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.
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 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)
Stoke City Attack
The easiest way to commence is by considering Stoke’s average possession and passing statistics for each of their season’s in the Premiership.
Stoke average between 37% and 40% possession each season which is the lowest in the top flight. With less possession, Stoke also play the fewest number of passes although they achieved their highest number of passes and highest pass completion accuracy level last season with a substantial increase upon previous campaigns. Indeed last season witnessed a marked increase in the number of passes attempted.
The table above contains long balls, through balls and short passes. Last season saw the most progressive performance from Stoke in the Premiership in terms of their frequency of pass types. Although long balls increased, so too did their accuracy and this is where we can sometimes stray a little and let prejudices inform our views. If Arsenal or Man Utd hit a long pass, it’s praised. If Stoke hit a long pass? It’s often simply labelled a long ball which does the team a disservice. All teams will hit long passes. This is not the same as long ball which is simply directing the ball into a general area of the field in a somewhat haphazard and aimless fashion. Stoke, Pulis would argue, use long passing. There is a subtle difference.
Last season also saw Stoke playing the ball forward less often than previously. Only 49% of their passes went forward in comparison to 63% in season 2010/11 when records began. The drop in playing the ball forwards was mirrored with a drop in the number of backwards passes Stoke make. There is now a more expansive element to Stoke’s play perhaps indicative of the higher quality players they now have in wide areas.
Yet the expansion appears to be isolated to one side of the pitch, the right hand-side.
Stoke overwhelmingly attack down the right, a clear deviation from season 09/10 when there was more of a balance to their attacking intentions.
This does have implications for their future success. Man Utd have already responded to the perceived threat of Stoke on the right by playing two left backs. As more teams understand the threat and respond to it, so Stoke must too.
Therefore, last season Stoke attempted more passes than previously (both long balls and short passes) yet substantially reduced the number of through balls being played perhaps due to using Peter Crouch as their main striker and his lack of pace. Stoke also played the ball to the sides more often, noticeably the right hand-side.
A product of the increased width in Stoke’s play is the high number of crosses which they produced last year. The width and crossing has been introduced to suit Peter Crouch in the striking position. There is no point playing long vertical balls to Crouch hence the declining verticality of their approach in terms of pass direction and the reliance upon the right hand-side to deliver crosses.
It’s not easy being s Stoke striker. Stoke have always struggled to create goalscoring chances in the Premiership and last season saw their lowest tally of chances from both open play and set pieces since their promotion.
Is this poor chance creation last season related to the increasing passing? Followers of Charles Reep would unequivocally say yes. Much of the problems of the modern game in the UK can be attributed to Reep’s view of getting the ball forward towards your opponent’s goal as quickly and as directly as possible to maximise your goalscoring chances.
Perhaps Stoke are better being more direct and playing at a higher tempo? If they slow the game down it allows their opponent time to recover and stabilise their defence.
We can see quite clearly from the statistics that Stoke are altering their style of play. Whilst there is still the reliance upon a physical and direct style of play, it has been tempered slightly with fewer balls being played forward and a higher degree of pass accuracy. Increasing the chance creation is the next step to be considered.
Next Page: Evolution, The transfer market, where Stoke City should finish with regards to their wages and the future.
Tony Pulis has spoken of the idea of evolutionary progress for the side. Following their 5-0 win in the FA Cup over a supposedly aesthetically pleasing Bolton side (a perpetuated myth that seemed to become a truth for a time), Pulis was keen to articulate this idea:-
“The team that won this semi-final is much different to the one which started out in the Premier League two and a half seasons ago in that we have become more expansive. It’s a case of evolution not revolution.”
Why are Stoke undergoing subtle changes to their style? The answer is probably a combination of factors which firstly involves the constant upgrading of players within the squad. Stoke do change the squad considerably each season with significant number of arrivals and departures as Pulis seeks to improve the players at his disposal. This has not always proven successful with the likes of Gudjonsson and Tuncay struggling to make any sort of impact.
Those who claim not only do Stoke play a style of football in the past but that Stoke are tactically bland or even lacking tactically fail to acknowledge the contribution that Stoke make to the Premiership. True, Pulis may not provide complex, detailed instructions to his players about how they should seek to exploit the opponents central midfield area but they do make opponents think about the approach which they bring.
To that end, Stoke are evolving. For those who suggest they are not, its worth remembering that evolution is a slow process. Stoke are not going to turn in a technical, passing side such as Arsenal but they are incorporating little details within their play as evidenced in the statistics above.
