Playing Away From Home Always Leads To Trouble
Five days ago, Stoke’s away campaign for the 2009/10 season began in familiar fashion, with defeat. Last year, we became all too used to losing away from home, avoiding defeat just six times in our nineteen trips away from the Britannia Stadium, with our only wins coming at our fellow newly promoted clubs West Brom and Hull in April and May. If we are to overcome the “second season syndrome” many are convinced will strike us down, and move on up the league, our away form will obviously need improving.
For me it’s a problem with tactics. Under the management of Tony Pulis, we know we are to see direct, powerful football, that’s often less than pleasing on the eye, but the vast majority of Stoke fans have come to respect, appreciate and enjoy this. Speaking for Stoke supporters as a whole, we’re almost universally behind Pulis. Those querulous few who still question the man who took us from being a mid-table Championship side to a mid-table Premier League side in just three years often cite his tactics as a reason for this, and even for a Pulis fan, away from home they are often a cause for concern.
Direct doesn’t have to mean defensive. At home we’re used to seeing our attacking players get under the skin of visiting defences, and sustained spells of pressure are common, but away from home our sides look far less willing to get forward, and far too willing to invite pressure onto themselves, which, with the quality in many Premier League teams, is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
Direct doesn’t have to mean one-dimensional. At Liverpool on Wednesday night Pulis opted to take two of his best attacking players, Ricardo Fuller and Liam Lawrence out of the side, and replaced them with Richard Cresswell and Glenn Whelan, who were charged with adding defensive grit, but possess nothing like the quality. When we fell a goal behind after just four minutes, our plan to absorb pressure and hope to hold on for a draw as we had done a year before, was destroyed. Our tactics clearly weren’t working, yet we didn’t see any personnel changes for another hour, by which point we were further behind, and we continued to hit the ball long towards James Beattie, a tactic that was achieving little, as asked to play the target man role that is not his strongest, as a lone striker with little support, there wasn’t much Beattie could do. I know, of course, that Liverpool are one of the best sides in Europe, and given where we were a few years back even to be playing them on equal terms is a huge achievement, but having got that far it seems a great shame not to make as good a fist of it as possible.
When we beat West Brom last year, Pulis surprised everybody by lining up with an attacking side, playing without a holding midfield player as such, moving Rory Delap into the centre of midfield and allowing two recognised wingers to play wide, and support Fuller and Beattie, a very potent strike-force when given the right service. It worked, we took the game to West Brom and came away with a comfortable victory.
That’s the sort of away game from Stoke I’d like to see more often this season. Having more than held our own in the top flight for one season, we have nothing to be afraid of, and, starting at Bolton in three weeks’ time, I believe that a little more positivity in our tactics away from home could make a big difference, and fire us on to an even better season that last.