Remarkably last season’s 13th place finish was Stoke’s lowest since blitzing their way into the Premier League but more tellingly it showed that this is a team at its peak and Tony Pulis will have trouble getting more out of his limited squad without changing the game plan.
Pulis’ strong armed tactics and percentages game of pumping the ball across the pitch ad nauseum has been derided but has also lead Stoke to the FA Cup final and a place in Europe this season.
The Welshman’s firm hand and strong ideas have instilled a confidence and determination in a squad of reliable players but it remains to be seen where he can go from here without the introduction of new blood.
Last season Stoke picked up less points away from home than anyone else and managed to out score only Bolton on the road so if they are to push into the top half Pulis will need to refine his system further.
The introduction of Jermaine Pennant and Mathew Etherington’s forward thinking play last year showed that Pulis is not afraid to allow his players some level of creative freedom but other than those two Stoke have few tricks up their sleeve.
The central midfield players at the club like Glenn Whelan, Marc Wilson and Dean Whitehead are all suited to Pulis’ disciplined approach but they are not proficient enough to add to an attack capable of finishing in the top half.
Stoke are at a crossroads, Pulis has done well to take this limited squad to their current position but he will need to find players he can trust to do the dog work and offer something more going forward.
A player in the mould of Joey Barton would be perfect for Stoke, he has the engine to cover his defensive duties but also possesses the cut and thrust necessary to unlock defences away from home.
So far in the transfer window though Stoke have only acquired Jonathon Woodgate on a pay as you play contract and Matthew Upson from West Ham, so maybe Pulis isn’t looking to take the step to tiki-taka just yet.
To improve on last year Stoke simply need to score more goals from play, their strength from set pieces has been gradually eroded as teams stand up to Pulis’ men.
Up front Stoke are left with an anomaly, their best striker is not suited to their system.
Kenwyne Jones is tall and strong enough to be of benefit but the Trinidadian’s laid-back style means that he doesn’t disrupt the opposing defence enough for Stoke’s dominance in winning the second ball to be of enough use.
Jonathon Walters impressed in finding his feet quickly in the Premier League last season and Pulis clearly has high hopes for the Ireland international so he is likely to be a regular in the side this season but he will need to show a bit more confidence on the ball to be a serious threat.
Ricardo Fuller’s season was stop-start because of injury but the Jamacian never looks likely to be a consistent scorer and may well find himself behind Walters in the pecking order.
At the back Stoke are in good health, Woodgate is on a pay as you play contract and will add to any defence while Upson has shown his reliability over the last few seasons.
Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth are as solid a pairing as could be asked for, Danny Higganbotham too will be a vital cog in the machine once he returns from injury.
The issue for Stoke’s evolution is that none of these defenders are progressively minded and their forays forward are limited to set-pieces.
Rory Delap’s throw-ins could well be the defence’s most regular contribution to the attack and that threat has faded significantly since promotion.
Pulis may argue that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it but without an introduction of attacking intelligence or creative freedom Stoke are going to see diminishing returns in the seasons to come.