At first glance Stoke City and Everton have little in common. The Merseysiders’ historic trophy haul far outstrips that of their Potteries counterparts, the current teams that represent the two clubs approach the game with vastly differing styles, and expectations at Goodison Park are a notch above those at the Britannia Stadium.
It is in the case of these contrasting expectations however, where it is possible to draw a comparison between the sides who presently stand at 7th and 11th in the Premier League. Everton and Stoke are not performing to the level demanded by their passionate but fractious supports.
Now established as a top-flight outfit, the Potters have suffered an alarming recent slump in form – losing seven and winning only one of their last 10 league outings. Far from being taken aback by their team’s suffering, many regulars at the ‘Brit’ have been cautioning about the likelihood of such a run for some time.
The statistics from Stoke’s first ten games of this season make for similarly grim reading. A sole victory against Swansea City was at least achieved against a backdrop of six draws and familiar defensive resilience.
A distinct lack of progress in four steady Premier League terms was beginning to jar with a gradually more vocally dissident majority. Since Tony Pulis ended Stoke’s 23 year top-tier exile the club have avoided any real threat to their freshly gained status, sealing 12th, 11th, 13th, and 14th place finishes.
Until this term, the credit column has outweighed its debit equivalent. Stoke’s raucous home ground has proved something of a fortress, and the side have made a forte of taking the biggest of scalps in their own intimidating environment – indeed, a visit to Staffordshire to confront Pulis’ physical and undaunted unit is one of the less keenly anticipated among every single top-flight adversary.
A run to 2011’s F.A. Cup final – and in particular the last-four demolition of Bolton Wanderers at Wembley -, a consequent dalliance with European football, and the ability to gradually compete on a grander scale in the transfer market thanks to the expanded revenue that comes with life in the Premier League and relegation scraps not being in the Stoke City brochure are all considerable pluses for their Welsh manager.
Pulis’ critics will focus on the fact that in each of their four top-tier campaigns Stoke have lost on more occasions than they’ve won, and there has been a definite stagnation as regards points gained (45,47,46,45). Goal difference has never risen above a minus figure.
In the Cup showpiece against Manchester City the team were subdued, never discomforting their more illustrious opponents in the manner for which they are renowned. The risk-averse Pulis also threw the towel in on the Europa League, making a number of changes to his side in the second-leg of the first knock-out round against Valencia, having fought through ten matches in the arduous pre-Christmas qualification phase.
The jury was already out amongst Potters, delighted with their club’s hitherto progress but now waiting for the next stage of evolution. The portents of this dispiriting campaign are not good.
Gone is the Brit fear factor. There have only been two home defeats, but a further six guests have left with a point. Tellingly, Chelsea swaggered to a 4-0 win and West Ham United, without a three point return away from Upton Park in eight prior attempts, broke that duck at Stoke.
The slightest chink in Stoke’s chief armour – an ability to flatten all-comers in front of their own roaring fans – is harshly exposed due to a woeful record when deprived of home comforts. This season Pulis’ men have scored nine goals in 15 away games, and won only a single one of those fixtures.
Any assault on silverware this term was halted with unseemly haste. Four goals were conceded on home turf in the course of being dumped out of the Capital One Cup by League One Swindon Town, and the Potters exited the F.A. Cup with an uncharacteristic whimper against Manchester City – again in their own previously near impregnable ‘Brit’.
Moreover, this present Stoke City unit play with no fixed identity. Pulis has attempted to blend the robust style – which brought many detractors but its relative success – with a more refined approach. The biggest nod towards the alteration in the manager’s thought process was the signing of Charlie Adam from Liverpool. As events have transpired the Scottish international has provided more of a conundrum rather than contributed to a more cultured Potters side.
The 27 year-old’s involvement initially resulted in Stoke abandoning much of their greatest strength – seeking to put opponents under ferocious pressure with high-quality delivery into the area, either from deep or wide areas.
With Adam presently confined to the bench, Stoke have returned to the previous tried and trusted policy of utilising the height of Peter Crouch in tandem with Cameron Jerome or Jon Walters as they seek a way out of their travails.
Nevertheless, a rot has set in. The once reliable service to the front line is poor, and the rock-solid backline has been replaced by a hesitant and vulnerable unit. Ryan Shawcross’ form since an undistinguished England debut last November has been as awry as his costly defending during his team’s last two defeats.
Indiscipline has shorn the Stoke rear-guard of Robert Huth for three matches, and that particular failing has proved costly to Pulis this year with a number of key men missing matches at various stages due to suspension.
The unhappy tale that is the Potters’ season to date has brought Pulis his most fierce criticism since returning to manage the club for a second time in 2006.
During that soporific 1-0 defeat to the Hammers, a ‘Pulis Out’ banner was unveiled in the home stands. A survey prior to that game on fans’ website, ‘The Oatcake’, revealed that 67.3% of respondents favoured a change in the Britannia dugout.
It is typically at this more pronounced stage of unrest that sages, provided the media platform to do so, will patronisingly caution those who watch Stoke City every week and are unhappy with what they see to be careful what they wish for.
Supporters who care fervently for the fortunes of their club will be told they should be grateful for their lot. The coup de grace of the doomsaying expert’s argument is applied with a metaphorical knowing pat on the head and the triumphant mention of Charlton Athletic and Alan Curbishley.
Curbishley left the Addicks in 2006 after eleven years as sole manager, having twice led the South-East London club into the Premier League and established them as a fixture amongst the elite for the previous six seasons.
By the time of their manager’s departure a gradually swelling number of Charlton’s support had become disenchanted with repeatedly poor second half of season returns, and a slip in standards which had resulted in 2004’s 7th place being succeeded by finishes of 11th and 13th.
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