Tony Pulis's summer spending doesn't signal a sea-change, says Alex Keble...
Stoke City's major summer signings, Michael Kightly and Charlie Adam, have led many pundits to assume Tony Pulis is looking to tinker with his infamous style.
The tricky pace of Kightly and the non-physical creativity of Adam have bemused certain sections of the media, who justify these signings by presuming Pulis is looking to lessen their dependence on long balls and set-piece goals. In reality, these signings will only serve to refine and reinforce their current tactical philosophy.
Stoke's tactic is very simple, and well known to all. It relies almost exclusively on strength, aerial challenges, long balls, and set pieces. If statistical evidence be needed, then here it is: Stoke held possession for 39.9% of the time last season; they won 15.3 aerial duels per game; scored a mere 14 goals from open play; and scored a total of 20 goals from set-pieces.
One important element of this system is fast, direct wingers. Once the ball has been won in the final third by Peter Crouch (or Kenwyne Jones, or Jonathan Walters), Pulis expects the ball to be quickly shifted out wide. The wingers, using their pace and dribbling, are expected to either beat the defenders and get a cross into the box, or force a challenge that earns them a throw-in.
Last season, Jermaine Pennant was vital to the system. He made 2.6 crosses per match, but more significantly, was fouled 1.7 times per match and dispossessed 1.8 times. It is safe to assume that a decent proportion of these 'dispossessions' would result in a throw-in or corner, given his positioning on the right-hand touchline.
Stoke feed Pennant wide on the right
Pennant attempted many crosses into the box and several take-ons in this 2-1 victory over Wolves. Notice how Pennant seems to receive the ball frequently from players in and around the same area of the pitch, indicating that he is given the ball directly after an aerial duel is won in the opposition half.
It's early days for Kightly, and therefore statistics must be taken with a pinch of salt. Either way, it is interesting to see that his stats, playing on the right-hand side and largely in place of Pennant rather than alongside him, are fairly similar. In his three games, he's made 1 cross per match, been fouled 1.7 times per game, and dispossessed 1.8 times. Pennant has featured only once, leaving Kightly to fill a very similar role.
It cannot be said that Stoke have changed their style; they haven't even adapted it, but instead replaced one tricky winger for another. Even if these two are to be fielded together in this team, it would not be a departure from the style that has characterised them over the past four seasons: Matthew Etherington has been at the club for their entire Premier League tenure, and Pennant is entering his third year at the club.
Also joining Stoke is Charlie Adam, who took a lot of people by surprise when he signed from Liverpool on transfer deadline day. A deep-lying playmaker, he doesn't necessarily appear in the mould of a Stoke signing, which one would characterise as strong, robust and physically dominant.
In truth, Stoke's central midfielders are not really as uniformly defensive as people may assume. Their most common central midfield partnership last season was Dean Whitehead and Glenn Whelan, neither of whom can hardly be considered robust defensive midfielders. Whelan averaged 1.9 tackles per game and 1.5 interceptions per game, whilst Whitehead made 1.7 tackles and 1.4 interceptions.
These are not very high numbers and, surprisingly, are lower than Adam's own defensive statistics: 2.2 tackles per game and 1.6 interceptions last season in a Liverpool shirt.
Whelan and Adam's defensive work from their last league clean sheets
The absence of significant defensive work in Stoke's central midfield can be explained by Pulis's philosophy, which invariably involves sitting very deep and soaking up pressure rather than attempting to win the midfield battle. With two lines of four sitting narrow and deep, and with the deeper line consisting of tall, strong players, Stoke look to win the ball in and around their own box.
Stoke's defensive work is very deep in their own half
Consequently, their defending is focused largely on positional play, zonally commanding an area, and waiting for the opposition to put the ball in the box (at which point they will be bullied off the ball). There are numerous players from other teams – largely defensive midfielders and centre backs – that provide 3 or 4 tackles per game and 3 interceptions. At Stoke last season, no player averaged more than 2 tackles or interceptions per match – although Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth averaged an astonishing 22.3 clearances per game. Stoke certainly aren't afraid to sit back.
For their 0-0 draw with Arsenal, Stoke could praise their centre backs for the clean sheet, as their main defensive midfielder (Whelan) was not expected to contribute in the same way as his Arsenal counterpart Mikel Arteta. There's absolutely no reason why Adam cannot perform the fairly simple defensive duties required of a Stoke City midfielder.
Another 'cause for concern' has been where a ball-playing playmaker can fit into such a physical, long ball system. Granted, Adam is a playmaker, but he has always been one that sits deep and looks to play the Hollywood pass. He didn't have the best of years at Liverpool, but during his excellent season at Blackpool in 2010/11, Adam played 7.5 successful long balls per match. Paul Scholes was the only outfield player that could boast a higher number than this.
Adam is already prone to playing more long passes than short ones, and once again, it's worth taking a look at his admirable defensive work in these games. Who can say these screen grabs couldn't have been taken from a Stoke City match?
Tony Pulis isn't looking to change his system, but merely exploit it even more, making his team even more effective in their already existing philosophy. Rather than rely on centre-backs to hit the long pass up to Crouch, now Stoke have an accurate long-ball specialist to hit the target every time.
Evidence of this is already emerging: the number of aerial duels won by Crouch has increased from 4.5 per match to 11.3; the most long balls made by an outfield player per match has increased from 4.9 to 6.3.
The signing of Michael Owen is certainly a new angle, but he may only be used as an occasional measure, a substitute to bring on for 20 minutes when in desperate need of a goal. He will be expected to run off the back of Crouch when the long balls are pumped forward, or to run on to long through balls from the likes of Adam, when Stoke need goals and will aim to be even more direct.
Pulis's signings should not surprise anyone. A few years ago, when their system first graced the league, they didn't may not have made signings like Kightly and Adam. As their status increases, they are beginning to sign players that can implement their long-ball strategy more ruthlessly than ever managed before.
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