading to goals, contrasting last year’s ten such mistakes.
Defending at the Front: The New Stoke Midfielders
Descriptions of Stoke’s seemingly impenetrable defense conjure images of defenders flying everywhere to clear the ball and block shots, Stoke’s solidity seems to step from further up the field. OK, the part about blocking shots is true – both of Stoke’s regular center backs, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth, rank among the Premier League’s top five in shots blocked with 27 and 23 respectively – but Asmir Begovic has actually made less saves than last year, down to 2.8 per game from 3.8 last year. Furthermore, Stoke’s successful clearances per game have decreased from 28.4 last year to just 21.25 this season. So why the change?
Stoke’s blueprint for the summer transfer window called for central midfielders, particularly those that fit their philosophy and can break up play as well as distribute the ball. This reinforcement came most prominently in the form of Charlie Adam, Steven Nzonzi, Michael Kightley and Geoff Cameron. Stoke’s midfield has become a more anticipative, proactive side, seeking to win back possession in the middle third rather than retreat and clear it out from defense. The Stoke team is on pace for 528 interceptions (13.9) per game as opposed to 460 (12.1) last season. The main catalysts for winning back possession have been some of the new arrivals: Nzonzi leads all Stoke players, winning back the ball 65 times in midfield and 61 times in defense. Charlie Adam chips in 40 balls won in midfield, while Geoff Cameron comes second to Nzonzi with 57 in defense. The addition of these three players, the only three changes to Stoke’s eleven most-played players this season, have reduced Jermaine Pennant (now on loan) and Dean Whitehead to bit players in the team and increased the team’s total balls won in midfield to 21.35 per game from 17.02 times for last season. The increase in midfield ball-winning suggests that the additions of Nzonzi and Adam in midfield has solidified the center of the park, making it easier for Stoke to win the ball back and making defending easier for Stoke.
Conclusion: Could More Goals Mean European Football?
Much of Stoke City’s early-season success can be attributed to its watertight defense, allowing the third-fewest goals thus far in the Premier League. The improvements in the Potters’ defense can be attributed to the arrival of new Stoke players Steven Nzonzi, Charlie Adam and Geoff Cameron, who have solidified the center of the Stoke team and allow them to win the ball back more often in midfield, alleviating pressure from the defense. These new players, in addition to the emerging Asmir Begovic, have ensured that Stoke are placed in ninth place at the turn of the New Year, only five points off of the top five and, with the addition of some attacking thrust in the January transfer window, could make a push for Europa League football – if they can keep their defending cohesive and resilient.