The end of the line for Tony Pulis at Stoke

April 8, 2013 in Premier League

In December, Stoke drew to Everton 1-1. This game, on the face of it, was nothing special, but did contain one incident that might have inadvertently lead to the expiration of Stoke’s tenure as a Premier League team. Frustrated at the tugging and pulling going on and the officials doing nothing about it, Marouane Fellaini headbutted Ryan Shawcross in the face. What does that have to do with anything, I hear you cry? Well, after the round of discussion rightly shaming Fellaini as a thug, his disciplinary issues hardly hold to this one game, the baton was then passed to Stoke’s underhanded tactics, the niggling tackles, the bullying of the illegal variety that they were getting away with, and you get the sense referees were told to keep an eye out. Since January, whistles seem to be being blown more frequently against the more borderline decisions, the ones that Stoke used to previously get the benefit of the doubt on. That is, of course, a speculative opinion, but in that same time period, Stoke have taken five points out of possible 36. They are the worst Premier League team in the year 2013.

In many ways, Stoke have inherited the mantle that used to belong to Wimbledon, the team that muscles out enough points to come somewhere in the lower mid-table every year, making no friends and courting no hearts as they do it. In the increasingly continental Premier League, Stoke have cut a marker, causing managers like Arsene Wenger and Roberto Mancini and other cultured passing teams problems upon problems. Tony Pulis did what so many managers can’t do - he got the team up and kept them up. The high point was taking them to an FA Cup Final, including a memorable 5-0 win against Bolton in the semi final at Wembley en route. All of this gave him an enormous of respect at the club, but also put Stoke in a difficult position. They wouldn’t be where they were without Pulis, but at the same time, as the seasons passed, it became abundantly clear that if they had any notions of advancing beyond that status, perhaps to top-half status or even top six challengers, then they needed someone other than Pulis.

And while that might sound unrealistic, very few teams outside the top six have spent more than Stoke; over £100 million since their arrival in the Premier League, and whilst that’s not exactly QPR money, the board have the right to expect forward progression whilst they outspend their mid-table rivals. Instead, it turns out they’re spending a lot to tumble at a slower pace, with Stoke consecutively finishing the season with a smaller points haul, until this year, where less than 40 points and a relegation battle look very much on the cards. Pulis is largely to blame. With more and more teams gradually figuring a way around Stoke’s physical game, Pulis needed to bring something new, but has seemed entirely incapable of doing so.

Stoke’s major problem since the turn of the year is a complete inability to score goals. Yet Stoke have two of England’s most prolific strikers ever on their books in Peter Crouch and Michael Owen. Crouch is being used as a bit-part player and Owen can barely get a second of football. Meanwhile Jonathan Walters, a typical Pulis player in that he’s high on work ethic and low on ability, has only scored six goals all season despite being the club’s first choice forward, starting literally every game. Walters has none of the inspiration of clinical ability of even a past it Owen and Crouch; hell, even Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome look more legitimate threats than him, but Pulis plays the low-scoring try-hard always, and has suffered the consequences.

In the same vein, tent-pole summer signing Charlie Adam finds himself completely out of favour, with the entirely non-creative midfield of Steven Nzonzi and Dean Whitehead being preferred instead. Adam isn’t Messi, but when goals and chances are so hard to come by, surely the only player you have that resembles a play-maker might be the one to go with, but Pulis prefers the try-hards with an inability to create a chances, and has suffered the consequences. This was particularly telling against Villa, a game where Stoke’s midfield looked incapable of making anything more than a simple pass, but almost the second Adam came on, chances were created and it lead to their goal. Stoke need Pulis to expand his horizons, their very survival appears to depend on it, yet the man keeps stubbornly sticking with his way. Now, the Championship beckons.

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I’m not saying Pulis isn’t a manager capable of doing a job, but Stoke need something else now; his way has got them so far, but now it’s taking them back to where they came from, with the team regressing at a noticeable rate. He probably only needs about five points from their remaining six games, something that doesn’t sound that hard until you’re reminded of the fact that Stoke have only got five points since January, and I think sacking him now could lead to almost certain relegation. But regardless of whether Stoke stay up or go down, it’s time for the club to go in a new direction with a new manager. One capable of making better use of the fairly sizeable investment, and capable of expanding on the foundation Pulis put in place, a foundation that seems to be eroding the longer he stays. It has to be the end of the line for Pulis, or it will be the end of the line for Stoke.

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