Stoke City make me happy. This is not a common opinion. Many football fans seen to enjoy reviling the Potters, as though Tony Pullis' style is somehow beneath them. There is, of course, an aesthetic element in appreciating football; a match packed full of Edinson Cavanis is significantly more appealing than one consisting of, say, Johnny Heitingas (on all sort of levels), and far me it from me to tell people what they should and should not enjoy.
But for me, there's something very special in seeing Stoke be... well, Stoke. While other teams look for the clean solutions to football, honing themselves to rapid-passing perfection, Stoke City have gone for a brute force approach. And there's nothing wrong with that at all. If Barcelona win matches by being a finely crafted, perfectly-weighted thrusting sword, Stoke are the sport's answer to a two-handed club wielded by a giant, drooling simpleton. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and it's always fairly ugly.
But there's elegance in the approach of hitting someone quite hard until you get what you wanted. It's not artistic, to be sure, but it's direct and is sometimes quite clever in that old-thinking sort of way that characterises anyone who'd continue to employ John Carew. Who else but Stoke and Pullis would reinvent the throw-in as an object of fear more dangerous than the average corner kick? If Rory Delap played anywhere else, his career as a mediocre central midfielder would have been over five years ago. Instead, he's become The Delap. I assume you know who he is. Otherwise why would you be reading this post?
Anyway, Stoke are the definition of a mid table club. They haven't ever done spectacularly well, and I can't really see them playing badly enough to be relegated until Pullis is long gone. They're almost impossible to play at the compact Brittania Stadium, and it's not like their physical style is easy to play against even elsewhere.
So, what should we expect? A solid defence is a good bet, as is a midfield whose sole purpose is to disrupt the opposition and watch the long balls fly overhead. Throw in some big, aggressive/gangly [deleted as appropriate] centre forwards and put them in a early 1990s 4-4-2 and that'll give you a good idea of the whole idea of Stoke. It's beautiful, isn't it?
Last year: 14th, 11 W 12 D 15 L
This year: 13th
Key player(s): I'm struggling here. This is the inherent problem with Stoke. The Potters are chock full of decent Premier League players. And zero great ones. When the Guardian seem to think that the man most important to your season is Peter Crouch, you can be fairly confident that the talent that'll be on display just isn't that special. However, Stoke are solid (and interchangeable) all the way through. Hurray!