Every year the most interesting discussions about the Premier League revolve around the Champions League Places, the relegation battle and Liverpool’s continued failures to reaffirm their status as one of Premier League favourites. Amongst all these discussions, it is sometimes safely assumed that the mid table will most surely be filled by the Aston Villas, Fulhams and Evertons of the league. And more often than not, this used to be a correct prediction as well. But this year, a cursory look at the mid table will suggest a significant change in the proceedings. Stoke City are sitting 8th in the table, just a point behind 7th placed Newcastle and 4 points above 9th placed Norwich City.
When Stoke got promoted to the Premier League in 2008-09 season, every football pundit tipped them to be relegated in their first season back in top flight. Three years past, Stoke are sitting comfortably in mid table and are in the last 32 of the Europa League. Over these three years Stoke’s style of play has evolved from being brutally physical to being reliant on wing play and using set pieces wisely. Agreed that their style of play is still overly physical, especially while at set pieces, no one can argue that the other facets of their game have improved considerably. But while opposition managers can continue to harp on them for using rugby tactics, it can be simply nullified by countering that it is a style of play nonetheless. It is clear that Tony Pulis and his squad realises that they cannot play the game with as much technical astuteness as say Arsenal or Tottenham, so, they have mastered their very own style, of dominating aerial battles and sharp counter attacks.
It is hard to argue that Stoke’s current position in the Premier League is a misleading statistic. Under Tony Pulis, the club has gone from strength to strength each season, reaching the FA cup final in 2010-11 season and qualifying for the Europa League in the same year. This season, the squad is even stronger with shrewd signings of Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Jonathan Woodgate, while retaining the usual suspects Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, Matthew Etherington and Rory Delap.
This season, Stoke have held Chelsea and Manchester United to draws at home, while defeating Liverpool and Tottenham at home as well. Their away form has not been as good as their home form, but that can be attributed to the fatigue caused by midweek Europa games as well. Still with the position that they are in the Premier League and Europa League, they would be more than satisfied with what they have achieved so far.
When Andy Gray said last year that Barcelona would suffer on a cold night at the Britannia, he was laughed and ridiculed. A year later, Stoke are getting ready to invite Barcelona’s challengers Valencia to the Britannia stadium. Is it the same as facing Barcelona? No. But is it a step in the right direction? Probably yes.