With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Stoke City.
AJ: We’re entering Stoke City’s fifth season in the Premier League, and I think it’s safe to say that the warm and fuzzy feelings generated by many a Rory Delap long throw have worn off for many Premier League neutrals. For one, there aren’t as many Rory Delap throw-ins being bombed in at the Britannia these days. For two, Tony Pulis and his legion of hatchet men have become one of the more villainous sides in the Premier League. Simply put, Stoke-on-Trent is where attacking football goes to die at the hands of a studs-up Ryan Shawcross challenge these days.
There’s stuff to like here I suppose — they have walking slapstick comedy show in Peter Crouch and a guy named Higginbotham after all! — but mostly I’m finding myself a little weary of the Potters at this stage in the game. They certainly aren’t a side I salivate over when I see them in the TV listings anymore.
Speaking of fatigue, I suppose that’s the big story here on the pitch. Stoke played European football last season, and there’s an argument to be made — probably a very good one — that losing the strain of the Europa League could vault them back up the standings. It’s a little surprising to see them at 14th in the table given the talent on hand, but they were only three points away from finishing in the top half.
Sam: Tony Pulis just strikes me as someone who could be in Layer Cake.
I will probably be in the minority on this point, but I kind of like Stoke. Mainly I like having a team that is strong on their home turf, and plays a classic (read: thuggish) English style. Stoke is one of the teams that creates some of the parity that we’ve been talking about in the middle of the table, and they expose the weaknesses of pretenders to the throne in the winter months.
Yes, they’re boring (what do you expect from a team named after the pottery industry?). Also they’ve maintained their mid-table presence by buying the leavings of recently relegated teams and players who have fallen out of favor at other Prem clubs (Matthew Upson, Wilson Palacios, Kenwyne Jones, Cameron Jerome, Asmir Begovic, Peter Crouch, Jermaine Pennant) — OK, mostly from Portsmouth and Tottenham. It’s not sexy and it’s downright dirty at times, but it’s effective and that’s how you move up in the Layer Cake, right?
I still don’t want to watch them on TV, I just have a modicum of respect for what they do.
Mark: First off, let me say that you get a 9.5 from the Russian judge for the phrase “…goes to die at the hands of a studs-up Ryan Shawcross challenge.” There’s a healthy degree of difficulty there, AJ, and few others who would have even attempted it.
I’m (typically) going to find some middle ground between AJ and Sam here and say that I appreciate Stoke. They’re definitively easy to root against, but it is nice to have one team with a willingness to play rough-and-tumble football, and for the most part do it quite well. I contrast Stoke with some of those Blackburn teams under Sam Allardyce who were dirty-for-the-sake-of-it and weren’t particularly good at it. As a Chelsea fan who simply prefers watching interesting soccer, I’m much more likely to be amped up (read: nervous) about a trip to the Britannia than, say, a trip to the Reebok to face Bolton. In this, they’re a bit the foil of Blackpool in 2010-11 — a team who I found immensely entertaining but also appreciated just because they brought something different to the table. Basically, Stoke makes for OK TV in my book, but I understand those who are repulsed or downright bored by them.
Otherwise, I still think Peter Crouch is underrated. He suffers from being the goofiest kid in the classroom and from all of England souring on him in 2006 (when there were plenty of scapegoats to go around in the “golden generation”), and for that I’ve always felt a bit sorry for him. He is what he is, which is actually not too poor a striker at all if you don’t expect him to hold on to the ball (so don’t). They lost Ricardo Fuller in the offseason, but he has been a no-show for a few years now. One thing I’d normally point to is the age of this squad (Crouch is 31, Matthew Upson 33, Matthew Etherington is 30 and Cannonball Delap is 36), but the way Stoke plays that may not actually matter.
Submitted without comment: Stoke were the absolute worst team in possession last year and scored the fewest goals from open play in the Prem by some margin, but were the best by far in winning aerial duels.
AJ: I’m in agreement with you on Peter Crouch, principally because of this terrific Grantland article. There’s going to come a day soon when he’s playing for an obscure Turkish club or, worse yet, Real Salt Lake and I’m going to miss appreciating his game while also mercilessly mocking him for falling down more than Steve Urkel and being the most British looking person under the age of 60. He’d be the most British looking person around were it not for Harry Redknapp and Prince Charles, but there we have it.
This team is better than I want to admit, and the guess here is that they’re going to work their way past the Sunderlands and West Broms of the world back into the top half now that the pressure of European football is off. There’s not much world-class quality here, but there’s a lot of above-averageness. Couple that with Pulis’ hack-job style of play and this team is well designed to weather the tough winter months.
Sam, terrific point about Stoke and the Britannia being a litmus test team for Champions League and title wannabes. That’s certainly their primary role in the league at this point.
Mark: I don’t mean to jump the gun on our Liverpool preview, but I think Jay Spearing gives Peter Crouch a run for his money for the most British-looking person ever.
Maybe this is just a tune-up for me defending Chelsea’s fairly cynical style of play last season, but I think the EPL at large could use a little more physicality to it, for the sake of defending the English identity (God Save the Queen) and to provide some contrast from the infringing tika-taka football that folks like Brendan Rodgers so eagerly employ nowadays. Now, I don’t mean to disparage what Rodgers did at Swansea or even that I prefer Tony “I-must-be-300-yards-away-from-a-library-or-school-at-all-times” Pulis’ cynical, hack-down clashes in the rain (I don’t), but one of the reasons I truly enjoy watching the Premier League is the variation in styles that each team employs, and all the better if those variations are in no way subtle. Substitute Stoke with Bolton in a clash against Tottenham, for example, and I feel modestly robbed.
Sam: Agree to disagree. Have you seen Peter Crouch’s teeth?
By the way, I’m glad we’ve established that Tony Pulis is a child molester and a slightly high-class English gangster.
AJ: I agree that variety is a good thing — the spice of life, you might say. But Swansea is a bit of a strawman, at least when it comes to my preferences. I personally enjoyed Swansea’s style almost as little as Stoke’s, and mostly because the Swans are Welsh and fewer opponents left the Liberty with bones sticking through their skin. What I like about the English Premier League is that it’s more direct, generally speaking, leading to more end-to-end play, especially in contrast to, say, Serie A. Swansea and Stoke are at opposite ends of the spectrum to be sure, but I prefer somewhere very much in the middle.
Mark, I think I just stole your thing. It’s pretty comfortable sitting directly on the fence.