25 September 2011

Fear and Trembling

Tony Pulis wears a baseball cap. He is also terrified.

Upon promotion Stoke practised a style of football which relied heavily on physicality and set pieces. Rory Delap’s long throw was one of the main themes of their debut season in the top flight (in fact only recently did I learn that Delap was a midfielder – I had always assumed that his preferred position was a few steps back from the by-line). Pulis was quick to acknowledge Stoke’s prosaic play and to insist that upon establishing them in the division his aim would be to make the team more aesthetically pleasing.

Dr Frankenstein

Now we are a few years on and it cannot be denied that on the pitch Stoke have been successful – a decent league position in 2010-11 and reaching the final of the FA Cup (and hence the Europa League) marked another step forward for Pulis’ team. It is also true that last season Stoke got amongst the lowest number of goals scored from open play in the Premier League. This is not a bad thing: they were joined there by high scorers Man City and Newcastle. Clearly the directness of their play is not a problem in terms of success – is it any wonder that Pulis has not changed their style, as promised?

The GULag is not a football snob. Not all teams have to play like the best clubs in Europe (Barcelona and Wigan) to draw praise. What I want to know is: why did Pulis even feel the need to make this promise? I don’t mind direct football. It is actually very entertaining – far more so than a soporific game based around possession and simple passes. Good direct football can be both entertaining and successful – some clubs have built their identity around this premise, such as Athletic Bilbao. I feel that Pulis’ broken promise really shows that deep down he actually holds these prejudices about football: the Premier League’s most notable exponent of direct football actually looks down upon it. We can contrast this view with that of Mick McCarthy, who unashamedly plays direct football in an entertaining manner (and even Roberto Martinez, who plays indirect football in an unentertaining and unsuccessful manner).

The problem with the football that Stoke play is not the style, but rather the spirit. Direct football does not need to be violent or cynical and mental toughness needn’t break legs. Last season there was a furore concerning tackles and Stoke and Wolves were at the centre. After Jordi Gomez was injured in a terrible tackle by Karl Henry, Mick McCarthy conceded that his players needed to calm down. Pulis, after similar incidents, was more likely to appeal to that well-worn refrain: “He’s not that kind of player.” Danny Murphy made a good point when he noted that managers who worked players up too much before matches were more likely to see those players make reckless tackles. The point that I am making is simply that the way Stoke sometimes like to imagine themselves playing, a tempering of directness with exaggerated muscularity, can be very dangerous.[1]

Frankenstein's monster

So why do Stoke play this way if Pulis views the football played by Stoke as inferior? The answer is simple: he has created a monster on the back of his success and to tamper with the formula is too risky. He is an addict! Flair signings such as Tuncay and Gudjohnsson didn’t work out; only more functional wingers, Etherington and Pennant (the latter having damningly attracted the eye of Rafa Benitez), stood a chance. Unable to change Stoke’s style, Pulis can only make it more pronounced. Stoke are evolving, but into what? The direction that this evolution will take is in Pulis’ hands. He could follow through on his promise to make Stoke a side full of diminutive passers, but this is neither likely nor necessarily favourable. In terms of developing the style of play that Stoke prefer he can make it a better form of direct football or a more violent form of direct football. In the meantime, Pulis will continue to work out his salvation with fear and trembling.

[1] This applies to the self indulgently primeval contingent amongst Stoke's fans, too. One senses that, psychoanalytically speaking, they are attempting to hide the ugliness of their affections in plain sight, by booing Aaron Ramsey’s splintered leg, for instance.

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