Pulis remains the man with the plan – opposition focus
Thursday, 8th Nov 2012 21:38 by Clive Whittingham
Whether you like Stoke City and Tony Pulis or not – and chances are you don’t – they continue to secure Premier League status with something to spare. Can it continue?
The appearance of QPR assistant manager Mark Bowen on the Open All R’s podcast earlier this week has been a cause for serious conjecture across the message boards this week.
It’s universally accepted that Bowen came across very well, spoke openly and honestly, and deserves credit for putting himself up to speak to genuine fans who were always likely to ask straight questions and demand answers of an equal standing as opposed to the club’s official version London Call In. However the camp then divides between those who felt Bowen’s words reassured them, and those who are increasingly concerned about QPR’s prospects this season. Personally, I fell into the latter category.
While Bowen came across as a likeable, straight talking, honest football man with a passion for the sport, a frustration at how things are going for his team at the moment and a will and drive to correct the situation I felt that the half hour discussion served only to emphasise just how short the QPR coaching staff are of an idea or plan at the moment. On five occasions in the first ten minutes of the conversation Bowen said the coaching staff were “surprised”, “expected better,” “wondering why…”, “infuriated” and even at one point asked “what do you do?”
The ‘plan’, if you can call it that, was that last year’s team wasn’t good enough and what was required was a raft of expensive new signings in the summer that would automatically make it better. Three months, one transfer window and 12 new players later and QPR are actually worse now than they were this time last season. Now, well, Hughes et al seem pretty clueless about how to correct things.
The way things are shaping up 2012/13 in the Premier League could become known as the Year of the Plan. Apart from the usual suspects, enriched by the Champions League to such an extent that even when they have a bad season they still finish in the top four, the two most eye catching sides so far have been West Brom and Everton. Both have teams built carefully, sensibly, over some considerable time by, in the Baggies’ case, technical director Dan Ashworth and, at Goodison Park, long serving boss David Moyes. Throw in Swansea, who have moved up another level this year after a decade of progress, and it’s clear that QPR’s idea that all their problems could be solved in double quick time by replacing the entire team with 12 new comers was flawed.
What West Brom, Everton and Swansea have in common is that they’re good to watch. The other Premier League team thriving under sound chairmanship and long term management is the Stoke City side QPR meet this weekend, and they most definitely are not. I’ve described the Potters previously as like watching an applied maths lesson – put the ball into a certain area of the field a certain number of times and a certain percentage of goals and wins will result. It’s dreadful to watch, let’s be honest – they broke the Premier League record for least completed passes in a game when they managed just 117 in 97 minutes against QPR at the Britannia Stadium last season, although Rangers then smashed that to pieces with just 82 in the last weekend defeat at Man City.
The first name on the team sheet is Jon Walters who has started the last 62 matches and offers, well, who can say? Pace? No. Skill? No. Prolific goalscoring? No. Danger in the air? No. Essentially he works hard, puts in a shift for the team, holds his position, buys into the Tony Pulis style of play and doesn’t let anybody down. Who would a neutral rather watch, Walters or Adel Taarabt? I’d suggest almost everybody would say the latter, but sometimes Taarabt will go missing, or get marked out of a game, or throw a strop. Walters is just Walters, every week. Pulis knows what’s coming, and he likes that.
Stoke finished last season with a single win from their final 12 matches. The goals in open play scored in the second half of the season could be counted on the fingers of one hand. They seemed to be in such a malaise that I tipped them as one of my three teams to be relegated this season – having spent some time talking myself out of tipping West Brom I’m ashamed to admit. Although nine points isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, and they could easily still be sucked into trouble should the bottom three ever pull their fingers out, they look well placed to just about survive again.
So I guess it comes down to what you want out of your football. Is Premiership survival and occasional cup runs enough to stave off the monotony of watching Stoke play? Well, let’s face it, are we getting a great deal of pleasure from watching QPR play a less direct style this season? Ultimately, whatever they say, football supporters are happy when the team is winning, however it’s winning and Stoke continue to win just enough to stay out of trouble. Which they no doubt count as success.
