No, we didn't forget Stoke City. Despite their 'let's play proper football' revolution failing to get off the ground, Stoke had a pretty good season, eventually reaching the FA Cup final and qualifying for a spot in the Europa League. How will they fare on a bigger stage? Will they ever find a pass on the ground that they enjoy? Can they do it on a Tuesday night in Stoke? Allen Dodson of Villarreal USA answers these questions.
Stoke City enters its fourth season in the EPL, and manager Tony Pulis has to be pleased with the results so far. The Potters' uncompromising style isn't beloved by everyone, and their football will never be compared with Barcelona's, but no matter. The team made it to the FA Cup final (their first ever--it only took them 148 years to get that far) and qualified for Europe for the first time in nearly forty years.
When Stoke arrived on the scene, Pulis said it would take three years of consolidation before the team would really be ready to compete with most teams in the league. From the beginning Stoke's style has been uncompromising, physical, bruising, and intimidating, and I don't expect that to change in year four.
The team hasn't changed personnel much in the offseason, though that could change if Wilson Palacios and Peter Crouch join from Spurs--Stoke has put a bid on the table to land them. Assuming that fails, though, the only new arrival is Jonathan Woodgate, once voted the worst signing of the 21st century by readers of MARCA in Spain. He may not play much in defense--he tends to be injured more often than not--but he never shies away from headlines or controversy.
He adds some depth (hopefully) to a strong defense with the excellent Ryan Shawcross (a highly underrated player) and Robert Huth as the anchors, and Asmir Begovic in goal is good as well. The problem is that with a small squad, and not much ability to control the game in midfield, the defense has often broken down late in matches, particularly on the road.
Jermaine Pennant and Scott Etherington offer some quality on the wings, and Kenwyne Jones offers athleticism and pace up front, so it's doing a disservice to Stoke to suggest that their football is all of the "lump it up" variety, but beautiful possession play is not what Stoke is about. A typical Stoke attack usually involves a set piece, which for this team includes throwins from practically anywhere in the opposition half because of Rory Delap's howitzer throws. In fact, they're often more effective than corners.
When Pulis has signed players who play a different style (Tuncay, for instance) he's struggled to figure out how to use them. A creative midfielder, or a Dani Alves-type player who could take the ball from defense and attack with it, would be great, but difficult to integrate into the team's current style of play. And while Pulis would like to see that style evolve, with the Europa League putting further strain on a small squad this might not be the time to do it.
So effectively, we're looking at another year of Fortress Brittania. The club's home form in front of their fanatical support at the Brittania Stadium has been outstanding since they joined the league, and teams haven't figured it out yet.
On the road they are put on the back foot too much, and attack too little, to succeed often, and that's probably not going to change this year either.
One player who could help with the goal drought is Kenwyne Jones; the Trinidad and Tobago man joined Stoke last year and contributed nine goals, but by his own admission had an up-and-down season. Jamaican Ricardo Fuller can score a few goals as well. And keep an eye on local boy Ryan Shotton, who could see some time at right back this year. He's come up through their academy system, which is always nice to see.
So it's likely to be another year in mid-table, with hopefully a cup run and some games against European teams in Stoke on cold, rainy midweek nights to punctuate the season. Like the Potteries area itself, Stoke City isn't necessarily beautiful, but their style is distinctive, and that's always a quality to celebrate.