by Adam Bate
It was no surprise to hear Jon Champion use the term “Neanderthal” to describe the Stoke experience on ESPN at the weekend. After all, when it comes to Stoke City, everyone seems to be pre-occupied with the notion of evolution.
This time last year, the man often seen as the personification of Stoke’s direct approach launched not a throw-in but a defence of his club’s style. Rory Delap said: “People go on about us being a long-ball team and relying on set-pieces. Well, we had to do a job to get in the league and stay in the league, but now we are looking to progress. But it won’t be an immediate change, it has to be slow.”
Speaking after Stoke’s stunning 5-0 FA Cup semi final triumph at Wembley in April, Tony Pulis was also keen to articulate the idea of an evolutionary side. Pulis said: “The team that won this semi-final is much different to the one which started out in the Premier League two and a half seasons ago in that we have become more expansive. It’s a case of evolution not revolution.”
Perhaps this is a good time to clarify this is no hatchet job on Stoke City’s style of play. The idea that there is a right way to play football is a risible concept. Beauty can be found in a tiki-taka passing move, a fast counter-attack or a long-ball through the middle. This piece merely seeks to answer the question – ‘Is Stoke’s style of play evolving?’
The first port of call should probably be to look at the Opta statistics for ‘short passing’. Although the quality of ‘style of play’ remains subjective, these stats are usually considered to be indicative of an aesthetically pleasing brand of football. Indeed, a feature of the better sides has been the number of short passes they have played per game.
For 2009-10 Arsenal topped the table for short passes ahead of Manchester United and Chelsea and this pattern was repeated again last season. This is in line with the widely held belief that Arsenal are a nice team to watch – better than their results would indicate. The start of this season has seen Manchester City climb to the top of the short passing table. This supports the idea of a team that is evolving and indulging in a more expansive game with better players.
The evidence for the evolution of Stoke City’s style of play is somewhat more flimsy. Stoke City were at the bottom of the short passing table in 2009-10, 2010-11 and have already taken up their customary place after the early exchanges of the 2011-12 season. What’s more, there is a remarkable consistency. Stoke played an average of 215 short passes a game in 2009-10, then 220 a game last season and 221 a game this campaign. Well I guess they do say evolution is something that takes place over millions of years.
Another key performance indicator in terms of style is the ‘Goals from Open Play’ statistic. The common belief that Stoke rely on set-pieces should not preclude success from open play situations. And yet, while the top four of the ‘Goals from Open Play’ table for 2009-10 exactly mirrored (in order) the actual league table, Stoke languished down in 17th. Last season saw only a particularly turgid Birmingham side score fewer goals from open play. So far this season it is only the luckless Swansea that have failed to score as many as Stoke from open play.
But the key for Stoke fans must be that the team’s results are going in the right direction. Stoke have finished between 11th and 13th in their first three Premier League seasons and it would be no surprise if the team significantly improved on that showing this time around. And the key to that has to be the improvement in personnel:
While four of the starting eleven remain the same, the superiority of the current side is clear. This is further highlighted by the presence of high profile players such as Wilson Palacios and Matthew Upson on the bench.
So given the improvement in the quality of players, perhaps the real question ought to be: ‘Why is Stoke City’s style of play not evolving?’
It would seem the real evolution of the side has been in buying better players to play the same way rather than actually changing the style. Peter Crouch is the T-1000 model Terminator; an upgrade on Big Mama Sidibe. Elsewhere in the team, there is Jonathan Woodgate – regarded by some as the greatest defender England nearly had. He has impressed but, importantly, only within the framework of Stoke’s style – Woodgate completed just 14 passes against Manchester United.
One suspects Tony Pulis has realised this is the best way forward. He has experimented with introducing players such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tuncay to play between the lines and these players have been unable to be assimilated into the collective.
As a result, it would seem that Stoke’s real evolution may well be in purchasing superior players to fit into their already effective system. But don’t expect that to stop people inside and outside the club paying lip service to the God of style.