Stoke City fan Jon Bevington has kindly taken time out of his schedule this week to give us his thoughts on the current situation at the Britannia Stadium.
How do you rate Stoke's start to the season? What are the main positives and negatives from what you've seen so far?
Tricky. We have encountered probably out toughest start to a Premier League season since we were promoted - playing Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd and (less so) Liverpool all within the first eight games. We performed admirably against these big teams, just missing out on a great draw away at Chelsea, and giving United a good game away. It is against the teams more in our sphere of influence that we have struggled against - drawing with Reading, Wigan and Sunderland, and losing to Norwich.
Positives have been our performances against the bigger teams, and what looked at the start of the season like more of an ability to cause chances against them.
Negatives were crashing out of the Carling Cup early doors, and then looking devoid of all creativity in the games against Sunderland and Norwich.
Are Stoke basically achieving now as much as they're ever likely to manage - Premier League security, occasional cup runs - or are there ambitions and the potential to do more? What are the medium and long term ambitions?
Almost - our first aim will always be Premiership survival, it is so important now financially to stay in the top division, and we fans know that Peter Coates can't keep pumping money in forever. A top ten finish and good runs in the cup are still what the fans wish for. Of increasing importance now is a bit more flair, or should I say excitement watching Stoke play.
I would say there is potential to do more, to break into the Europa League and to challenge the bigger clubs to attract young, talented home-grown players, but not without substantial further investment which is unlikely to occur under the new financial "fair-play" era.
What is the current feeling among the supporters about Tony Pulis? I know the opinion has been mixed in the past despite the achievements because of the style of football - is the team playing any differently this season?
A tough one, Pulis is not universally loved. He is still a hero for bringing us up to the Premiership, let alone an FA Cup final and European footballing adventure. However, the style of football is "evolving" a bit too slowly for some of our fans. The signing of Charlie Adam and Michael Kightly especially, and the delving into the US market for Geoff Cameron, were seen by many as a step towards a more passing game, but this has only been evidenced a few times in games so far this season - it’s a long way to go. Fans are very fickle creatures. A couple of wins and a bit of excitement in games and the fans will soon be back on the manager’s side.
What do you make of the Michael Owen signing? How has he looked on the rare occasions he has played this season?
Personally it baffled me. Pulis loves a "name" player - ex-England etc. Why he has replaced Cameron Jerome (though not an awesome player, he scored goals last season from off the bench, and what more can you ask for?) with an ageing, perennially injured player with minimal pace, I do not know. He has not offered much in the brief cameo's since he arrived, but I must admit we haven't seen him playing off the shoulder of Crouch, or getting into good positions in the box as yet... I wait to be convinced.
Ryan Shawcross is starting to be linked with international call ups and big money moves - is he really that good or playing in a team that suits his style?
At any bigger club, our captain would have had five to ten or so caps by now. A centre back will always look strong in a Stoke City side, but Ryan does have genuine talent and technique. He is often instructed to play the ball long, but generally he always hits Crouch with those long passes. Granted he doesn't have the "flair" of a Gary Cahill, but he is an adequate, natural replacement for John Terry (*spit*), and his consistent performances over the last 18 months have really shown what an asset he would be to England.
He looks a stronger centre back than Smalling at United, and I believe Phil Jones will be more of a defensive midfielder, when he develops. Caulker/Cahill and Shawcross should be replacing the ageing Lescott and Jagielka. We are trying to tie him up in a new six year contract at present, hopefully that will guarantee a big money transfer if he does indeed go, happily we are a club that doesn't need to sell our talent.
Who are the star men and weak links in the current Stoke side?
Star men to watch out for will be Crouchy, simply because he is all we have up top, Michael Kightly can cause problems, hopefully him and Matty Etherington will start on Saturday. Charlie Adam really needs a good game to get his Stoke career up and running.
Our weak link will be whomever plays at left back, Marc Wilson is sorely missed (we haven't had a specialist / natural left back at Stoke for many years), and I think Hughes will have instructed Tarrabt et al to attack down our left flank.
