Of late, in the last couple of years particularly, when football pundits consider whether a Continental Import to a Club is likely to do well or not in the Premier League, the yardstick question seems to have become…..”Ah, but well, how would he/they get on on a wet Tuesday night at Stoke?”.
This Saturday, when Swansea City play our fixture against SCFC (North), at least we get to do so on a weekend, taking out of the equation yet another “Football Cliche” (to go along with Second Season Syndrome) and you never know – Broadcast and Print analysts of the lazy order might have to do some genuine match analysis.
What is certain is that this, just like last year for us and many other Clubs, is a game against these opponents that is never, ever easy. Tony Pulis’ marauding band will want to gain an away victory that consolidates their PL pedigree.
We, Swansea City, go into this game in the middle of a run of season-defining fixtures, and our 1-0 defeat at the Emirates in the FA Cup replay really shouldn’t dismay us that much, given that it was our first loss in 7 games.
I don’t know about you, but for me the way the team is playing keeps me bouncing from week to week, and hand on heart this year is equal to, if not better, than last year for excitement.
Anyway, let’s get back to Saturday.
Most of us football fans will have heard the old saw that says …”Messi wouldn’t do it on a cold Tuesday in Stoke – would he??”.
I have a suspicion that the answer, of course, is that he he could – undoubtedly – since his talent is that sublime, oh, and btw, he often plays in Northern Spain (in the snow and cold rain), and is equally as good as he is down South.
As far as we’re concerned, hey – it’s a cold day in January – it must be Stoke City. Here they come, again.
Just like a rash, or a bad cold you last had last winter, the PL’s “bad news bears”, who nobody likes to play, come down for their annual visit this weekend. Welcome, Stoke City Football Club (SCFC North as is) to the Liberty.
Please don’t get me wrong.
Whilst there is still a dated opinion in Football generally that Stoke only play in an antediluvian “long ball” manner, things have changed over the last few years and continue to evolve, to this modern and progressive Club’s ultimate benefit.
This is, after all, the Potters 5th year in the division, and they have improved their position year on year , and can nowadays be legitimately considered a “Premier League Club”, having both consolidated their year on year position, and, arguably, developed both their style and substance of play by equally evolving the squad whilst maintaining their resilient style.
Coupled with that, this side were good enough to qualify for the Europa League last year, and their decent run in that competition saw them ultimately lose out to a side no less than Valencia – and I think we’d all like to be at that level.
This is our 4th meeting against SCFC North since our return to the top division. Each game has been hugely divisive, with successive 2-0 away defeats interspersed with a cracking 3-1 home victory, and we cognoscenti will lament the absence of Vorm via a virus contributing to our first year away defeat but we can offer no excuses for the mirror 2-0 reverse the second time around. Conversely, in the Home fixture we ripped them apart, with both DG and others exposing the weak heart at the base of their supposedly granite defence.
There seems to be a collective feeling in Football Punditry that Stoke City have got where they are, and remain there too, only because of their limited, one way of playing, ie long ball and bruising. I’m here to offer that it’s a little more nuanced than that, and whilst it’s stood them in good stead on occasion, the development beyond has been equally as crucial in their continued success.
How far back shall we go ? Well, it seems fair to take in their progress since being promoted to the PL in 2007/08 . In the seasons since then, Stoke have finished progressively higher, which, if it happens to your own Club (as it has to ours), doesn’t seem to me to be a bad business model.
In terms of sustained achievement, that is some record.
From talking to confirmed Stokies on successive Away trips not every fan is enamored by the evolving style of play, with many lamenting that they sometimes wish they played a little more attractively (a bit more “like us” was often offered). Manager Tony Pulis has always had that massive get-out-of-jail free card of PL achievement and PL status to keep the natives in check – and why not – in this age of petro-dollar billionaires, Stoke City’s family dynasty Coates model seems a little closer to us than the Etihad etc..
At the end of the day, the major criticism of Stoke City seems to me and many others to revolve around their style of play. I wouldn’t argue that for the first years particularly of their PL tenure, much emphasis was given to their direct methods, persistently and aggressively “putting it in the mixer” on every opportunity, a style complemented by the astounding value of the now departed Rory Delap’s bombing long throws, given occasional echo by the current Ryan Shotton (when selected).
Pulis has always seemed to select big and aggressive athletes in his teams, and the current model is not too far away from that blueprint.
