After losing their opening game of the 2008/09 Premier League season Stoke were the bookies’ favourites for relegation. Fast-forward four years and The Potters are still high-flying in the top flight of English football.
Stoke are not a ‘glamour team’. I’m just going to throw that out there. In fact, I would go as far as to say they are an ‘anti-glamour team’ – the complete antithesis of the big-spending top-four clubs.
They represent a more conservative and industrial tradition of English football. Where other clubs aim to provide their support with a ‘spectacle’ – a continentally inspired fusion of technical flair and expansive progressive attacking football – Stoke City can often be found containing the opposition to clinch a draw.
They have made themselves incredibly difficult to break down and, going forward they prefer efficiency over style.
In three seasons Tony Pulis has transformed The Potters from relegation candidates into a mid-table Premier League side with European ambitions.
They reached the final of the FA Cup in 2011, earning themselves qualification for the 2011/12 Europa League. Last season they claimed 14th place, admirably avoiding the drop zone by a distance but not quite the improvement Pulis would have hoped for after they finished 13th in 2010/11 and 11th in 2009/10.
Their bread and butter is consistency – something which clubs boasting an array of attacking and creative talent often fail to master. They grind out results away and have made the Britannia Stadium a fortress. It is one of the toughest away fixtures in the Premier League.
Pulis has turned them into a compact defensive unit that defuses the oppositions’ threat by playing narrow – their pitch at the Britannia is the most narrow pitch in the league, only just within the regulatory dimensions - stifling and obstructive football.
They have become infamous for their use of throw-ins as set-pieces. Rory Delap’s long-throws have undone some of the best defences in the land over the years – goalkeepers don’t know whether to come or stay, defenders have a torrid time judging the height and pace of the ball that so often loops in to the box on to the head of a Stoke City player.
Without the ball, they set themselves out in two solid banks of four that just don’t budge – they say to the opposition “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” and they’ll take it all day long.
They leave no space and show the minimum of attacking ambition, utilizing every dead ball situation as an opportunity to get their big centre halfs in to the box where they pose a dominant aerial threat.
And whilst it might not win trophies, or plaudits, or popularity, it works. It keeps them in the Premier League where they belong and where they deserve respect.