Soccer

2010 English Premier League Preview: Stoke City

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Simple question to begin: can one unfortunate incident ruin a player? Can it overshadow the rest of his career?

We know ex-NBA player Kermit Washington was never the same after his infamous cold-cocking of Rudy Tomjanovich.

It's doubtful, though, Stoke City's hulking defender Ryan Shawcross dialed up the former NBA pariah in the wake of his now infamous horror tackle(*) on Arsenal starlet Aaron Ramsey on Feb. 10, 2010.

(*) Here's a link to it, if you're a "tackle-porn" aficionado.

Perhaps a better example would be Lawrence Taylor and his helpless, stunned reaction after he ended Joe Theisman's career by snapping his leg like a chicken bone in a Monday Night Football telecast nearly 20 years ago. Then again, considering where Taylor finds himself now -- you know, those under age prostitution solicitation charges -- it's probably better Shawcross avoids LT.

Is a player ever the same after inflicting this type of injury? It's coincidence, former NFL hardman Jack Tatum -- the assassin -- died last week, isn't it? He's the greatest example of this since he inadvertently paralyzed Darryl Stingley. Yet Tatum's career wasn't traumatized by that one flash point, even it probably cost him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

So it's more than likely Shawcross, who before the tackle and eventual season-ending injury he himself suffered, was a rising 22-year-old English performer will have the taint of the Ramsey tackle haunting him at least for a little while? Will we ever look at him and not immediately associate him with Ramsey writhing in the ground in agony? Ten years from now will it be the play that defines him as a professional?

Shawcross tackle or not, there's certainly an odd cloud hovering over the Brittiana Stadium. Or at least a sense this current squad under Tony Pulis has peaked. Perhaps their cozy two-year stay in the Premier League began to unravel with Ramsey's snapping femur.

Even before Shawcross's tackle, Stoke were a tough team to embrace. Of course, what team that lacks a dynamic forward, or offensive mentality, instead focusing on defense and grit is easy for a nuetral to enjoy? Unless you have some sort of weird long-throw fetish, the Potters are rather forgettable.

Factor it, too, the alleged December row between Pulis and Craig Beattie, which allegedly came to blows on the training ground. Or how about how Turkish international Tuncay left a match at halftime after being substituted after coming on as a sub himself!

It's general bad vibes hovering around the club, no matter how you slice it.

By necessity, like other less glamorous clubs, Pulis has been forced to adopt a strategy that rewards hard work more than skill. With Shawcross, Robert Huth and captain Abdoublaye Faye the Potters possess as much defensive size and grit as anyone else in the Prem.

It's across the rest of the field where you run into trouble. For two years the club has befuddled opponents with Rory Delap's rubber-armed long throws. They can't make it three-straight can they? Eventually the league is going to figure out how to stop that sort of outlier, right?

On the plus side, Pulis has gotten yeoman's work out of ex-West Ham winger Matthew Etherington, who's one of those underrated little players who always seems to be doing something positive when he avoids injury. However it's probably not a good thing he led the club with five goals in the League last year coming out of the midfield.

Guys like Glen Whelan and Dean Whitehead are capable week-to-week Premier League performers. They're not going to set the world on fire, but they're not going to embarrass you either.

Liam Lawrence has shown the ability to occasionally move up to the range of maybe a B+ player, though he may be out the door as well with Pulis trying to clear the boot room of trouble-making personalities.

It's at forward where Pulis has the most trouble.

Ricardo Fuller has been in the team since 2006. He plays with a high work rate, but can't seem to score. Despite playing 34 matches --22 starts -- and getting most of the minutes in the Stoke forward rotation, he only banged three league goals off 62 shots, which translates into just about four percent of his attempts found the back of the net.(*)

(*) Mini-metrics comparison: Went through all 20 teams from 2009-10. Here were some of the startling shots-to-goals stats which are comparable to Fuller's futility: Morten Gamst Pederson (61/3); Chris Eagles (61/2); Nani (62/4); Tom Huddlestone (83/2); Kevin-Prince Boateng (74/3). Here's some scary raw data for Aston Villa fans, granted all of these are midfield players, but I found it interesting: Ashley Young (63/5); Stewart Downing (46/2); Stylian Petrov (37/0) and Steve Sidwell (30/0).

Back to Stoke's striking crisis of faith. Pulis has brought in Beattie, Tuncay and Dave Kitson -- the latter Stoke's all-time record signing -- and all three have failed to assume No. 1 striker duties, leaving Pulis to turn to the underwhelming Mamady Sidibe at the end of last season.

Would a dynamic, 15-20 goal scorer, say a Darren Bent-type, transform Stoke from midtable nobodies to challenging for Europe? Logic would say yes. In actuality, maybe it wouldn't be the greatest thing for the club. The team has found its way to grind out results without a true No. 1 striker and maybe the addition of that player upsets the proverbial apple cart.

Maybe Stoke doesn't need the one guy, simply more for what it already has on the payroll.

One thing the Potters do need is a healthy Thomas Sorensen. The Danish No. 1 only conceded 35 goals in his 33 starts, while his replacements at the end of the season when he dislocated his shoulder were sieve-like allowing 13 in five matches.

That kind of illustrates what a fine line the Potters walk with their defense-first, solid home form, 1-0 strategy. On the plus side, Stoke City's make-up is well-suited for the English winter. After January the club went W-D-W-D at home to start 2010, until losing to Arsenal 3-1 in the Shawcross/Ramsey match. After that the home form dipped to D-L-W-L-D.

Part of you has to wonder, though, if the team starts off slow will all the negative karma finally catch up with the Potters? Through two years in the top flight, despite the internal squabbles it's been fairly smooth sailing for Stoke. What happens when they catch a bad break? Soccer is funny like that.

Bottom line --Stoke City haven't gotten much better, but they haven't gotten any worse either which actually does count for something. The Potters, with Shawcross, Huth, Faye and Danny Higginbotham coupled with Sorensen do have a solid defense that has played together a couple seasons and seems to get under the skin of opponents. If Stoke's overall offensive productivity improves in 2010-11 they could likely make a push to the top half of the table. So long is there isn't a rift between Pulis and the squad members, this team should be right around where it was last season when it finished 11th. Call them functionally unappealing.

In case you missed it:

* Bolton
* Blackpool
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wolves
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom

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