For instance, the team selected for this week’s cup-replay victory against Crystal Palace was……..
29 Sorensen, 02 Cameron, 04 Huth, 17 Shawcross, 28 Wilkinson (Whelan – 37′ ), 15 Nzonzi, 18 Whitehead, 21 Kightly (Jerome – 55′ ), 26 Etherington, 19 Walters, 25 Crouch (Jones – 63′ )
27 Nash, 20 Upson, 06 Whelan, 16 Adam, 09 Jones, 10 Owen, 33 Jerome
The immediately preceding League game, which had seen them lose the last undefeated Home record in all divisions against Chelsea (yes, I know) had seen this line up step up to the plate………..
01 Begovic, 02 Cameron, 04 Huth, 17 Shawcross, 28 Wilkinson, 06 Whelan, 15 Nzonzi, 16 Adam (Whitehead – 79′ ), 26 Etherington (Kightly – 86′ ), 09 Jones (Jerome – 78′ ), 19 Walters
29 Sorensen, 20 Upson, 30 Shotton, 18 Whitehead, 21 Kightly, 25 Crouch, 33 Jerome
Comparison of both lines-up is quite interesting and will tell you several things. Firstly, manager Tony Pulis was loth to make too many changes to his first choice line up, and it suggests he thinks that Stoke can both progress and thrive in the FA Cup, just as they’ve done in the last few years.
First choice keeper nowadays is Asmir Begovic, the Bosnian having supplanted the Danish International no 1 Thomas Sorensen, and Begovic ‘s stock is rising still, with rumours of even bigger beasts ( Man Utd and others) sniffing around.
Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross are the first choice CB’s , with the giant German Huth (ex Chelsea) nowadays supportive of club Captain Shawcross recently signed to a 5 year deal, and moving on from his controversial break of Aaron Ramsey’s leg some 3 yrs back. Andy Wilkinson is a shaven headed bruiser who can play both left and right FB, and Geoff Cameron, the 6ft 3in RB came from the Houston Dynamo in the States, and the dynamic Yank international can play centrally and as a defensive MF’er.
The MF is anchored by the ebullient Steven N’Zonzi, signed from Blackburn Rovers, and the French U-21 cap has thus far resisted overtures from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to play for their national team, as his background gives him dual qualification.
The other premier MF’ers are Glen Whelan, the ROI international schemer, a sort of lesser paced JdG, and Charlie Adam, the one paced (but skillful) ex Livrpool and Blackpool schemer. Excellent alternate choices come from Dean Whitehead and Michael Kightly, who can both play wide or narrow, and Matthew Etherington, who gives a choice of top class left footed wingplay that Pulis often opts for.
Up front the one constant is Jonathan Walters. Signed from Ipswich, this is your quintessential run-all-day grafter, and the fact that he’s started some 79 out of 83/4 games tells you he’s the one either Peter Crouch or Kenwyne Jones (and occasionally Cameron Jerome – boo, hiss) get to partner. Crouchie’s talents are well known, and I’ve been interested to see us reportedly bid (low) for Jones of late, although there’s no doubt the Trinidadian offers more than just muscle. We’ll see.
Further cover within the squad is provided by Carlo Nash, a vastly experienced GK’er, the aforementioned Ryan Shotton (long throw apprentice), Matthew Upson the ex England CB, and the seemingly perpetually broken Michael Owen, who, if he’s on a pay-as-you-play deal must be pounds out of pocket – because he just doesn’t (play, that is).
Pulis has moulded, over the years, this, and other, collections of seemingly disparate individuals into a series of effective and successful teams, retaining, as I’ve said, their PL status for the last 5 years. Kudos to him.
Stoke City’s fans are a passionate bunch, who make their Home, The Britannia Stadium, an intimidating and fearsome arena, but, as hinted before , I’ve travelled up the last 2 years and have been made very welcome, with a lot of serious football chat with a great number of their supporters. Just like us, unsurprisingly, they are real football people.
Welcome to the Liberty you Stokies!
As for our lot, what can I say apart from “bloody well done, please keep it up!” ML’s squad rotation over this busy period has been excellent, and the team on the pitch has given us some fabulous experiences.
When you consider that our next fixture is the 2nd Leg COC semi final where we’re 2-0 up from the first leg I really can’t ask for much more than a steady-as-she-goes.
Doncha’ just love being a Jack??
Onward, Swansea City.