Stoke City are something of a footballing pariah in the Premier League. With English appetites increasingly informed by fanciful fare from the continent, Stoke, and all that they embody, are routinely shunned—an ugly blight upon a modern league, striving for the pedigree of pretensions and well-heeled sophistication endowed upon its European counterparts.
Whilst it may be fashionable to dismiss Stoke City as prehistoric cavemen, or cynical, vicious anti-footballers, there is far more to Tony Pulis' side than their reputation suggests.
There is no getting away from the fact that Stoke are a "power team." Such a label shouldn't necessarily denote something to be hushed up and excused as if utterly shameful and dirty. With their strong-arm physicality, besieging set-pieces and solid wing-play, Stoke play a brand of football soaked in defiance and adrenaline.
Pulis once quipped that his playing staff resembled the "Battersea Dogs Home" of unwanted and unloved footballers when compared to fashionably exclusive breeds that make up the rosters of the sport's top teams. In some ways, Stoke are the footballing equivalent to the Hollywood 'bad company" movie. They are football’s "Dirty Dozen"—gritty, direct and, at times, oddly engrossing.
Their approach to the game, whilst obviously not to everyone’s taste, offers a blunt, unchecked hit of obnoxious testosterone. Every goal scored feels like some glorious, machismo-laden fist pump thrown up into the air. A sign of rude disobedience against the "high culture" establishment and all their morally outraged demands and expectations. It's Stoke City against the world, and they love it.
Considering the Premier League is marketed on the power, speed and intensity of its competition and football, it is surprising that a team built to play with ruthless brutality is so harshly scorned. Tony Pulis, has just built a side bigger and ‘arder than the rest of them: infamous in the air and savage in the tackle.
Is Stoke City's approach valid in the 21st century?
In the face of more urbane footballing nations, there exists a certain degree of bashful uneasiness in the English game. It is as if it has to apologise for its unruly child who refuses to learn Latin and play along nicely with the other children at the rather posh and exclusive playschool. English sophisticates look around nervously in case Stoke cause them to be caught out, and dismissed from the cultured clique.
Stoke shouldn't be judged as one-dimensional bullies though. There exist some surprising levels of skill in the Staffordshire team's ranks. Out wide for instance, Jermain Pennant and Matthew Etherington rampage forwards with under-appreciated guile and skill to charge into the opponent's half, leaving chaos in their wake.
In Dean Whitehead too, they have a player capable of influencing the outcome of games with a well-rounded set of skills in centre of midfield. Like the rest of his side though, he has the blood and guts mentality more akin to players of lower league sides and it is these mental qualities, beyond just their physical strength, that allows Stoke to consistently facedown even the biggest sides. They are organised, consistent, gritty and hard to beat.
You can't not mention Rory Delap and his monster throws into the 6-yard box. Depending on your personal preference, such a shock tactic delivery method is either an impressive artillery piece in his side's arsenal or the missing link between a Rugby line-out and the UFC. I've always been someone able to appreciate the cheeky genius of Maradonna's "hand of god." Take from that what you will.
In terms of recent performances, after last weekend's 5-0 defeat to Bolton, Stoke City's league form may be suffering a hiccup. After their exploits abroad of late though, running riot through the Europa League, Tony Pulis and co can be forgiven for losing steam in the Premier League.
Their final position in the table is the only critic that Stoke care for. There is something admirable in the their contrarian approach at a time when the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and, under Andreas Villas-Boas, Chelsea all look to play possession football with pretty elegance and idealised grace. Stoke couldn't care less so long as their pragmatic pile-driving delivers them the points.