At this point in the season, Stoke City fans are rightfully becoming more distraught as their club flirts with relegation. They currently sit in 17th in the table with a mere 23 points, just one point more than the Saints, who sit in 18th.
But when looking at the Potters’ record and form this season, it’s no surprise that they’re in the position they’re in. They’ve only managed to win six games while drawing five and losing 13. And half of the games they’ve won have come against the bottom of the table (Southampton, Swansea and West Brom).
But the main reason Stoke have struggled so much recently relates to their extremely poor goal difference. The Potters have the worst goal difference of any team in the Premier League with a whopping minus 25. In their 13 losses, seven have been by three or more goals (Chelsea 4-0, Man City 7-2, Liverpool 3-0, Tottenham 5-1, West Ham 3-0, Chelsea 5-0, Man United 3-0).
Granted, five of their seven losses were against top clubs, but there’s no excuse for giving up that many goals. Yes, their defense is a shambles, but this statistic points at the lack of effort and discipline within the club as a whole. Although he may not have been the fans’ first choice, Paul Lambert’s arrival at the bet365 Stadium as Stoke’s new manager last week was a positive as it had become clear that the players had given up on Mark Hughes.
After Tony Pulis left the club in the summer of 2013, Stoke had aspirations of strengthening the club, completely evolving its style of play, transitioning from route one football to a more technical style.
Following Hughes’ first season in charge, the Potters started to play more attractive football and finished ninth, their highest finish ever in the top flight. Hughes should rightly receive credit for this achievement.
But as his reign wore on, the club’s progress stalled. The next two seasons, in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, the Potters finished in the exact same spot as they did in Hughes’ first season (9th) followed by a 13th place finish last season in 2016-2017. With Stoke’s awful form this season, it was time for a change.
Perhaps the primary reason for Stoke’s consistent lack of improvement? Letting go of Tony Pulis in 2013. It may not have been pretty, but Stoke formed a true identity under Pulis that the players bought into: Big, physical players, combined with intense discipline and a sheer determination to battle.
The age-old question, “Could Messi do it on a cold, rainy night at Stoke?” is a direct credit to Pulis who demanded that his players defend fiercely and physically. Pulis finished in secnd place in the Championship in 2007-2008, earning a promotion to the top flight for the first time in 23 years.
And though they never finished higher than 11th in the Premier League during his spell in charge, his primary objective was simple: Don’t get relegated. He built a strong foundation under his team that solidified them in the top flight.
In the 2011-2012 season, Stoke City qualified for the Europa League under Pulis after their second place finish in the FA Cup the year prior, the first time Stoke played European football since 1975.
It’s hard to blame Stoke City for wanting to reach for goals beyond “not getting relegated,” but Pulis had the club on a steady track to improvement.
In March 2013, just two months before Pulis left the club, Stoke chairman Peter Coates said as much, claiming that the Potters were “progressing” under Pulis and had built a strong core for the future.
Soon after his departure from the club, Pulis reminded fans of the club’s success during his stint as manager, pointing out that his teams were the first in Stoke’s 150-year history to never finish in the bottom six in top-flight football for five consecutive seasons.
Furthermore, over five seasons, Pulis guided the Potters to four major cup quarter-finals, an FA Cup semi-final and final.
Would Stoke City have gone on to achieve more success if Pulis had been in charge these past five seasons instead of Hughes? One can only speculate. But it seems likely that if Pulis was still at the helm, the Potters would’ve steered clear of relegation long ago.