Stoke City: Evolution?

25 09 2011

by Adam Bate

It was no surprise to hear Jon Champion use the term “Neanderthal” to describe the Stoke experience on ESPN at the weekend. After all, when it comes to Stoke City, everyone seems to be pre-occupied with the notion of evolution.

This time last year, the man often seen as the personification of Stoke’s direct approach launched not a throw-in but a defence of his club’s style. Rory Delap said: “People go on about us being a long-ball team and relying on set-pieces. Well, we had to do a job to get in the league and stay in the league, but now we are looking to progress. But it won’t be an immediate change, it has to be slow.”

Speaking after Stoke’s stunning 5-0 FA Cup semi final triumph at Wembley in April, Tony Pulis was also keen to articulate the idea of an evolutionary side. Pulis said: “The team that won this semi-final is much different to the one which started out in the Premier League two and a half seasons ago in that we have become more expansive. It’s a case of evolution not revolution.”

Perhaps this is a good time to clarify this is no hatchet job on Stoke City’s style of play. The idea that there is a right way to play football is a risible concept. Beauty can be found in a tiki-taka passing move, a fast counter-attack or a long-ball through the middle. This piece merely seeks to answer the question – ‘Is Stoke’s style of play evolving?’

The first port of call should probably be to look at the Opta statistics for ‘short passing’. Although the quality of ‘style of play’ remains subjective, these stats are usually considered to be indicative of an aesthetically pleasing brand of football. Indeed, a feature of the better sides has been the number of short passes they have played per game.

For 2009-10 Arsenal topped the table for short passes ahead of Manchester United and Chelsea and this pattern was repeated again last season. This is in line with the widely held belief that Arsenal are a nice team to watch – better than their results would indicate. The start of this season has seen Manchester City climb to the top of the short passing table. This supports the idea of a team that is evolving and indulging in a more expansive game with better players.

Number of Short Passes per game: 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12 (part)

The evidence for the evolution of Stoke City’s style of play is somewhat more flimsy. Stoke City were at the bottom of the short passing table in 2009-10, 2010-11 and have already taken up their customary place after the early exchanges of the 2011-12 season. What’s more, there is a remarkable consistency. Stoke played an average of 215 short passes a game in 2009-10, then 220 a game last season and 221 a game this campaign. Well I guess they do say evolution is something that takes place over millions of years.

Another key performance indicator in terms of style is the ‘Goals from Open Play’ statistic. The common belief that Stoke rely on set-pieces should not preclude success from open play situations. And yet, while the top four of the ‘Goals from Open Play’ table for 2009-10 exactly mirrored (in order) the actual league table, Stoke languished down in 17th. Last season saw only a particularly turgid Birmingham side score fewer goals from open play. So far this season it is only the luckless Swansea that have failed to score as many as Stoke from open play.

But the key for Stoke fans must be that the team’s results are going in the right direction. Stoke have finished between 11th and 13th in their first three Premier League seasons and it would be no surprise if the team significantly improved on that showing this time around. And the key to that has to be the improvement in personnel:

While four of the starting eleven remain the same, the superiority of the current side is clear. This is further highlighted by the presence of high profile players such as Wilson Palacios and Matthew Upson on the bench.

So given the improvement in the quality of players, perhaps the real question ought to be: ‘Why is Stoke City’s style of play not evolving?’

It would seem the real evolution of the side has been in buying better players to play the same way rather than actually changing the style. Peter Crouch is the T-1000 model Terminator; an upgrade on Big Mama Sidibe. Elsewhere in the team, there is Jonathan Woodgate – regarded by some as the greatest defender England nearly had. He has impressed but, importantly, only within the framework of Stoke’s style – Woodgate completed just 14 passes against Manchester United.

One suspects Tony Pulis has realised this is the best way forward. He has experimented with introducing players such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tuncay to play between the lines and these players have been unable to be assimilated into the collective.

As a result, it would seem that Stoke’s real evolution may well be in purchasing superior players to fit into their already effective system. But don’t expect that to stop people inside and outside the club paying lip service to the God of style.


Loyalty? The Football Fan is a Hypocrite

9 09 2011


by Adam Bate

Welcome to September. It’s the month in which we say goodbye to summer and football fans everywhere say hello to the squad of players they now know they’ll be stuck with until January. The transfer window has shut but the recriminations continue. And Arsenal fans etch the date of 7 April into their diaries – the day on which Samir Nasri will return to the stadium that he found just a smidgeon too quiet for his tastes.

Nasri is not a popular boy at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. He didn’t show any loyalty, you see. Oh sure, he spoke of a desire to win ‘trophies’ but in the world of football we are only too familiar with that little euphemism. Let’s assume a doubling of his salary helped smooth the deal.

