With right pieces, Stoke back to their best

Posted by James Whittaker

Andrew Powell/Getty ImagesStoke's Jonathan Walters, right, hits the target for the first of his two goals

Stoke extended their unbeaten run and indeed their Britannia hoodoo over Liverpool as they swept aside their more illustrious opponents 3-1 on Boxing Day with ease in a throwback to the kind of style that propelled the Potters into Europe two seasons ago.

Stoke fans will argue the merits - or otherwise - of manager Tony Pulis' selections, but there is one thing on which they all agree: that the approach and tactics of that FA Cup final side is the best Stoke have played. More so, it is that formula which best suits the manager and players alike.

How long has it been since Stoke played two wingers and a pacey front man? That's exactly what we saw Wednesday night as the rejuvenated Jonathan Walters and Matthew Etherington excelled with the luxury of movement around them in a familiar system raising questions why their form dipped so alarmingly in the first place.

I proposed some time ago that the lack of form from the front trio of Walters, Etherington and Jermaine Pennant was down to the removal of Kenwyne Jones’ pace and movement up top - that all three struggled so markedly at the same time was so much more than a coincidence.

That Matty and Jon have looked so much better these last few games would add credence to that and makes me wonder why Pulis changed in the first place. Jones had been sitting on the bench while his replacement - Peter Crouch - was showing his manager there was no reason to spend £10m on an older, less-effective target man.

The last time Stoke scored three was November 2011 against relegated Blackburn. In the best period of their recent history (2010-11) Stoke scored three six times, even throwing in a 4-0 for good measure. That Jones was in that side, is now in the current one and Stoke scored three again gives fans a glimpse at what might have been had Stoke strengthened areas that actually warranted change last season.

The side that beat Liverpool deserve every plaudit as many journalists were forced to praise through their gritted teeth, as they have found themselves doing too often for their liking this term. This Stoke side gave Liverpool a lesson in everything you can't buy - commitment, heart, passion, organisation and an unbelievable, awe-inspiring work rate that would make a marine drill sergeant proud.

It wasn’t just all about attitude though, as these days Stoke can to call on the added composure of the likes of Geoff Cameron and Steven N’Zonzi. The latter faced off against one the country’s all-time midfielders in Steven Gerrard and reduced the England captain to a frustrated shadow of his former self with Stoke’s Player of the Season-elect excelling.

That N’Zonzi cost only £3.5m is remarkable. That Liverpool spent £16m on substitute Jordan Henderson shows just how well Pulis did with this one.

It was all about N’Zonzi in that particular battle as the midfield powerhouse added invention to his organisation; out-passing and out-tackling Gerrard and losing possession half as much as the Scouse talisman.

But for me, it was about someone else - the much-maligned Walters. Jon put in a two-goal performance that had many bringing back his 'super’ prefix . His work rate was phenomenal as always, but his link-up play and finishing was perhaps more impressive as he scored a great, controlled volley - had it been his opposite number Luis Suarez, it would be replayed every hour on the hour the rest of the season.

I’ve been very critical of Jon this season, and that was warranted as he has struggled playing out wide as the manager seeks to accommodate another signing that wasn't really thought through in Charlie Adam. But Wednesday, as he did in 2010-11, he played with purpose and confidence and that translated to everyone around him in the best team performance we have seen in some time.

It’s a good dilemma for Pulis to have with even him admitting he is struggling to fit Crouch back into his reinvigorated side. With the transfer window opening next week, some big decisions need to be made at the boardroom level and I hope when all is said and done that those decisions will be for the good of the club and not the manager’s pride or reputation.

I suspect if the right decisions are made then Pulis would begin to see a shift in the popularity divide and enjoy more of the atmosphere that got behind him and the players Wednesday. It’s all about being the best Stoke can be, and Wednesday was a huge step in the right direction. If Stoke can keep that setup, that organisation and bring in players where they are really needed, then a top-10 finish is anything but a dream, it’s a certainty.

Vis Unita Fortior

(Stats provided by @EPLIndex)

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