Note: We're previewing each team in the Premier League in advance of the coming season. We started with the promoted teams, then moved up the table, skipping Newcastle and saving them for last. We hope to finish on August 12, exactly one week prior to the Toon's opener with Manchester City.
Stoke City finished the 2012-13 campaign in 13th place, a fate bad enough to cost manager Tony Pulis his job. The Potters actually had a spot in the top half of the table nailed for a majority of the season, but a 7-match winless streak at the wrong time (March to mid-April) during which they only scored 2 goals had some whispering the dreaded "R" word. The lead they had built up over the bottom-dwellers was enough in the end, but not enough for the gaffer. With Pulis out, Stoke now face the upcoming season with questions about what Mark Hughes will do to follow the "We Play How We Want" era at the Britannia.
The temptation, of course, will be to swing the pendulum in the other direction. Will the team notorious for playing the long ball (though not as much as Newcastle last season, it should be added) all of sudden develop an affinity for tiki taka? Probably not, though breathless reports about training sessions where the ball never left the floor have already become as tiresome as previous suggestions that they were incapable of playing any other way before.
Under Pulis, the long ball was a well that the Potters went back to perhaps a few times too often, to the point that it became their defining characteristic - along with long throws. Oh, those long throws. And the towels. Those ridiculous towels. The part that people tend to overlook is that it worked. Until that horrific stretch at the end of last season, they hadn't really flirted with relegation since the middle of their first season in the Premier League, way back in 2008. For a team with their resources, that's an impressive track record. There are many reasons for that success, and one of them is that they had a niche. Their style of play was frustrating to other clubs and managers, and moreover, the reason they so stubbornly stuck to it in the face of so much criticism was that it worked.
Is it possible, then, that a departure from that identity might well be the undoing of this consistently mid-table club? The popular assumption appears to be the opposite, but I remain skeptical. Peter Crouch is a professional footballer who has had success (more or less) elsewhere, and he's not going to all of a sudden lose his talent, but he will be working within a system that is ostensibly not optimized for his physical ability and skillset for the first time since he arrived in 2011. One of the stories of the off-season has been Hughes' faith in unexpected Gold Cup hero for the United States Brek Shea, who Pulis purchased from FC Dallas so he could sit on the bench, but now he's been injured and will apparently miss the opener with a knee injury. Certain players, like Cameron Jerome, have openly expressed the ways in which they felt stifled by Tony Pulis, so perhaps we will see a renaissance of sorts from some of them. For the immediate future, though, this appears to be a team set to try to fit several square pegs (like Charlie Adam) into round holes (like a system apparently devised to take advantage of the quickness of its midfielders). In order to be successful, they will have to form and embody their new identity quickly, else they find themselves playing catch-up.