The 200% Pre-Season Previews: Stoke City
The coming nine season will be the fifth since Stoke City ascended back to the Premier League, and in surviving comfortably in this division they continue to frustrate the game’s self-appointed purists. Stoke remain the nearest thing that the division has to an antithesis of the self-image of twenty-first century football. They neither tiki nor do they taka, and for those who are mortally offended by the sight of a football in the air – and it is perhaps worth pointing out at this juncture that these people are seldom those that actually pay for tickets and season tickets at The Britannia Stadium – these offences are compounded by the fact that they have been successful since their promotion, having defied those who predicted that they would plummet like stones upon their arrival amongst such aristocratic company. Seldom have they been overly concerned by relegation scraps, and on top of this they made an FA Cup Final and even had a go in the Europa League last season.
One thing that Stoke City have done in recent years is spend money, but the indications this summer have been of a tighter rein on the purse strings, with the club having to sell in order to buy. As a result of this, Stoke have had a quieter summer in the transfer market this year than in recent years, with perhaps the most notable new signing being Michael Kightly from Wolverhampton Wanderers. On the basis of this, it seems reasonable to assume that, along with the likelihood of the club having less money to spend on players, manager Tony Pulis seems happy enough to keep things ticking over as they were last season for the club. There is solid logic behind this. Stoke are extremely difficult to play against, and without the distraction and the various burdens of a Europa League campaign, there is little to suggest that they will have anything to fear with regard to relegation this season. In that case, why not remain cautious and keep an eye open for a bargain or two in the transfer market? There’s always the January transfer window if things look like they’re going wrong in the autumn, after all.
There remains sufficient quality in the squad that they have to suggest that relegation worries shouldn’t be too great for this season. The possibility of Robert Huth missing matches on account of meningitis is clearly troubling, but in the likes of Peter Crouch and Matthew Etherington, they have players that are capable and fit Pulis’ system. Indeed, Crouch is a good example of a player that has in the past given the impression of being prone to periods of self-doubt, but there can be little doubt that he has played his time at The Britannia Stadium with a definite smile on his face, and in doing so seems to have become something of a favourite amongst the clubs supporters. To an extent, such a level-headed player at a club with what frequently seems to be a firm lid on its own expectations seems like a good fit.
Perhaps the problem on the horizon for this club is one of where it goes from here. Stoke City’s tactical arrangements may be predictable, but that doesn’t make them any easier to cope with. However, if the club is to take another step forward beyond merely being in the Premier League, another technical level may have to be found by Tony Pulis if the club is not to continue to inhabit the grey area between the clubs with ambitions of reaching Europe and those with one eye over the shoulder in fear of a relegation battle. As time progresses, however, supporters of the club are likely to become increasingly accustomed to life in the Premier League – if they’re not already – and football clubs that settle for what they have with no desire to push on in any sense have an tendency to find themselves going backwards rather than forwards.
If Stoke City wish to push towards those Europa League places on the basis of their final Premier League position, some concessions to the bunker mentality have to be made, but these concessions don’t have to be at the risk of dropping down a division. The question over time may become one of whether Tony Pulis has, to borrow a phrase from the world of football cliche, “taken the club as far as he can.” For this season at least, however, he remains one of the more securely positioned managers in the whole of the Premier League, and this question may be for another day. For now, as long as Stoke don’t have a catastrophic start to the season, he is safe in his job.
Subject to the unexpected, we can reasonably anticipate that Stoke City will continue to be a thorn in the side of the rest of the Premier League for at least the next season. Perhaps another cup run in the same vein of the one that took them to Wembley last year would satiate those amongst the clubs support who yearn for the club to make its next “step up”, but it feels as if for many just to see its 150th anniversary next year as a Premier League club would be enough for now. The purists may not like it and it’s possible that we may have misjudged the likelihood of their system continuing to work in the Premier League, but for now Stoke City seem safe, and that will be enough for many… for now.
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