Tactics: Stoke merely following Chelsea and Man City’s rugged lead

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.

16 Responses to “Tactics: Stoke merely following Chelsea and Man City’s rugged lead”

  • Jack:

    “constructing uncompromising, muscular teams,”
    Yes indeed but boy are they very good footballers first and foremost!

  • andy c:

    What a well thought out article.

    As a Stoke fan I have to say it does get annoying at times to see the way we play.

    My hope is that the longer we stay in the premiership, the more we can develop our style of play, and actually allow our players to play football (when they do they look pretty good)

    From the backbone we have, I think that strong players with flair introduced later is (like it or not) going to be the norm for teams wanting to establish themselves.

  • Any team that comes to the Brit know what to expect,from the rich boys from Manchester to a lower league team in a cup competition.We are an uncompromising team and that’s how it should be,afterall football is a competetive sport.Our progress in Europe will be key to our evolution,change is happening albeit at a gradual pace.Expect to see and hear a lot more about Stoke in the comming years.All that time in the wilderness has taught us valuable lessons

  • Andy B:

    “We’re Stoke City – We Play How We Want!”

  • marcus:

    Stoke have always played that way – Chelsea, Mourinho, Mancini have nothing to do with it.

    More important is how STOKE have gradually acknowledged the fact that it is THEY who have to change if they want to stay in the PL and go into Europe. They’ve modified their simple kick-and-rush style from when they were in the championship.

  • Tom:

    Thanks for all the comments. Just to clarify – I’m not trying to claim that Stoke have ‘copied’ Chelsea and City (Pulis was obviously at Stoke well before Mancini even arrived at City). I just wanted to point out the similarities between their approaches.

  • Peter:

    Mourinho and Mancini are masters of Italian catenaccio, Stoke are British provintial football. It’s fairly different stuff.

  • Richard:

    I looked up catenaccio, google translate has it as “bolt” so I am none the wiser, and provin(c)ial I could follow. Bottom line, Stoke City play to their strengths (sic) but have the technical ability of the likes of Etherington and Pennant to make it a game worth watching. Maybe one day we will return to the era of Waddington when the likes of Eastham, Hudson, Greenhoff et al graced the stage, but that will take time. Even in those “good old days” we also had Smith, Bloor, Pejic, Setters, Bernard etc to match any side for “physicality” and woe betide anyone who tried to use their muscle against our Stan!!

  • Zero:

    ‘Catenaccio’ refers primarily to a football tactic employed by Helenio Herrera in Inter back in the day, which was eventually labelled inaccurately as purely ‘defensive’ football, partly as a result of inferior Italian teams adopting the style without the requisite players and partly due to the fact that this gave opponents an excuse to accuse Herrera of ruining the game, etc. (I wonder how Wenger would have reacted.) From there, it has come to be essentially used to describe any system perceived as defensive, regardless of how much it actually has in common with Herrera’s tactic, and regardless of whether referring to the team in question as ‘defensive’ is just a one-dimensional tabloid simplification.

    The name was based around the use of a sweeper, or ‘bolt’, which allowed the defensive line to be more aggressive, and technically speaking the tactic as such didn’t originate with Herrera, although in the form in which it would become successful in Europe it was more or less his development. Variants of it would later be used by the Italian team which won the 1982 World Cup, best known for featuring Claudio Gentile, a person who Stoke’s detractors would doubtless not have been fond of. Mourinho, though, doesn’t really play Catenaccio, and in fact has played a variety of tactics in different clubs, and I can’t claim to have watched much of Mancini’s recent matches.

  • Vittoirio Licata:

    Very poor article, if some good thorough research was done before writing this. You will have noticed that stoke have been playing a physical game since tony pulis was in charge, both times. around 7 ago.

    • Tom:

      Again: I’m not claiming that Pulis ‘copied’ Mourinho and Mancini, I’m just pointing out that all three teams have responded to the challenges presented by the physicality of the Premier League in similar fashion.

  • Vittoirio Licata:

    Very poor article, if some good thorough research was done before writing this. You will have noticed that stoke have been playing a physical game since tony pulis was in charge, both times. around 7 ago.

  • I think given an unlimited amount of spending money Tony Pulis would have a team with similar attributes to Chelsea. Regardles of Stoke’s style we are still in the prem and still developing as a team.

  • Stuart H:

    I think this is actually a very good article corresponding the tactics employed by quite a few teams (managers) in the premier league, Bolton, Chelsea, Man City, Stoke, Birmingham were to a certain extent, and Wigan. The english game is so different to that of anywhere else and why shouldnt it be, we created the beautiful game in the first place so why shouldnt we develop it into a manor that is competitive, worth talking about, makes you sit on the edge of your seat for a full 90 minutes or more (very likely with our plucky potters in cup games) and gives you the chill when you sit in the Brit and hear delilah muffling into an orchestra. I do think their are problems with the premier league in general i.e. the amount that teams can actually pay players when it should have a ceiling but thats not just an english football problem. My major gripe is that players roll around screaming waving imaginary cards to incinuate a dirty tackle whilst portraying the referee should award a card. The FA, UEFA and all governing bodys of football should stop players play-acting so we can get on with actually playing football. We are a physical side like most nowadays and we play with our strengths, im proud to be a Stokie and proud of the team, the one person who should be most proud though is Tony Pulis because as from what i hear, everyone is talking about Stoke City, where else would we have this press coverage if we were a boing boing up and down baggie or a battling but not quite their blackpool. Long may our rise continue, and Tom, I enjoyed reading this.

  • ChoppyC:

    Very fair and level headed assessment of The Potters style of play Tom.
    The problem for some Stoke fans is that we’re so used to unfair criticism and poorly
    researched articles that we do tend to have a chip on our shoulder , hence the few replies
    that try to correct you ,over something that you’re not even implying.

    You make a very valid point ,Chelsea did quickly evolve into a muscular physical team ,Its just
    the money available to Mourinho meant they were the best of the worlds muscular physical
    players ,so could also play a bit too.

    What should be acknowledged though about Stoke is their amazing work rate and team ethic,
    Etherington and Pennant are hardly the most physical players and although their skills are
    often mentioned in articles , their ceaseless tracking ,pressing and covering back are
    fundamental to the Stoke style of play ,it isn’t all about physical intimidation at the Brit.

    • andy c:

      I look back at the Arsenal team that were winners.

      One could hardly call them a bunch of softies ?
      Lee Dixon, Nigel winterburn,Steve Bould, Tony Adams, Ian Wright, Martin Keown even Bergkamp to name just a few hardly shrinking violets ?

      Strange that since players of that type have been replaced with flowing silky footed genius they have failed to win anything of note

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