On the face of it Stoke’s £4m capture of Charlie Adam in the summer of 2012 appeared a good signing. The Scottish playmaker had moved to Liverpool for nearly twice that amount the previous year having starred for Blackpool with his long range passing and set piece delivery. Such was Adam’s potency that Sir Alex Ferguson remarked that his corners and free kicks alone were worth £10m, and thus the prospect of moving to a club noted for its direct passing and focus on set pieces appeared an excellent match.
Yet Adam has struggled to adjust to Stoke’s system, and Stoke have struggled to adapt to Adam. The key reason for this has been the change in formation necessitated by Adam’s inclusion. Last season Stoke lined up in a 4-4-1-1 shape, having dropped Jonathan Walters back from the forward line to offer more midfield solidity whilst continuing to support lone forward Peter Crouch. This season Adam’s inclusion has required a reshuffle of the team, with Walters moving to a right wing position. Manager Tony Pulis understandably wanted Adam to slot into a central role, but not at the expense of one of his more defensive-minded midfielders. But Adam isn’t comfortable in an advanced position, preferring to receive the ball in deeper positions where he gets more time and space, and therefore cannot replicate Walters’ role in the side. Whether intentional or not, Stoke’s formation now resembles a 4-5-1, with Adam sitting alongside Glenn Whelan and Stefan N’Zonzi in the centre of midfield.
The move hasn’t been especially successful, and Stoke’s attacking threat has been greatly blunted. As expected Adam is more involved in build-up play, averaging 32 passes per game to Walter’s 24.5 passes last season. However, the Scot’s lack of dynamism has prevented him from moving effectively between Crouch and the midfield and left the forward somewhat isolated, reflected by Crouch averaging nearly 10 passes a game less this season. While lacking in Adam’s technical qualities, Walters is far more effective in the role, offering determination, work-rate and a nose for goal. The attacking midfielder in a 4-4-1-1 system is vital for linking the forward to the midfield. This was a role that suited Walters’ qualities far more than Adam’s.
Equally relevant is Stoke’s loss of two natural wide players. Last season Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant played as natural wingers on either flank, with the ability to beat an opponent and deliver crosses into the penalty area. Both players averaged over 2 crosses per game, and finished the campaign with 13 league assists between them. This year Etherington remains on the left, but Pennant was loaned to Wolves following the signing of winger Michael Kightly. Yet it has been Walters who has replaced Pennant on the right wing, but his natural game is to attack through central positions rather than stay wide. It is no surprise to see that Walters averages less than half a cross per game and has only 1 league assist so far this season.
The statistics for Adam’s influence are damning. Adam has featured in 17 league games for Stoke this season, in which they have taken 18 points at an average of 1.06 points-per-game. When Adam is not on the pitch, Stoke usually revert to last year’s arrangement, with Walters moved centrally and Michael Kightly offering a more natural attacking threat on the right wing. Without Adam Stoke have taken 11 points in 6 league games at an average of 1.83 points-per-game. Stoke also score less often with Adam in the side, averaging 0.88 goals-per-game with the playmaker compared to 1.17 without. It would make sense that Stoke were more solid with Adam in the side given that he plays deeper and with less attacking intent than Walters, yet Stoke concede more with him as well, 1.29 goals-per-game compared to 0.83 without him. On a personal level Adam has not had the impact Pulis would have hoped, scoring twice but providing no assists in his first 17 league appearances.
The November league game at home to Newcastle may prove to be a significant step towards Adam’s exclusion. Stoke began the match in their customary 4-5-1 formation, with Adam in the centre of midfield and Walters on the right wing, but struggled for rhythm and went behind after 47 minutes. With a little over 20 minutes to go and with Stoke trailing 1-0, Pulis removed Adam and introduced Kightly to play on the right wing, allowing Walters to move into an attacking midfield position. The improvement was evident and it was fitting that it was Walters that scored Stoke’s first on the way to a 2-1 victory. Pulis had substituted Adam several times before, but here was a clear sign that Stoke’s ‘Plan B’ was the more effective.
The temptation now must surely be to revert back to last season’s system. To exclude Adam completely may not be necessary if Pulis can entrust him as part of a central midfield pairing without a dramtic loss in solidity, but the benefits of an effective advanced midfielder and two natural wingers may be too much to resist. Stoke find themselves in a comfortable league position and there is little urgency for change, but it will surely be a frustration to Pulis that his attempt to rebuild the side around Stoke’s new playmaker has thus far failed.