Has Stoke's Fortress Been Knocked Down?

Has Stoke's Fortress Been Knocked Down?

Beneath the overcast skies and amongst the silenced crowd at Bet365 Stadium, Stoke City were being tortured and torn apart at will by Mauricio Pochettino’s impressive Tottenham outfit. A Son Heung Min brace and a goal each from the young Dele Alli and Harry Kane handed Spurs a win that would probably go on to recapitulate the peak of their form at the end of the season. And the sauntering of Mark Hughes’ men came just months after Tottenham had inflicted a similar defeat on them last season. And the fact that both heavy defeats were thrust on Stoke at Staffordshire itself reflects how Tottenham have become a rather successful side there. In recent times, Spurs have been impressive when playing Stoke away from home, but it’s not just the North London giants, the whole Premier League have improved at the newly renamed Bet365 stadium; it just isn’t the boisterous cauldron anymore.

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Consecutive finishes in ninth position in the Premier League have made sure that Stoke have not exactly built on the foundation that Tony Pulis laid down at the club before departing in 2013, but have certainly held onto their reputation for being an established first division outfit. And ever since Mark Hughes took over the affairs at the club, the Potters have always strived to keep hold of their knack for being a very physically robust unit, who like to dominate the opposition at home. After all, that’s something that Pulis ingrained at the club that he managed for six years, apart from making the phrase ‘Can they do it at a cold, rainy night at Stoke’ a rather overused one. But now, that phrase is becoming irrelevant with every passing game.

Watching Stoke lose to fellow midtable and lower upper half sides was a rare sight before Pulis departed, but slowly it has become the norm. If a side was supposed to play Stoke away from home, there was a pre-conceived notion that they won’t get out of Britannia Stadium without being bruised all over their body. And mostly, sides struggled there. Sometimes, right when the opposition used to step foot inside the cacophony filled Britannia, they’d be one-nil down psychologically.

In the 2009-10 campaign, when Stoke finished 11th in the Premier League, Pulis’ side lost just six games at home, out of which they lost four to would be Champions Chelsea, second placed Manchester United, third placed Arsenal and fourth placed Spurs. The other two losses came at the hands of Bolton and Birmingham. A season prior, Stoke lost only four games at home, out of which two came during games against United and Chelsea.

Over the past two seasons, this record has taken a tumble. In the 2014-15 campaign, Hughes’ side lost seven games at home, which includes disappointments against the likes of Aston Villa, the then newly promoted Leicester, Crystal Palace and Burnley. Last season, the Potters lost six home games, out of which four came against sides like Palace, Watford, Southampton and Pulis’ West Brom. And this clearly suggests that something at the club has changed.

Clubs don’t visit Bet365 Stadium feeling any bit of nervousness. Its become just another away game for them, for which they have as much chances of winning as losing it. Apart from being a trip that didn’t have a win written over it, the journey to Staffordshire used to be a dreaded one indeed.

The usage of Rory Delap’s javelin abilities in throw-ins suggested how direct Stoke were as balls were directed at the box, more than anything else. The deployment of burly forwards such as Cameron Jerome, Kenwyne Jones, Peter Crouch or Jonathan Walters up front was a key too, as the others knew who to use as the focal point of the attack. And the centre-halves were just as strong in the tackle and when winning duels to recover lost balls for the side. Ryan Shawcross, who still is a vital cog in the wheel at the back for Stoke and current Leicester star Robert Huth were centre-halves who hardly gave opposition forwards a moments rest. Plus, the midfield always oozed intensity and a beast-like hunger to dominate game from the offset. Former Tottenham midfielder Wilson Palacios, Rory Delap, Glenn Whelan, Matthew Etherington and the battle-loving Dean Whitehead never backed away from taking one on the chin and carrying on.

As things stand, the look of the Stoke line up has changed considerably. The side hardly seem to have no nonsense performers, that it once proudly boasted of having. They’ve been replaced by flashy players, who like to take defenders and beat them by trying to unleash a bundle of tricks that they have up their sleeve. The likes of Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Austrian Marko Arnautovic are attacking players who have done quite well for Mark Hughes since joining the Potters, but the amount of prowess on the ball they possess have made Stoke lose the identity. And slowly shed the tag of what they were once known for.

After the heavy defeat that was inflicted by Spurs on Saturday, Mark Hughes said during his post-match interview: “We’re not doing the ugly stuff and that needs to change.”

Although Sparky has strived to make sure that Stoke’s identity of being a robust and tough to dominate outfit remained, he has failed in holding onto that reputation. And it is eroding gradually, with the passage of seasons. The foundation of the unit that Pulis left behind is quite a bit there, in terms of the players he used to make Stoke a frightening side away from home. But Hughes has tried to combine flair and brains on the ball with brawns and huskiness off it. And although flair has helped Stoke achieve finishes higher than they did under Pulis, but with the side now languishing at the bottom of the table, Hughes has probably realized that maybe, its time he resorts to doing what Pulis was once doing.