With Barcelona dominating the club game and Spain bossing the international scene, the period between around 2008 and 2012 saw many teams across Europe attempt to replicate the pair’s proactive, possession-based style of play.

Stoke City under Tony Pulis were always an exception to that trend. Their football was invariably based on keeping things tight at the back, launching long balls forward to a targetman striker and making the most of attacking set-pieces. It was common for the defence to be made up of four centre-backs, while experiments with more technical players –Tuncay Sanli and Eidur Gudjohnsen to name but two – generally did not work out. The defining image of Pulis-era Stoke was probably Rory Delap drying the ball on a towel while preparing to unleash one of his wicked long throws into the penalty area.

It was not football for the purists, but there was something enjoyable about the variety that Stoke’s differing approach provided. When Mark Hughes took over from Pulis in 2013, the Potters began to play more expansively, their possession figures increasing and the emphasis shifting from the physical to the technical.

That transformation looked to have been completed this summer, when Barcelona’s Ibrahim Afellay and Moha El Ouriachi, Chelsea’s Marco van Ginkel and Inter’s Xherdan Shaqiri were added to a squad that already contained the likes of Bojan and Marko Arnautovic.

Curiously, though, a glance at Stoke’s results show that their season so far has been based on defensive solidity rather than attacking firepower. Only Manchester United (nine), Arsenal (11) and Tottenham Hotspur (11) have conceded fewer goals than Hughes’ men’s 12, with five clean sheets in 13 matches evidencing their terrific ability to keep the opposition out.

Stoke have lost just one of their last eight games to climb away from the relegation zone and into mid-table; even more impressively, they have recorded five defensive shut-outs in their last six outings, keeping out the various threats posed by Chelsea, Southampton, Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Swansea City. Such statistics were common in Pulis’ tenure, but it is interesting that they have continued this term despite Hughes encouraging and developing a more attack-minded philosophy in the last couple of years.

There is a fine blend and balance to the side at present, with the aforementioned flair players such as Bojan and Shaqiri part of a team that also features its fair share of strength and aggression in Ryan Shawcross, Erik Pieters and Glenn Whelan. Many believed the Potters had attempted to overhaul their squad too quickly in the summer, but it was sensible of Hughes and the club’s hierarchy to retain some of the men who are more associated with the ‘old Stoke’ as they attempt to create a new identity and way of doing things at the Britannia Stadium.

Ahead of Saturday’s clash with Sunderland – whose backline, conversely, has been breached on 26 occasions, more often than any other Premier League outfit but Bournemouth – Stoke find themselves in a positive position, with another top-half placing the likely target this campaign after a ninth-place finish last time out. They are likely to become more expansive as the season goes on but, for now, Hughes’ charges are showing many of the qualities – solidity, commitment, organisation – that were common under Pulis.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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