So while we all pretty much know what QPR will be facing this weekend generally – and that’s scary enough given their vulnerability from set pieces – what specifically should Rangers be looking out for?
Well, firstly, it’s unlikely to be Rory Delap slinging the long throws in as we’ve come to expect down the years at the Britannia Stadium. Playing somebody of such limited footballing ability in the middle of midfield simply because he had a long throw summed up everything that was bad about Tony Pulis, but Delap has lost his place this season. The long throw duties are shared between Ryan Shotton and new US signing Geoff Cameron. Cameron plays as a centre half for his country but has been used in the middle of midfield and at full back on occasions joining Stoke – another ‘typical Pulis’ tactic.
Interestingly, Stoke didn’t score a single goal from a Delap long throw last season – although they did manage two from Shotton’s. Mind you, they found goals hard to come by full stop – 36 in 38 games was the league’s worst total.
Another change has been Jermaine Pennant falling down the pecking order to such an extent that he’s actually been loaned to Wolves in the Championship. Previously Pennant on one side and Matthew Etherington on the other was about the only part of the Stoke team worth watching as a neutral, but Newcastle showed what could be achieved against the Potters just before our visit last season when they took both wingers out of the game by doubling up on them, forcing Stoke to go exclusively down the middle and winning with ease as a result.
Pulis has changed things slightly this year, bringing in Michael Kightly from Wolves who is a more considered, crafty, technical player than Pennant. When I saw Stoke against Arsenal this season I thought Kightly was easy to read – playing down the left while right footed meant Arsenal knew he would turn inside at every given opportunity. He went outside on his left foot once and mishit the cross, and he made Stoke narrow, but against Arsenal that probably suited them and a 0-0 draw would be seen as a good result. None of the so called ‘big four’ won in Stoke last season.
Clearly the big threat comes from Peter Crouch. As ever you have to decide whether or not to challenge him for the header in the first place – and I strongly suspect QPR won’t do that through the lack of anybody capable of doing the job. The other two options are to get a man in front and behind him whenever he’s receiving the ball directly so he cannot easily bring it down and get others involved; or simply mark him normally, accept you’re not going to win much from him, and make sure the runners off him are tightly marked. I prefer the front and behind option personally (actress, bishop, etc).
Given that his partner Walters is hardly the swiftest player we’ll face one thing QPR must do, however they approach Crouch, is play a really high defensive line. Stoke do not have the pace to exploit space in behind the QPR defence but if Mark Hughes’ men stay as deep as they did against Reading – which was often down to the sheer laziness of Jose Bosingwa and Anton Ferdinand – then it will simply invite the home team to put the ball high into the heart of the danger zone where Crouch will dictate the attack. Get out, get up the pitch, stay there and, given the lack of pace but abundance of strength in the Stoke attack, I’d pick Clint Hill with Ryan Nelsen at centre half this weekend. If you’re sitting near me this weekend I apologise in advance – I suspect I’ll be muttering about the defence being too deep for almost the entire game.
Another mistake from the Reading game – which was again caused mainly by laziness but also partly down to a lack of confidence and passing options – was the aimless chipped pass from the full back spots into the centre of the field across the halfway line. Cisse and Mackie weren’t able to do anything with that against Kaspars Gorkss and Sean Morrison and they’ll get even less joy this weekend if they do it with Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross rampaging around. A better tactic would be to get Hoilett and Taarabt on the ball, running into the channels and at Stoke’s full backs who are poor.
Rangers must also decide how to approach a midfield area where Charlie Adam has struggled to shine, but forms a physical partnership with the likes of Cameron, Dean Whitehead or Steven Nzonzi. It’s tempting to say this won’t be the week we see Ale Faurlin’s much needed return to the team given the physical challenge posed but I wonder whether Hughes has considered the possibility of playing him with Granero and Diakite in the middle with Hoilett and Taarabt right and left and Cisse through the middle. That would outnumber Stoke through midfield when they have the ball and more importantly provide an extra central midfield body to double up on Crouch for the long balls, and it would also field QPR’s four best quality ball players for when they have the ball. I do hope so.
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