As Barney Ronay points out in his typically erudite summation of the Tony Pulis era at Stoke, there will be little lament for his managerial passing. The initial ground-shaking tremor caused by their ascension to the Premier League back in 2008 has petered out into ever-tinier trembles, and even though Stoke eventually finished the season in a respectable 13th place, it seemed inevitable that Pulis would leave this summer.
In fact, you’d almost be forgiven for forgetting that he was even still there. Their fans bemoan their perennial role of Match of the Day bottom-feeder, their game regularly relegated to last place, Shearer and Hansen too exhausted from their extensive analysis of other games to comment. But, spare a thought for the MOTD bods behind the scenes, trawling through Stoke games for incidents. They registered 34 goals all season, only eclipsed by the execrable QPR. 44% of these came directly from set pieces. Such a record can’t be put down to profligacy either; they managed the worst record in the league of dribbles, overall shots per game and shots on target. They rarely managed to achieve over 50% of possession, and their top goal-scorer Jonathan Walters scored only eight times, three of which were penalties. Combined, these stats neatly demonstrate a point; that Stoke aren’t very good to watch.
This alone isn’t cause to sack a manager. Stoke’s style is said to be ugly but effective; but it’s debatable how true that still is. Their points total this season – 42, was their lowest since promotion in 2008. Their highest Premier League finish, 11th, was achieved three seasons ago. Pulis stressed that their primary aim was always to avoid relegation each season, but when sides such as West Brom and Swansea have made some sizable strides forward, this seemed peculiarly unambitious.
Despite his frequent protestations about his squad compared to those of the top sides, Pulis was always well-backed by his board and given funds to strengthen his squad throughout his tenure. In the January transfer window of the successful 2007/8 promotion campaign, over £4m worth of players were brought in. Each of his five seasons in the top flight have seen him being given big budgets, and yet so much has been wasted on forgettable squad fodder; soon to be discarded.
Pulis’ hallmarks were easily identifiable, the tall powerful strikers, pacy direct wingers and imposing centre backs. His philosophy seemed unbinding, which made some of his signings so inexplicable. The likes of Tuncay and Eidur Gudjohnsen were acquired, seemingly with little idea how they would fit in to Stoke’s style of play. The signing of Michael Owen this season continued this odd trend. Jonathan Woodgate, an elegant centre-back, admittedly on the wane, was occasionally deployed at right-back where he seemed completely lost.
When the grinding mechanical gears of Stoke’s football clicked into place, they could be impossible to play against, backed by the raucous Brittania crowd. Signings like Jermaine Pennant were inspired, complimenting Matthew Etherington on the opposing flank with direct, attacking intent and the ability to pin back full-backs. But Pulis fell out with him, and left him out in the cold this season and last. Rumours of dressing room disharmony couldn’t be quelled, and the bizarre tale of Kenwynne Jones and the pig’s head found in his locker seemed to be the nadir of these internal machinations.
Of course Pulis’ achievements should be noted, guiding Stoke to the top tier for the first time since the mid-eighties, staying there for five consecutive seasons and taking the club to the FA Cup Final in 2011. But that they won few admirers beyond those who marvelled at the hulking physicality of his side and of Rory Delap’s throw-in indicated that he was probably never going to be the man who progressed Stoke into a top-half team. The club are right to look for a new direction, but rumours linking them to Mark Hughes aren’t a great start. Rumours abound that he is seen as a “good fit”. To some hoping to see a new philosophy at Stoke, this might just sound like more of the same.
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