The Arsenal message boards were suitably apoplectic. Cesc Fabregas had moved to Barcelona for love. That the Catalan giants happen to be the finest team on the planet and not exactly notorious for rewarding their superstars with nuts and berries was to miss the point. The judgement was clear – Nasri’s betrayal was beneath contempt.

Such is the myopia of the football fan that you would be forgiven for thinking every playing squad in the land had been assembled without assistance. But Arsenal’s squad, like others, was not acquired by cherry-picking a handful of talented young scamps found kicking a can in the local park. Instead, their charges were acquired from Southampton, Charlton and Cardiff; from Auxerre, Lille and Marseille.


Macheda – Man Utd vs Aston Villa – 2009

5 09 2011

 by David Yaffe-Bellany

In many ways, this goal is quintessential Manchester United. The youth of the scorer, the lateness of the hour and the nature of the comeback all emblematic of United under Ferguson’s stewardship. Aspects of a period of success, tied neatly together in one moment of startling poignancy.
The setting was, fittingly, Old Trafford. Devoid of luck, United welcomed Aston Villa with the wounds of Liverpool’s annihilation three weeks prior still fresh, still burning.
In second place, United needed a win to return to the summit; their seemingly impenetrable seven point advantage sliced to ribbons by two consecutive defeats.
In retrospect, it is bizarre that the 2008/09 incarnation of Manchester United ever struggled to regain their crown – reigning European and world champions, blessed with the talents of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, their greatest challengers were Liverpool, a team that a year later would find themselves struggling to qualify for European competition.
Nevertheless, there they were on April 6th, 2009 – the dream of an eighteenth league triumph slipping further and further away. Brief hope was kindled early in the first half, when a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick flew into the top corner; the type of goal only he could score, of a sparkling variety that sadly has been rarely replicated in English football since his big money departure.
After losing 4-1 to Liverpool, this United side had acquired somewhat of a penchant for self destruction – a trait no better illustrated than by the events of the next hour. First, John Carew rose elegantly to nod in a Gareth Barry cross before, fifteen minutes after the interval, Gabriel Agbonlahor headed home from close range. 1-2.
I remember vividly sitting in my basement, the memory of premature victory celebrations after Liverpool’s 2-1 loss to Middlesbrough fast taking on a sort of karmic significance. Chants of “beat someone, beat someone” echoed across Old Trafford; as for me, I was too stunned to say anything.
My anxious, twelve year old mind was inexperienced in dealing with United’s love of brinkmanship. Against Bayern in ’99 I had watched in a cursory manner, not consciously aware of goings on, reportedly more interested in the little dog twoing and froing across the house. My grandmother’s celebratory phone call, quickly stymied by pleas of ignorance, was made minutes before I popped in the cassette tape to take in Moscow ’08, and shielded me from tension’s unyielding grip when John Terry stepped forward to take his spot kick.
But now there was no protection. Martin Tyler’s melodious commentary made up for the articulacy that had deserted me, his summations of United’s position in the standings, quite dreary. 
On eighty minutes, some sanity prevailed. Taking matters into his own hands, Ronaldo thrashed a low shot towards goal, where, somehow, it trickled by the goalkeeper’s despairing lunge. I remember seeing the seventeen year old Italian lad who had come on twenty minutes previously slap Ronny furiously across the chest in celebration. The guy’s got spunk, I thought.
As the game drew towards it’s latter stages, the prospect of a draw became increasingly attractive. When Fergie threw on another teenage forward 87 minutes in, I yelled some not very complimentary things at the television. And then, the moment which defines this article: My Favourite Goal.
Forever the forgotten architect of some of United’s landmark moments, it was Ryan Giggs who played the pass. Less than a year later, from a similar spot on the pitch, he would caress an equally vital ball through to Michael Owen. Needless to say, such symmetry could not be appreciated at the time of Macheda’s strike – Owen was battling relegation at Newcastle.
Standing readied on the edge of the box, one hand outstretched, the other prepared to hold off the attention of Luke Young, Macheda received the ball and turned. Right footed, falling to the ground, he unleashed a curling effort that softly glided into the net. Martin Tyler let out a shrill cry, his voice reaching previously uncharted altitudes. Machedaaaaaa!
Mobbed by teammates, Macheda staggered over to the nearest stand and – pushing past police officers – flung himself into the arms of his crying father. The beauty of the moment, untainted by a subsequent booking, will never leave me.
Two years after winning the adoration of millions, Federico Macheda’s career has taken a turn for the worse. Relegated with Sampdoria, his future at United is anything but safe. However, even if the winner against Villa remains his greatest goal, the man called “Kiko” will forever find comfort in that one moment. The one moment, in my eyes at least, which ensures his immortality.
Read more by David Yaffe-Bellany at In For The Hat Trick and follow him on Twitter @INFTH