If there’s one thing that the marriage between Stoke City and Tony Pulis became synonymous with it was that we were bloody hard to beat. Nobody enjoyed playing us, especially at the Brit. TP has always set us up with two rigid banks of four, a big target man and for the majority of his reign, a mercurial frontman who could create something out of nothing.
Wind the clock forward to yesterday’s timid surrender at West Ham and we had two midfielders at full back, in midfield had only one player who was comfortable on the ball and up front were two forwards who lacked mobility as well as the element of surprise.
The result of these changes has seen us concede soft goals at one end and hardly look like troubling the scorers at the other. The fact that we have lost 15 out of 29 games so far this season tells its own story. It also illustrates why contrary to what some would have you believe, we have more than a passing interest in the relegation scrap now.
Last week I wrote about the need for us to go “back to basics” but for some reason Tone has been reluctant to do that of late. Results don’t always tell the whole story but in truth we haven’t been playing well at all, especially away from home. I found it curious that TP was quoted on the TEAMtalk website this week as saying we have perhaps been “too open” away from home and often play “4-2-4”. I can only assume the games have looked different on the analysis tape the management team review after the dust has settled? 5 away games on the spin without a goal suggest he may be incorrect in his assessment though.
Of course there’s nothing to say that we can’t turn the corner but what we have done is put huge (and frankly unnecessary) pressure on our remaining home games. When you consider two of those fixtures at the Brit are against Chelsea and Arsenal then the need to get wins against at least two of Newcastle, Wolves and Wigan is there for all to see.
Before we return to league action we of course have the second part of our double-header with West Ham in our F.A. Cup quarter final showdown. Obviously the noises emanating from our dressing room will be that Saturday’s game will have no bearing on the cup meeting but I fail to see how it will have done our visitors any harm at all. We will therefore need to be at 100%, pick our strongest team and hopefully put some of our recent mistakes to one side.
There will of course always be a few minor differences in opinion where picking our strongest XI is concerned. The feeling I get from speaking to fellow Stokies is that most want to see the return of Wilko and Higgy for starters. I want a midfield quartet of Pennant, Rory, Deano and Ethers and I truly believe we are crying out for Ric to be recalled to the team. I’m convinced that this is the team that would not only see us progress in the cup and gain the points we need but also play at the tempo Potter’s fans want to see from their team.
We’ve got some serious work to do now to ensure that this season doesn’t only fade into obscurity but also into oblivion if we don’t start picking up some points. The other side of the coin is that if TP can get us back to playing how we all know we can, we could still have a superb season by progressing in the cup and finishing in the top half. In my opinion for that to happen we have to strike fear into the opposition and once again become very hard to beat.