Pulis must rediscover Stoke's edge
By Bradley King
Stoke City's descent down the Premier League has been far quicker than the time it takes for one of their notorious hanging long balls to drop to earth. Perennial mid-table occupants since achieving promotion to England's top league in 2008, Tony Pulis' side had appeared to have anchored itself as part of the furniture.
Alas, this year's campaign has collided into them with the force of a Robert Huth block tackle. While the Potters looked to have nothing to worry about at the end of the last calendar year, a woeful run in 2013 - which has seen them win just once and draw twice in 13 matches - has plunged them into the thick of the relegation dogfight.
Much criticised for their set piece prowess, physical robustness and rigid defence, the infamous Stoke City brand of football has divided pundits and supporters over the past five years.
Detractors believe that Pulis' men are the archetypal anti-football brigade but sympathisers insist that Stoke must play to their strengths to survive in a cutthroat division where other clubs can mould their teams backed by significant financial muscle.
The detractors would return and say that Pulis has not been particularly thrifty with cash. This season alone, Stoke have spent over £20million on the likes of Charlie Adam and Maurice Edu while the total transfer bill over the club's four Premier League campaigns sits at £70million. Coupled with minimal player sales, it could be suggested that there should be more natural talent on the pitch.
Whichever side of the argument you sit, one fact can't be debated: playing the Stoke City way is effective. That is, until the points begin to dry up. Then the fans get restless and suddenly the style of football on show isn't so impressive.
Make no mistake: Stoke are in real danger of relegation back to the Championship. Currently on 34 points, they are just three ahead of 18th placed Wigan Athletic, who have a game in hand on the out-of-form Potters. With tricky visits to Queens Park Rangers, Sunderland and Southampton to come, as well as hosting Norwich and Tottenham Hotspur at the Britannia, it's easy to see why supporters are starting to shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.
There's growing concern that Tony Pulis is not up to the job anymore. After being lauded for his streetwise ways in previous seasons, he now comes across as dated and negative to many Stoke fans who are eager to see the club push on to the next level.
You can see their point. While the successes of the past few years have been based on competent wingers being able to aim crosses at two strong, powerful targets up front, Pulis has strayed from this philosophy this season.
As the wins have continued to evade his team, Pulis has given the impression that he's playing, or even crossing his fingers, for a draw. At no other game was this mentality present than in the demoralising 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa earlier this month.
There, Jonathan Walters and Kenwyne Jones were picked as a front two but barely linked up at all. Meanwhile, Peter Crouch, Cameron Jerome and Michael Owen all sat on the bench - underused and undervalued.
Full-back Ryan Shotton started, and even continues to start, on the right side of midfield despite his total lack of competence in that position. Michael Kightly watches on.
It's these decisions, along with the utilisation of a 4-5-1 policy at the Britannia Stadium on more than one occasion this season, which would have been unthinkable in Stoke's pomp, which have caused many to question Pulis.
Going into the final five games of the season, he must do his best to reinvigorate his side and rediscover the edge and dynamism which made them so feared, particularly at home. If Pulis can't do that, it will be the death of his Stoke reign.