The more things change, the more some things stay the same. There is certainly something reassuring about watching Stoke continue to do what they know, whilst all the teams around them attempt to adopt a possession game in the vain hope of mimicking Barcelona and Spain. With Tony Pulis failing to sign a libero or a deep playmaker in the summer months it seems reasonable to suggest that his team will continue playing their direct style. As long as it keeps Stoke comfortably in the Premier League, Pulis will continue to justify his approach in the face of critical opponents, pundits and fans.
If tactics are ultimately about designing a system to maximise your players’ potential then Stoke’s manager deserves far more credit than he receives. Compared to the resources that Kenny Dalglish had at Liverpool last season, or Andre Villas-Boas had at Chelsea, it is fair to say that Pulis comfortably outperformed both. He is also fairly astute in the transfer market, although identifying six-foot plus centre backs, quick wingers and forwards that can head the ball is a comparatively easier task than finding a replacement for Robin Van Persie at Arsenal or an effective lone striker at Tottenham. Nevertheless Stoke enter the season in much the same way they have entered the last few: settled as a squad and entirely comfortable as a team.
One of the main reasons why criticism of Stoke is so misguided is that ultimately they resemble any number of teams from the mid-nineties. The first decade of the Premier League was dominated by 4-4-2 formations, powerful centre-backs, tough-tackling midfielders, traditional wingers and forwards that were strong in the air. Sir Alex Ferguson’s early Man United side fielded Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister at the back, Paul Ince and Roy Keane in midfield, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis on either flank and Mark Hughes up front. Similarly Blackburn’s title-winning side included Colin Hendry and Henning Berg in defence, a midfield including Stuart Ripley, David Batty and Jason Wilcox and Alan Shearer in attack. Even Arsene Wenger won the league with an Arsenal side containing Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Ray Parlour, Marc Overmars and Ian Wright.
These teams all evolved, either through an exposure to European football or the influx of foreign signings. What may concern Stoke’s detractors is that a team that seems so out-dated continues to be successful in the modern game. What should concern Stoke though is that there was a reason for other clubs to move on, as technique and possession replaced strength and territory as the desirable characteristics. There were occasions last season when it looked like teams had found a way to play Stoke relatively comfortably, and in the face of resistance Pulis lacked a backup plan. It is likely that Stoke will continue to be effective for a few seasons yet, but the club and Pulis may need to start considering where to go from here. A system focused on simplicity suffers the threat of a simple solution.