I was struck by an article by Paul Doyle in the Guardian on Friday which made the, initially vaguely plausible, contention (in a sentence, that I am interpreting very liberally) that Stoke are the ideal for a newly promoted club. This seemed to be based in their solid, compact, direct style of play, which allowed them to survive and build as a model club. Yet, this now seems like a rather nonsensical idea. Stoke spent fairly substantial amounts of money on mediocre players (Kenwyne Jones anyone!, Wilson Palacios!) while becoming stagnant. The most plausible and sympathetic way of interpreting Doyle’s remarks would be as claiming that Pulis’ methods are risk averse, they are solid, can be done with relatively mediocre players, and can be developed over time. I would suggest that each of these premises are fundamentally unsound, or at least apply in other cases.
It is undeniable that Stoke are and were a solid club defensively, conceding relatively few goals and approaching maths in a safety first way. But this is only safe because of Pulis’ excellent ability to instil a defensive rigour in his team that few other coaches possess, give Roberto Martinez a similarly stationed team, and he will fail. To suggest that positionally defensive football is somehow intrinsically more effective with relatively weaker players is just nonsensical. So, to pursue a style of football that was effective for Stoke, with their particular set of circumstances, with an exceptional defensive coach who struggles to train attacking moves of any complexity, such as strategy is the best in minimizing risk, and hence giving yourself an oppertunity to stay up. But to say it is a model, as Doyle did, seems misplaced, the model is to do whatever effectively allows you to minimize risk. For Wigan, that was and agressive brand of 343 that utilised width, along shots and cut-backs. For Rodgers’ Swansea it was highly sterilised possession football. For Warnock’s Crystal Palace, it is intense aggression in pressing, directness from out wide. Should any of these teams attempt to play like Stoke, they would fail miserably, because their players and managers are incapable or reluctant to engage in such a model. Yet their teams all equalled, or bettered Stoke’s performance (with the exception of Palace, who seem highly likely yo go down, something I attribute to a managerial naivety of Neil Warnock, rather than anything inherently risk averse in pressing). INdeed, the German team Augsburg, currently riding high at third place in the Bundesliga, play an intensely direct, pressing game. But this is indefinately less risky for them than merely sitting deep, you may as well make use of your relative height and fitness advantages if you have them, something pressing most certainly does.
Essentially then, the notion of minimizing risk is not a case of playing in any particular style, but recognising your team (and your own) limitations, and working out how best to use your strengths in a way that maximises the likelyhood of getting points. This, undoubtedly, is aided by possessing better players (which may, in turn, be intrinsically predisposed to one type of football, but may also be inaccessible in the market to certain teams). My notion appears vacuous, but it is a starting point, a more accurate one than that which can be derived from Doyle’s loose sentence.