It goes without saying that Stoke City for all their ambition have suffered somewhat of a disaster start to their Premier League campaign. Billed as contenders for Europa League qualification, they have picked up only one point from a possible 15 after their opening five league games of the new season, and saw their hopes of another run in the EFL Cup dashed on Wednesday when they exited at the hands of Hull City in a 1-2 reverse at the Bet365 Stadium.
This weekend however, they will attempt to get their league campaign on track, and against Saturday’s opponents, in years gone by were they next on the fixture calendar every Potter would be rubbing their hands with glee. The adversary referred to is of course West Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion. Between 2004 and 2013, the Baggies had won just once against the Potters in 16 league meetings, with four draws shared between the sides and 11 defeats. A famous chorus of “We always beat West Brom” began to reverberate around the Potteries and for a while, there was much truth to back up their claim.
Since former Stoke City manager Tony Pulis has taken the reigns at the Hawthorns however, he has guided the Baggies to three straight wins over his former club, since the first time Pulis lead the Black Country outfit into a match against the Potters in March 2015. The days of West Brom being a guaranteed three points for Stoke therefore seem much like ancient history, and the timing couldn’t be more rotten since Mark Hughes’ Potters are desperate for a positive result to kickstart their season, and pressure on their beleaguered boss is gradually intensifying with every game.
The problem being is that the Potters are not just losing games by mere one goal deficits, but are in fact being soundly beaten in several of their fixtures. In six of their last 11 games in the league stretching back to the rear end of 2015/16, Stoke have shipped four goals, including three of their last four league matches this term. Their cup defeat at Hull despite eventually bowing out to Markus Henriksen’s stoppage time winner has steadied the ship slightly defensively, and stopped the rot of conceding four goals a game. But with Pulis back in town who has led the Albion to three straight wins over his former club, and who currently holds a personal record of four successive triumphs over the Potters as a manager since his dismissal from the Stoke post, the tension lies heavy in the North Staffordshire air going into the weekend.
His other triumph over his old club came when the Welshman was in the hotseat at Crystal Palace. Having been sent packing from the Potteries in favour of current Stoke boss Mark Hughes, Pulis took over at Selhurst Park following the sacking of Ian Holloway and managed to steer Palace to unlikely Premier League safety, guiding the Eagles to a 1-0 win over his former club in the process.
Known for being a defensive manager, whose teams have a penchant for shutting down the opponent and winning games by the odd goal, showdowns between Pulis’ sides and his former club tend to be low scoring affairs. His win over the Potters with Palace finished with the Eagles winning 1-0 at Selhurst Park, whilst his wins over his old club with the Albion have finished 1-0, 1-0 and 2-1; the most recent settled by Jonny Evans’ stoppage time winner at the Hawthorns. The Baggies are however on the back of fresh investment from a Chinese consortium, and rather than being near the bottom or consigned to the obscurity of the middle of the table, the Albion are tenth in the fledgling Premier League table of the new campaign. With Stoke comparatively struggling for points and indeed goals, having only scored one from open play in the league, the clash between the Potters and their former manager will be won in the finer details.
Pulis is notorious for his meticulous preparation in the shape and structure of his side, particularly defensively, and in organising his side to score goals from set piece situations and close out matches. Stoke City in the Pulis years and even now are a side that profit well from their own set-piece scenarios and are particularly dominant in the air. The signing of loan striker Wilfried Bony from Manchester City, and the presence of tall centre-halves like Bruno Martins Indi and skipper Ryan Shawcross render the Potters a potent threat in the opposition box, and they undoubtedly have the outlets with which to score goals if given the right service. That however has been lacking in the Stoke camp, with Marko Arnautovic and Bojan Krkic yet to replicate their best form, and their wing wizard Xherdan Shaqiri having been missing through injury since the opening weekend. He may return this weekend, which would be a huge boost for the desperate Potters, but what has become alarmingly apparent is a defensive fragility in the Stoke rearguard and a tendency to switch off and concede from set-piece situations themselves.
Ryan Shawcross has been a particularly guilty candidate since returning from a back injury. Two set-pieces at Crystal Palace last weekend saw Stoke two goals down within the opening quarter of an hour, and when the inquest finally began, the Potters had a mountain to climb and were subsequently picked off by Alan Pardew’s ruthless side. Bruno Martins Indi has only played two league games for the Potters since arriving from Porto and has taken part in a defence that has shipped eight goals in two games. If Mark Hughes is to finally help his Stoke side outwit their former manager, he has to stem the tide of goals going against his team, particularly against a West Brom side who have begun to show a ruthless streak of their own in the wake of slack defending.
Albion’s opponents last week were West Ham United, who have been particularly fragile at the back of late. The Hammers dominated possession with 70% overall, but it was the Baggies who raced into a four goal lead and eventually won the game 4-2. Their advantage came from punishing the Londoners from poor defending, particularly from set-pieces, record £13million signing Nacer Chadli the catalyst with a brace and two assists from the game. His creative presence may have a big part to play if Pulis’ side are to make it four in a row against the Potters, as will that of former QPR winger Matt Phillips, who has excelled since his arrival at the Black Country club this summer. Having given Arthur Masuaku a torrid time last week, Eric Pieters will have a job on his hands in shackling the Scot, as will Geoff Cameron, Glen Johnson or whoever else may line up on the right of the back four in keeping James McClean in check.
Like Pulis’ teams down the years, Albion have their own physical presence capable of punishing slack defending from set-pieces if the Potters switch off. Venezuelan forward Salomon Rondon has two already this season and is beginning to look the part at the Albion after signing from Zenit St. Petersburg for £12million last season, and centre-halves Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley also provide threats in the air, the latter already having scored from such a situation this season against Everton.
The reckoning therefore is that Pulis is more than capable of fighting fire with fire, and up against a Stoke side who at times have looked bereft of confidence and ideas, one goal may just be enough to seal the points once again if the Baggies can shut down the hosts’ creativity. Arnautovic has now scored in back-to-back games in all competitions, Craig Dawson will be responsible for keeping him in check, and Everton loanee Brendan Galloway will have a task on his hands shackling either Egyptian winger Ramadan Sobhi, or perhaps the returning Xherdan Shaqiri. Width will be a critical outlet for the home side as they try to provide the service that Wilfried Bony has been starved of in his first handful of games for the club. Getting the Ivorian on the scoresheet will be pivotal if they are to turn around their current form, and West Brom being able to keep the forward isolated and feeding on scraps will be half the battle for Pulis’ side if they are to make it four in a row over the Potters. A victory for the Baggies on Saturday would in fact make another piece of history also, since they would be set to equal their best record against an individual Premier League opponent, equalling their four straight wins over Sunderland between February 2012 and September 2013.
It is a club that the Welsh boss knows inside out, and his return in this match, which is somewhat of a Midlands Derby may add extra fuel to the pre-match fire, but in reality that will matter little to Mark Hughes and to Stoke City. The bottom line is that they need the points, and with West Brom having become more of a tough nut to crack of late, they will need to be at their best and at their most organised if they are to finally outfox their old boss. But Pulis equally, will see this match-up as a huge opportunity for his side to stake a claim for a top ten place, against a Potters team whose form suggests they are there for the taking. The points at this stage of the season however will be much more vital for Stoke, and for all the times they have beaten the Baggies in years gone by, they need a win now more than ever. Whether they will finally get one over on their former boss however, or whether the wily fox that is Tony Pulis will foil them once again, we will find out come 5pm on Saturday.
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