Christopher Chang: Stoke playing ugly, but effective


The exquisiteness of Robin van Persie's volleyed goal against Everton was the kind of moment where you simply draw your breath in - and then applaud. It was a touch of rare class, a reminder why football is the most beautiful game of all. But Stoke City showed on the weekend that winning ugly is just as important for most sides.

With almost half of the English Premier League season played, Stoke are sitting pretty in eighth place, five points adrift of the top six (despite a goal difference of -8). They are a decent shout for a Europa League spot next year if they can continue to batter, harass and pummel teams into submission at the Britannia Stadium.

Playing direct, ugly football should never be a team's desired modus operandi. But when your chairman isn't a Russian oligarch or an Arab oil tycoon, you can scarcely hope to attract twinkle-toed playmakers and world class forwards. You have to find other ways to survive.

It is an unfair generalisation to hand Stoke the gold medal for playing unattractive football. Of course they are capable of producing fantastic stuff, but the fact that the ball is in play for 61 percent of matches involving Stoke - the lowest in the league - points to rather direct tactics from the Potters. Their fans, who sung "2-1 to the rugby team" during the win over Spurs on Sunday, acknowledge their team's effective, no-frills style.

The key for Stoke is that Tony Pulis knows how best to manage his resources. It's how they utilise their physicality in attack and defence that sets them apart from teams like Blackburn (who are the top scorers amongst the bottom-half teams, but have surrendered 12 points from winning positions).

Aerial strength and fitness is wasted if not combined with effective, accurate delivery. Matthew Etherington is a menace on the left and Ryan Shotton is emerging as a thorn down the right flank.

Shotton's long throw-ins have predictably earned him comparisons to Rory Delap - teams are now faced with nightmare scenarios of conceding throw-ins anywhere in the defensive third of the pitch. With Peter Crouch's limbs to contend with, opposition defences now have more Stoke obstacles to fend off.

Since arriving in the top flight, Pulis' men have become an established force and a feared side to visit. This season they are bullying some of the big boys - they have drawn with Chelsea and Manchester United, as well as beating Liverpool.

Fans love to watch their teams playing with the tika-taka panache of Barcelona, even if it is only for short bursts in a game. However the reality is, Premiership clubs need to be able to switch gears and grind out wins, even when it gets ugly. Stoke are doing it better than most.

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