At the beginning of the season I was confident in predicting success for Tony Pulis’ Stoke side and was even audacious enough to make an early prediction of a 9th place finish. Whilst I am aware it is early days still, with only a third of the season gone, I may have a job in defending my premature forecast.
Summer as a Stoke fan may have looked promising; coming in through the Britannia Stadium doors were Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson, capped England centre backs that had both played at the top of the game. Furthermore, had the ex-Spurs defender not endured a career of knocks and knacks, he may well have still been prevalent in Capello’s push for a promising European Championship. Having captured two experienced and hardened battle axes, along with already boasting Shawcross and Huth in the centre back department, you would have expected Stoke to build a campaign on the solid foundations of a strong defence. This hasn’t been the case.
An equivocal Pulis shouldn’t have been what was on the cards; a team was being assembled to compete in the Premier League and it was a team expected to do so with talent and flair, less dependent on the grit and determination that had hard-nosed it’s way through three consecutive Premier League campaigns. I for one was an advocate of a more skilled, attacking and aesthetically pleasing Stoke side, however, in hindsight the signs were there for a more underwhelming season.
Slowly amalgamating fierce battlers, skillful wingers and efficient strikers, Pulis was looking far and beyond last season’s F.A Cup final misery, but all the plaudits and shadowing reaching an F.A Cup final brings, masked a more serious issue. Away from the cup run, league form had slipped, even if it was purely slight, and Pulis’ Potters ended up with a surprisingly record low finish of 13th , following on from 11th and 12th placed finishes in the previous two seasons in the top flight.
It seemed like a small blip at the time and wasn’t an issue. It still may prove to be the anomaly in Stoke’s consistent mid-table finishes. After all, West Brom endured a rocky mid-season losing 13 games in an 18 game duration last season before Roy Hodgson was brought in and steered them to an 11th placed finish. The same could happen for Stoke, however the wheels aren’t quite off yet, so any talks of needing a resurgence may be as premature as my 9th place prediction.
It is a cause for a debate though; while Stoke remain unbeaten in Europe seemingly scoring freely with at least a goal every game, four against FC Thun and a clean sheet in half of their European games, their Premier League campaign is far less pleasing on the eye. Although they have kept four clean sheets, Stoke’s back line have been busy bees. Asmir Begovic has been forced into making 44 saves this season and the defence have leaked more goals than any other team outside the bottom three at 22. That means only Wigan and Blackburn, who are in a free-fall mode, and Stoke’s last away opponents Bolton have conceded more.