In the endlessly self-mythologising Premier League, it was perhaps inevitable that a visit to Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium would be cast as the sporting equivalent of the descent into Hades. It is a place, we are told, where madness and brutality reign, where identities are called into question, reputations torns to shreds, and from which only heroes emerge unscathed.
The Britannia is clearly a foreboding place for opposition teams to visit, but Tony Pulis’ side have also come to represent a pan-European vision of the most rugged extremes of English football. Andy Gray attracted widespread scorn for wondering aloud how Barcelona would handle Rory Delap’s long throws, while Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti rebuked critics of his side’s patient approach play last season by fuming: “If you want to see us play like Stoke City, you’ll have to change coach.”
If Stoke have become a modern byword for direct, no-nonsense football, it is certainly borne out by the statistics. In the 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea last Sunday, the hosts saw just 34 percent of possession. They averaged 38 percent of possession across the whole of last season, and their pass completion rate in the opposition half of 56 percent was the lowest in the division. This Stoke side may have given their supporters mid-table stability and a first ever FA Cup final appearance, but they have not done it with the ball at their feet.
To accuse Pulis of wilful brutishness, however, is to overlook the fact that physical robustness is a fundamental prerequisite to success in the Premier League. You only have to look at the way that José Mourinho went about spending Roman Abramovich’s billions at Chelsea, or the way Roberto Mancini is constructing the current Manchester City side, to recognise that there is nothing perverse about Stoke’s approach.
Presented with open chequebooks, both Mourinho and Mancini sought to fill their teams with muscular, physically imposing players. Mourinho built his side around monstrous athletes like Didier Drogba, John Terry and Michael Essien, who would grind teams into submission in the centre of the pitch before springing forward on the counter-attack. Towards the end of his Stamford Bridge tenure, Mourinho had even begun to field starting XIs that contained no less than four central midfielders.
The pre-match camera pan down the present day City line-up is no less foreboding. Micah Richards must have one of the most well-developed physiques in the sport’s history, while the massive Yaya Touré has a build to match his reported pay packet. Mancini, likewise, has no qualms about packing the midfield and has been known to deploy three dedicated holding midfielders in the same team. Against this conservative backdrop, Stoke’s standard 4-4-2 with wingers on both flanks looks positively progressive.
Neither City nor Mourinho-era Chelsea ever quite played with Stoke’s unique disregard for the intricacies of football foreplay, but their clear focus on recruiting strapping, battle-hardened players was tacit recognition that it is impossible to succeed in the Premier League without a certain degree of steeliness. Tony Mowbray’s West Bromwich Albion tenure, Ian Holloway’s failure to keep Blackpool in the division last season and even Arsenal’s post-2005 struggles bear testament to that. If tiki-taka on a budget carries such a high risk factor and coaches as respected as Mourinho and Mancini chose to spend their respective owners’ near limitless wealth on constructing uncompromising, muscular teams, then why are Stoke’s unquestionably successful tactics and recruitment strategy – on a fraction of the budget – the subject of so much opprobrium?
For all the occasional hand-wringing over diving and over-zealous refereeing, the Premier League remains a hard, physical championship, and you only need to listen to foreign commentary or read a match report of an English top-flight game in a continental newspaper to realise what a wince-inducing experience it is for fans raised on the low-contact technical mastery of La Liga or the letter-of-the-law refereeing of Ligue 1.
In such a climate, where incoming foreign players still express shock at the close attentions of the typical Premier League defender, Stoke’s unashamed prioritising of physicality makes perfect sense. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but every good myth needs a force of darkness.