It’s a regular occurrence for football fans around the world – it’s certainly not unique to Stoke City FC, nor to the English game.
The end-of-season post-mortem that takes place by the fans of clubs and – perhaps more annoyingly, by the national and local media – always poses more questions than it proposes answers. This season is, of course, no different – but where Stoke are concerned, it’s certainly written in a more downbeat and negative manner than has been seen since the Potters were promoted to the Premier League.
There is no denying the facts; Stoke finished in 14th place out of a possible 20, with 45 points (nine clear of relegation). So far, fans have been very critical of this position, and the lack of finesse or excitement in the matches observed over the last 10 months of the season, the lack of a “Plan B” from the management, and the general lacklustre performances given by some of the big names that were purchased in last year’s transfer window.
Tony Pulis, in defence of his tactics and results, has come out and said that this is the club’s best season in the Premier League so far, and the best season for some years past. That statement met with massive derision from various angles in the media and fan-base alike; but in all honesty, was he right?
The 45 points gained by this season’s team is no worse than has been earned in the club’s time in the Premier League since promotion in 2008 – in fact, the club has previously achieved points totals of 45 (2008/9), 46 (2009/10), 47 (2010/11) and 45 (2011/12). It may also be worth noting that all three ‘new’ teams that won promotion to the Premier League in 2010/11 managed to regain their status this season – sending down two established clubs (Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers – no offence to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who have been up-and-down for a few seasons now).
What many fans seem to have forgotten is that this season, the Potters forayed into Europe for the first time in nigh-30 years – excluding the Anglo-Italian Cup of the early 1990’s, of course! Those UEFA Europa League games will have taken a massive toll on the players, the vast majority of which have never experienced European competition standards before. The Europa League qualification – a result of last season’s FA Cup Final defeat – meant that Stoke City played a total of 56 games this season – a total of 18 games outside of the Premier League. Only Chelsea (61 games) has played more games than Stoke City of the Premier League clubs this season.
The real issue the fans seem to have is with players, and the problem of attracting players “of the right calibre” to the club to push on to higher levels.
The signings of Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios were welcomed with a fanfare of trumpets and banners when announced – unfortunately neither player has quite lived up to expectations, although Crouch has weighed in with some timely and important goals (and it’s unlikely anyone will forget that goal against Manchester City for a while..!). Whilst Palacios has struggled to get any serious amount of playing time, Peter Crouch has – scoring nearly a third of Stoke’s 36 league goals – but at the same time raising questions about the abilities of those around him.
Matthew Etherington has been very much hit-and-miss this season, again at times seeming like his mind is elsewhere and raising questions from the stands whether he has returned to gambling. At times, he has shown true international standards – but they seem to have been outnumbered by the lethargic and disinterested performances that started to creep into his game towards the end of last season.
On the opposite side, it became increasingly clear that Jermaine Pennant and Tony Pulis had had an argument or falling out, as the former was repeatedly replaced by either right-back Ryan Shotton or an-out-of-position Rory Delap. By taking Pennant out of the equation, Pulis had effectively removed our second most potent threat from last season – the most potent threat being the left wing being ran by Etherington. A distinct lack of attacking wing play meant that, this season, the tall strikers were always going to struggle for goal-scoring opportunities, having to rely on balls being pumped forward from defence and goalkeeper alike.
Reviewing the goals scored column of the Premier League table will lead to much head-scratching and angst among Potters fans; no team scored fewer than Stoke – nearly-relegated Aston Villa scored only one more. Of the strikers currently under-contract at the club, the one who had most vitriol directed towards him from the terraces was last year’s boy-wonder Jonathan Walters. Whether it’s because Walters had made such an impression last season, or whether it’s because the signing of Crouch has had a negative effect on the team, the Irishman just hasn’t seemed to be able to find his rhythm this season. This may – in part – be down to the number of games he’s played; no Stoke player has played more than the 56 games that Walters has played in this season (although this includes international appearances, and not just club). That eye-watering figure may be more than enough to justify calls for him to be dropped, if only for a rest, by the terraces towards the end of the season.
This transfer window is, without doubt, make-or-break for Pulis. In previous seasons, he’s had his doubters amongst the fans, but that seems to have been turned up several notches this time around as his tactical approach and lack of enthusiastic attacking as displayed by the likes of Swansea City and West Brom have begun to wear thin on the Stoke masses.
The European Championships will, hopefully, give the scouting team a chance to assess some new blood with the Chairman and Tony Scholes aiding in negotiating contracts with these players. With fan-favourite Ricci Fuller just one of several players out of contract this summer, some exciting signings in the midfield and attacking positions must be a priority, especially if Pulis wants to break into the upper echelons of the league.
The new under-21 Development Squad may be building for the future, but it’s important that this doesn’t detract from financial investment this summer for the immediacy – else the Potters may well be struggling to survive the 2012/13 Premier League season.
Incidentally, Pulis’ comment on this season being the best yet? He may have a point. The 2011/12 season is the first time in Stoke’s FA Premier League history that the win percentage has bettered the loss percentage. Tony must be doing something right - right?