Stoke City and Sunderland bored the pants off 27,000 people this weekend and even the locals look fed-up with the way Tony Pulis’ side is plying its trade these days.
I have to admit to being a little biased against Stoke. I witnessed their supporters in action at the 2011 FA Cup final, where neutral fans, enjoying the showpiece occasion that is still the cup final, were picked out by myopic Potters’ fans and told to “get out if you’re not Stoke”.
Perhaps the style of play attracts a certain type of supporter. Stoke’s tactics have been widely criticized by neutrals and opposition fans alike. “We play how we want”, was one of the chants at Wembley that afternoon and this siege mentality has accompanied Stoke’s consolidation in the Premier.
To their credit, Stoke have to compete with clubs that have greater resources, so the basic, “they shall not pass” approach has been useful in getting Stoke so far.
Stoke were recently called a team of “jolly green giants” by Sir Alex Ferguson and the old boy has a point. Stoke’s team is full of big men and the squad has 16 (of 24) over six feet in height. Arsene Wenger once described Stoke as acting like a rugby team in a game against Tottenham.
What’s quite worrying is that one of Pulis’ stormtroopers, Ryan Shawcross, has made it as far as the England squad. Shawcross, you may recall, was responsible for sending Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey to hospital with a double-fracture. And physical football doesn’t just hurt the opposition, as we have seen this weekend. Best wishes go to Stoke defender Marc Wilson, who broke his leg against Sunderland in a challenge on Stephen Fletcher.
Stoke’s physical game is starting to discourage Brittania Stadium regulars – at the Sunderland game, gaps appeared in the crowd at half-time as fans decided to walk back to town. And rather than pick on non-Stoke fans this time, there were reports that “frustrated and dispirited Stoke fans were apparently squabbling with each other.”
Pulis may have to change Stoke’s style if they are to survive. They have enough to avoid relegation, but they won’t win friends and crowds will decline if the public is uninspired by what it sees. We are in an age when the top sides – let’s say Spain and Barcelona – play a brand of football that is cultured, thoughtful and technically brilliant. They are the benchmark and Stoke’s current style is more akin to lower division, 1970s/1980s kick and rush.
Pulis is no fool, however, and Stoke are a well-run club, so change should take place. And Pulis has said that Stoke’s style is evolving – let’s hope so.