When Stoke were promoted to the Premier League, it was a long awaited return for fans of the club, but now after nearly five seasons in the top flight Stoke City could well be waving goodbye to England’s top division. Their 2-0 defeat to Manchester United on the weekend meant that Stoke have now won just once in 14 matches in the league since their impressive Boxing Day victory over Liverpool. Games are coming now that you’d previously have backed Stoke to win, but now they look like extremely tricky match-ups. With just five to play I’m not sure Stoke have enough in their tank to save themselves.
Following their successful promotion campaign, a lot was made of their long-ball style and their reliance on the remarkable throwing ability of Rory Delap to catapult balls into the box like small, accurate missiles. Proud of their achievements both the club and their fans were staunch defenders of their team’s style, arguing that they were producing results and that other teams were just nit-picking for the sake of it. While originally sceptical, I must admit in some odd way I found myself won over by Tony Pulis and his side not least because they reverted back to a traditional 4-4-2 regularly with out and out wingers which is something I am rather fond of. After defying the odds and finishing 12th - and famously making Paddy Power back track after paying out on Stoke being relegated after the first match of the season - Stoke have rarely been troubled by relegation. Indeed their highlight came in 2011 when they reached the final of the FA Cup following a 5-0 spanking of Bolton in the previous round. An impressive performance despite defeat showed Stoke’s progression as a club and a place in next season’s Europa League beckoned.
However, despite their recent exploits, many have found myself growing increasingly disillusioned with Stoke City as a football club and out of the potential candidates to join QPR and Reading on the voyage of the damned to the Championship I almost wish it to be Stoke City. What grates on me the most is their apparent lack of ambition especially in the face of such qualities being showed by teams around them. In my opinion, the only real marquee signing over the past few years has been that of Peter Crouch and even that is stretching the definition in question to its uttermost limits. Wilson Palacios was a fantastic sell for Spurs as he was a player alarmingly on the decline - although it can be argued the downturn in form occurred as a result of the untimely passing of his brother.
Two of the newly promoted sides from this season secured big names in the form of Gaston Ramirez and Andy Carroll, while Sunderland splashed out on Adam Johnson. Norwich have recently agreed a deal to sign Ricky Van Wolfswinkel and even Aston Villa have made some big money signings over recent years. Success of these signings is irrelevant because what it shows is ambition for the clubs in question to become more than just a mid-table side. While Swansea may not outlay vast sums on their purchases, there is an intent to explore new markets and a boldness in their recent managerial appointment. I do not believe QPR warrant a mention.
Stoke fans will argue that in recent seasons they have been a relatively successful club given their stature and budget, but I’m afraid this season they have been worked out. Teams now know how to combat Stoke and their lack of a plan B is sometimes frightening. I’m not sure if Pulis thinks he is being a real maverick by playing Michael Owen on the right wing but in my opinion the former England striker has been criminally underused this season. You would have thought that if your team was the lowest scorers in the division you’d try and utilise a proven goal-scorer like Owen as much as possible.
With five to play they have already lost the same amount of games as last season at home and they have already conceded more goals at their fortress. The other worrying facet is their away form has dropped horrifically with only one victory on the road all season. They have secured three points on four fewer occasions than last year and this is the crucial difference - they aren’t winning enough.
In the past their victories, especially those over the bigger clubs, have shielded them from the criticisms of their play. Now though Pulis and his side’s inability to develop and be flexible has cost them and the youthful exuberance of Aston Villa or the attractive football of Wigan are more appealing Premier League options than Stoke. With the worst record in 2013 and only one home win in eight, I’d still be amazed if Stoke change anything. If they stay up it will be due to relying on what they know, as opposed to the dramatic change in style similar to that implemented at Sunderland, but even then I highly doubt there will be wholesale changes in summer.
This might well never be an issue as with trips to QPR, Sunderland and Southampton as well as a home match against Europe chasing Tottenham, I believe Stoke City will be relegated and perhaps it is for everyone’s best interest. The club can rebuild and regroup and then can come back with fresh purpose which will in turn benefit the league.