Can't score for toffee

Posted by James Whittaker

Everton beat Stoke 1-0 as the Potters extended their unenviable away record to just one win in 25 games.

The tone was set at the pre-match press conference as Tony Pulis stressed how important the remaining home games were... "but we'll have a go at Everton too", sounding about as convincing as when he described Marc Wilson as the best left back in the league. The manager has complained about the lack of service his static front man has had in recent weeks and so decided to play Ryan Shotton and Jonathan Walters on the wings with no sight of Jermaine Pennant or Brek Shea, the former having just seen his loan to Leeds blocked by Pulis at the eleventh hour.

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On a positive note, it was clear that the side had been encouraged to keep possession better and play the ball around more -- Steven N'Zonzi even broke free of the midfield cage once or twice, too. It was the men in red and white who actually looked the more dangerous in the opening exchanges but the final ball was never there. N'Zonzi would surge forward but have no options, the ball inevitably finding its way back to the woeful Wilson to pump it straight to the goalkeeper.

This side, a side that Pulis has assembled at great expense, simply can't play any other way and the fact that so many players were out of position (again) meant that they weren't given the best chance of succeeding from the outset. The number of times the moves were breaking down on the left side because there were two right footers there was painful. Stoke were far too predictable and but for one long throw, they rarely troubled the returning Tim Howard. N'Zonzi, Peter Crouch and Glenn Whelan at a push were the only players in the front six that are comfortable in possession, and as soon as any one of them passed to those who weren't, possession was swiftly turned over.

Stoke have been unfairly labelled a rugby team over the years, but today it looked like that was the game they were trying to play as most of the balls from the midfielders were aimless up and unders over the defensive line with no creativity or control. The manager's insistence of chase over craft has ensured the team feel uncomfortable doing anything else than the direct football he insists on. The problem is he can't even get that right as he continues to undermine his own methodologies by continuing to select the hapless Crouch.

I've long written that Crouch has been one of the key factors in our long run of bad form, and despite Pulis being afforded a get out of jail free card with Kenwyne Jones coming back in and scoring, he dropped him as soon as he was able to bring back his favourite player who continues to be a millstone around Stoke's neck. Crouch is entirely ineffective; he's a passenger and his continued selection is rendering Stoke predictable and toothless as an attacking force. He had the worst passing accuracy of any of the front six players, won just a third of his headers and didn’t manage any shots whatsoever (again).

Wilson to Crouch was obviously Plan A and it didn't appear to bother Pulis that it just wasn't working. The fact is it never does. Such was the desperation for a left back, Wilson's return was widely celebrated but his frailties were once again exposed. He attempted eight crosses, none were successful. He attempted the most long balls, but was unsuccessful with 80% of them, the worst on the pitch. He had the second worse final third passing accuracy... behind Crouch. He also lost possession more than any other player on the pitch. That so much of Pulis' game plan goes through such weak components is frustrating; the fact nothing is changed when that is clear for all to see is rank bad management.

Stoke now find themselves four points above 18th place and today’s loss was their sixth in a row. Pulis' inability to build on the points gained before Christmas now sees him right in the thick of a relegation battle. No doubt he will play the luck card once again when ironically he is the luckiest man in football, as anyone else with such a dire record over the last two seasons would have long since been relieved of his duties.

(All stats provided by @EPLIndex)

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