You don’t really need statistics to demonstrate that Stoke are a unique team in the Premier League. While the top sides all favour a possession-based game, and even a newly-promoted club like Swansea pride themselves on keeping the ball, Stoke are fiercely committed to their own style.
“Style” might not be the popular description of their approach, but while few neutrals would choose to watch Stoke every weekend, there is no doubt that the Potters bring variety to the Premier League. The “wet and windy night at Stoke” joke has been done to death, but beneath the attempt at humour, there’s some degree of truth. Playing Stoke is a different challenge – it tests teams and forces them to adapt their game. It’s always interesting to see how managers change things against Tony Pulis’ side: Kenny Dalglish often moves to three at the back, and last season Sir Alex Ferguson took the unusual decision to play Patrice Evra on the left wing, in order to accommodate John O’Shea at left-back, giving the side extra height at the back.
So let’s get those predictable Stoke stats out of the way. Take a deep breath – they have the least average possession in the Premier League (39.9%), play the fewest short passes per game (230), have scored the fewest goals from open play (10), have attempted the highest percentage of shots from inside the six yard box (18%, double their nearest challenger), have the fewest shots per game (10.1), the fewest on target (2.6), and, inevitably, win the most aerial duels per game (14.5). They are long ball to the core.
But we knew that, and the real question is this – are Stoke becoming any more attractive, any more technically proficient, as the years go by? As is the case so often with statistics, you can use them to support the case either way. It’s probably better to break the debate down further into two separate questions – first, are they becoming more attacking and proactive? Second, are they becoming better technically?
The answer to the first question is probably no. Stoke’s 39.9% possession is the second worst in Europe’s major five leagues (only ahead of Racing Santander) and, looking back at the archive, is exactly the same figure as they managed in 2009/10, although they did drop to 38.4% last season. Interestingly, while they dipped in possession terms that campaign, they actually recorded more shots per game. It was 10.6 in 2009/10, 12.7 in 2010/11, and back down to 10.1 this season. If Tony Pulis has seen these statistics, he’ll take them as a sign that Stoke are more dangerous in front of goal when they see less of the ball, and is unlikely to change his approach.
But the answer to the second question is yes. Stoke’s pass completion rate has improved considerably this season – having been 63% and then 64% in the previous two campaigns, it’s now up to 69.7%, indicating that while Stoke don’t see that much of the ball, when they do, they’re trying to keep it for longer periods. This is also reflected in the fact that their short passes per game has risen from 215, to 220 and now 230 over the last three seasons, although in the grand scheme of things, 15 extra passes per game isn’t a particularly startling increase.
But it’s easy to focus simply on Stoke’s tendency to hit the ball long, and ignore their actual tactics in possession. And they do have a strategy – it’s not quite ‘thump the ball down to the big man’ full stop. The most interesting statistic in this regard is that Stoke play 42% of passes down the right, which is more than any other Premier League side, as shown in their team statistics page. They only play 32% of passes down the left, and this 10% imbalance between the passes played down either flank is matched by only Wolves and Blackburn, both of whom favour the left.
It’s interesting that the right wing is so important to Stoke’s game, since this is actually the main area of the pitch where there is a question mark over personnel. The centre-back, central midfield, left wing and striking partnerships are well-established, but Stoke’s right-back position is up for grabs - Andy Wilkinson has played there 12 times, Jonathan Woodgate 8 and Robert Huth 6 - while on the right of midfield Jermaine Pennant has played 14 times, and Ryan Shotton 9.
Stoke direct the play to that flank through their two central midfielders. Rory Delap can play there and brings his notorious threat from throw-ins, but this season it’s generally been a combination of Glenn Whelan and Dean Whitehead. The players around them may be very direct, but in the engine room of the side, Stoke do have technical quality and reliable players in possession. Both Whelan and Whitehead have a pass completion rate of around 80%, which is comparable with the likes of QPR’s Alejandro Faurlin and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye, both of whom are considered to have had good campaigns.
But Stoke haven’t evolved as much as they would have liked, at least judging by their transfer acquisitions in recent years. Tuncay was clearly a better footballer than his competitors upfront, but rarely got a game – Eidur Gudjohnsen was a similar case in his short period at the club. Pulis spent £6m on Wilson Palacios in the summer – the Honduran boasts the best pass completion rate of any Stoke starter this season, yet has only been in the side for six matches. He can clearly still be of use – he was Stoke’s best player at the Mestalla against Valencia – but he doesn’t seem to fit into the system.
In fact, areas of Stoke’s squad have been rather expensively assembled. In the past two summers they’ve spent a combined £22m on forwards – Kenwyne Jones was £8m, Peter Crouch was £10m, Cameron Jerome was £4m. That’s a staggering outlay for a trio of fairly average footballers (although they do suit the system) and Pulis can only actually play one at a time, with Jon Walters preferred as the support striker. Only five times has Pulis played two of Jones, Crouch and Jerome – and those five times have produced a 4-0 defeat to Sunderland, a 5-0 defeat to Bolton, a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United, a 1-0 defeat to Sunderland and a 2-1 defeat to Fulham. No points, and no indication that playing more than one of them is worthwhile, so at least £12m of striker will be sitting on the bench.
If Stoke do have £22m to spend on one position, one wonders whether they’re limiting themselves by playing primitive football and bringing in tireless, hard-working but unspectacular players. That is serious money for a Premier League club to invest, and with that kind of backing there’s a chance that Stoke could push even further up the table in future.
But while strategy and approach are vital for a football side, you need top-class players too. £22m is roughly what Barcelona signed Alexis Sanchez for, but Sanchez will never come to a club of the stature of Stoke, Stoke probably won’t increase their stature until they play better football and Sanchez wouldn’t fit with the style of play anyway.
Whichever way you look at it, Stoke’s approach holds them back compared to their spending power. Pulis’ approach is perfect for the short-term, but for longer term success, Stoke might need to broaden their horizons