Ryan Shotton at right midfield. On its own this may be insufficient evidence of Tony Pulis’ failings, but it’s a helpful indicator of his flawed reliance on defensive discipline and set-pieces to steer his side towards another mid-table finish. Shotton possesses a handy long throw, if nowhere near as effective as Rory Delap’s sloping deliveries, but lacks the slaloming runs and dangerous crossing of Jermaine Pennant, who he has replaced on the wing in recent months. The presence of Pennant and Etherington on the flanks was the common rebuttal to suggestions that Stoke remained a one dimensional side incapable of raising their game beyond the brutish. Yet, with these players cutting increasingly forlorn figures as the Potters stagger towards the season’s in largely forgettable fashion, perhaps it’s time to reassess Tony Pulis’ position.
To some it would seem heresy to even question the achievements of a man who has kept Stoke safely in the Premier League for four successive seasons, took them to last year’s FA Cup final and led them into Europe for the first time since the seventies. However, during this time he has had a lot of money to play with, and it has largely been invested unwisely, swelling the numbers with chronically average squad-fillers. Tom Soares, Andrew Davies and Michael Tonge still remain on their books from a frenzied squad bolstering exercise in anticipation of entering the Premier League. In the intervening four years these three players have made just 21 league appearances between them, and are set to leave for nothing this summer. It’s fair to say that all managers make mistakes in the transfer market but Pulis has made a habit of such profligacy.
This wastefulness is especially evident in his tentative attempt to evolve a more rounded, less set-piece heavy style of play. Undoubtedly more complete players like Tuncay and Eidur Gudjohnsen have been through the revolving door at the Britannia Stadium, but Pulis persists with more hardworking options like Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. Even previous club record signing Kenwyne Jones, a physically imposing if languidly disposed striker remains a distant fourth choice in the forward stakes. The emphasis is still on disrupting the opposition’s game plan as a first priority before overwhelming them with an aerial bombardment. They are capable of subtlety and nuance on occasion, but by and large, even at fullback, an increasingly forward thinking position in the modern game, Pulis keeps things strictly functional by fielding converted centre-halves like Wilson, Huth, and rather disastrously Woodgate. Their aim is to hit the target man and feed off him, Crouch performing this role admirably in adverse circumstances.
However, the acquisition of Crouch is itself indicative of a misguided transfer policy; the 31 year old agreeing a lucrative contract that extends well into the hinterlands of his effectiveness. He may be a big name England international and reasonable success in the short term but the combined cost of his transfer fee and wages is staggering for a player who has already peaked. Despite Peter Coates’ deep pockets, £22 million was spent on the August deadline day alone, the popular perception of Stoke is still that of a relatively small time club thriving against the odds. The stats tell a rather different tale. Due to the generosity of Coates, boyhood Stoke fan and founder of Bet365, his club have the fourth highest net spend on transfers over the last four years, their outlay exceeded by only the ultra-rich Chelsea, Man United, and Man City.
Supporter enthusiasm for the Premier League experience hasn’t diminished since that riotous first season, but a substantial number are beginning to question the previously untouchable Pulis. A certain level of application and commitment is always to be expected from his teams, but there remains a discernible lack of quality amongst the overwhelmingly workmanlike bunch he has assembled at Stoke. They still play exceptional risk-averse football, and, despite there being no imperative to change on the basis of results alone, some are tiring of such predictably drab affairs. This view is given credence by the lack of ingenuity in Stoke’s misfiring side, their inability to move away from this bluntly singular style Never the most prolific of scorers, they have regressed to less than a goal a game this season, their current total of 31 being the worst record in the division.
This lack of penetration isn’t helped by Pulis’ penchant for alienating many of his more capable attackers. Jones and Pennant are just two recent examples of his begrudging attitude towards players whose effort isn’t always what it should be, James Beattie and Dave Kitson previously falling foul of his hostility too. This array of British based signings also outlines another of Pulis’ limitations, his unwillingness to venture far from the confines of these shores in search of new talent. As part of his narrowly self-limiting transfer policy, Premier League experience is a pre-requisite. His fingers were undoubtedly burnt by the purchase of Uruguayan midfielder Diego Arismendi, another who arrived over three years ago and is yet to see Premier League action, having been farmed out on loan multiple times, but a reluctance to scout further afield sees him paying significantly over the odds for relative passengers like Dean Whitehead instead.
Would it be ungracious to ask for more given what Pulis has already delivered? As another Midlands side Wolves have realised to their cost this season, there is a price to be paid for persisting with mediocrity. Their shambolic slide towards relegation was a direct result of keeping on Mick McCarthy, another fine motivator held back by an inflexible view of the way football should be played, after last day survival. The situation is nowhere near as desperate at Stoke, who currently reside in 14th place of a packed midtable, but it is similarly apparent that little to no tangible progress is being made on the pitch, Pulis failing to move beyond an ideology that, at the top level, can only take you so far.