Simply put, if they do not evolve they will struggle. Teams have already shown they can adapt against Stoke to overcome them, therefore Stoke need to offer something different too.
The style imposed by Pulis has brought them this far but it need to be altered slightly. This is not a criticism of the style of play merely a consideration that the style should change for purely pragmatic reasons. Pulis surely recognises this, hence the slight changes.
Clearly, Stoke have remained comfortably in the Premiership in each of their season’s to date with a style of play which may not be aesthetically pleasing but which is effective. And some supporters of the approach taken by Stoke will argue that what else do you expect when the financial disparities of the Premiership are so vast?
The Transfer Market
There are those who believe if Pulis had more money to spend and acquired key players, Stoke could become a more dominant force. The prudent financial management of the club will never allow a high spending approach allied to the fact that few top name players, especially strikers, are likely to venture to Stoke. It’s an unglamorous club but the biggest obstacle is possibly the work ethic which Pulis has installed. The players see less of the ball than anyone else in the Premiership and the strikers in particularly need to work extremely hard to gain possession or see an opportunity. And those opportunities are few and far between with one of the lowest chance creation records season on season.
Stoke are spending a considerable amount in the transfer market each season, much more than many of the teams which surround them yet they have not shown any signs of real progress. The table below breaks downs the number of players bought and sold during each Premiership season and the total profit / deficit incurred.
The major acquisitions such as Tuncay and Gudjonsson provide a degree of glamour to a side who can be unappealing to watch but Pulis has made some poor acquisitions in the transfer market over the past few seasons.
A legitimate question is whether Stoke are achieving all that they should be based upon their expenditure. With an average deficit of £20m in the transfer market over five seasons, Stoke have broadly finished in the same position.
Where Should Stoke Finish – The Financial Argument
The recent explosion on the financial side of the game has given rise to those who question if teams are achieving, amongst many concepts, value for money. Teams spend more and more on wages each season and transfer fees become increasingly ridiculous, reaching figures that the vast majority of fans cannot comprehend.
The work of Szymanski and Kuper is instructive here. For every Fulham and Everton, clubs who produce a small deficit or small profit in the transfer market, there is an Aston Villa or Sunderland spending wastefully. Szymanski and Kuper argue that the final league position bears little correlation to that spending. Without delving too deeply, the pairing identified that, in general, there is a very broad correlation between a club’s annual wage level and its finishing league position. Clearly, wages are just one of a number of factors involved in contributing to a club’s final league position but their work identifies the wage bill as the most significant with correlation level of roughly 90%.
Figures from the Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance 2010/11 shows Stoke with the 15th highest wage bill in the league. So far as wage levels go, Stoke are broadly where they should be although the high ratio of wages to income sitting at close to 70% is of more concern.
Stoke are achieving a final league placing which is more or less consistent with where they should be based purely upon wage expenditure.
Which does lead to questions over why Pulis spends so heavily? Is it really necessary?
More passes, higher accuracy, more width and less vertical play and fewer tackles all occurring last season. Stoke are evolving slowly. And for all of their faults, a radical squad overhaul combined with the adoption of a style of play at the diametrically opposite end of the footballing spectrum would most likely create enormous problems for the side.
In their fifth season under Pulis in the Premiership, Stoke are not going to alter their style substantially. There may be some tinkering around the edges as a better class of player arrives at the Britannia but you have to consider if the actual outlay on players is justifiable in terms of the results being generated.
But then again, Pulis delivers Premiership football each season added to appearances in the FA Cup Final and the Europa League. For many fans, this may be more than adequate return on that substantial investment.
Some fans will cherish the approach of Stoke. A reminder of the bygone day when sliding challenges were permitted and heavy two footed challenges were acceptable. A man’s game played on ploughed fields as crowds stood in abysmal conditions, penned in like animals. This romanticised notion of the game always being better needs to be quashed at the outset just as the belief that there is only one way to play the game must be stamped on (like a big burly centre half) also.
This is the fifth season (generation) of Stoke in the Premiership. The preservation of the values and beliefs which brought Stoke this far, allied to the introduction of a slightly more patient and possession based game are the ingredients for Stoke to progress. The inherited characteristics of the previous generations are changing. You don’t simply abandon the qualities which have brought you this far. You retain the positive elements and add to these. There are small signs that Stoke are doing this.