Charlie Adam’s first-half strike on Saturday gave Stoke City a slim victory over Fulham in the Premier League and extended their unbeaten home run to thirteen games.
Potters boss, Tony Pulis, will rue a number of missed first-half chances and the final score-line should have worn a much more flattering look.
Instead, the hosts were left hanging on in the closing stages.
Stoke’s impressive home form is built on disciplined defensive foundations and Martin Jol’s side are not the first to have stumbled on their visit to the Brittania stadium.
However, in Dimitar Berbatov, it was the visitors who possessed the game’s standout talent.
Here, The FA’s Peter Glynn looks at the foundations of Stoke’s success and the alternative study of forward play provided by the Bulgarian.
It may appear far-fetched to find similarities between Stoke City and Dimitar Berbatov. However, the two are identical in their ability to divide opinion.
Tony Pulis’s men won this game through common methods. Peter Crouch’s back-post header was collected and dispatched inside the penalty box by Adam following Ryan Shotton’s deep cross.
Long, accurate, diagonal balls to Crouch, were a consistent in the home side’s attacking strategy.
Tenacity and work-rate back-up the approach with Stoke’s midfield quick to capture and collect any loose balls in midfield.
The merits of any strategy can be analysed and debated and if justification were necessary, Tony Pulis would point towards the solitary goal conceded this season at home, and a thirteen game unbeaten run at the Britannia, as vindication for the approach.
High tempo and combative aren’t, however, the first descriptors you would reach for in defining Berbatov’s approach.
There are two schools of thought for profiling the Bulgarian. For some he represents a sublime talent with the ability and vision to change the course of any game. For others, he’s too casual and inconsistent.
Looks do often deceive, and it is true the Bulgarian adopts a languid style. Here, however, he provided an alternative study in forward play.
The forward employs a different movement pattern to traditional front players. Quite often when others are on the move he stands still, coming alive when others stop to pause.
The alternative rhythm proves an effective method for arriving into attacking areas undetected. Berbatov can appear to let the play pass him by, happy to let attacking moves wash over him, only to come alive detached from the attack.
Being caught standing still in throws of an attacking move can prompt uneducated criticism.
Noel Blake, England U19s coach and former Academy manager at Stoke City believes a better understanding of modern day strikers is necessary.
“I sometimes hear people shouting ‘you’re not working hard enough’ at strikers. But sometimes, as the coach, it’s exactly what I want to see, as long as the player is always thinking. During these moments the striker is relaxed and controlled psychologically, waiting to come alive.
“By varying playing fast and slow you may lull the defender into a false sense of security, initially relaxing them and then exploiting the space around them with quick and explosive movements,” added Blake.
Although the forward’s movement patterns conjure the luxury of both time and space, Berbatov’s technical armoury also equips him for close combat.
Even when irritated by the close attentions of a marker, the ball often appears as an extension of the striker’s body. As if his 6ft 3 frame is covered in velcro any type of pass played into him appears to stick.
Fulham’s talisman is adept at receiving the ball with the outside of his foot and on his chest, with the strength and technique to hold off the attention of his marker.
Here’s a Future Game practice that looks at developing a variety of techniques for controlling the ball:
With such a mastery of technique it is unsurprising that 31-year-old is the fulcrum through which the Cottagers direct almost all of their attacks.
The forward’s preferred area for scheming is in the shadows away from direct combat. The former Bayern Leverkusen man rarely played directly against Stoke’s central defensive pair of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth. Instead, he was happier to drop deeper into midfield areas.
With Stoke cautious to retain their strict defensive shape Berbatov found the sanctuary of space in midfield.
At times the striker received direct throws from goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer onto his chest, and continually provided a passing option for Fulham’s full backs when in possession.
Here’s a Future Game practice that looks at exploiting space in midfield areas:
There’s an elegance and assuredness about the Fulham number nine that, when on form, few can match. The deft flicks and passes with the outside of the boot add an unpredictability that is difficult for defenders to anticipate.
With teams more organised and defending in greater numbers this type of disguise and deception is necessary to unlock miserly defences.
However, for all Berbatov’s perceptive passing and attempts to combine and link play, the company he held often left him isolated and frustrated.
One particular moment in the game’s latter stages symbolised the gap in thinking between him and his teammates. Receiving a waist-high ball inside the penalty box, the forward pirouetted and back-heeled the ball all in one movement.
Nobody had dared to imagine or anticipate such an outcome and the ball fell into empty space. It wasn’t the only time during the afternoon that the Bulgarian was left arms aloft and exasperated.
In fairness to his colleagues, the hosts’ rear-guard represent a formidable presence. The Potters’ have conceded once at home this term and, with Shawcross and Huth imperious in marshalling their back-line, it is little wonder.
This is a well organised, determined, hard-working side that dealt comfortably with most of the Londoners’ scheming. Although Berbatov was afforded the luxury of snaking off in deeper positions Stoke had little tolerance of Fulham’s attacks in and around the penalty area.
Stoke’s players snapped into challenges and pressed the opposition effectively affording few opportunities for Fulham’s frontline to receive and turn.
Here’s a Future Game practice which focuses on the importance of pressing and closing down the opposition:
Some believe tackling is becoming a dying art. If so, Shawcross is one of a disappearing breed. Here the England international continually demonstrated the timing, awareness and technique to block, challenge and pinch the ball from the opposition.
Additionally, there were countless examples of Stoke players putting their body in the way of the ball to deflect incoming shots and crosses.
Coaches must not ignore the individual techniques and skills necessary to become an accomplished defender. Quick to sense danger, Shawcross was the first to press the ball in the defensive third, demonstrating the willingness and awareness to recover back into his defensive line once his pressing duties were complete. He epitomised the diligence that Stoke demonstrated in their off the ball work.
Stoke City’s establishment as a regular Premier League fixture, is noteworthy. Rightly or wrongly, however, they have become synonymous as a traditionally British challenge. A mantle pinched from Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers side.
The modern game remains engaging due to its ability to serve up variety. Stoke City and Dimitar Berbatov are alternatives of different natures and the game continues to find a place for both.
Key messages for Grassroots coaches:
- Players and coaches should dedicate time to mastering control of the ball – including aerial control. Alternative surfaces, such as the outside of the foot and the chest, should be encouraged.
- Encourage players to develop a desire for defending. Ryan Shawcross showed a hunger for pressing, blocking and challenging. In small-sided games players can be challenged to press and win the ball back quickly. Or, alternatively prevent the opposition from entering their penalty area.
Peter Glynn, 29, is the Editorial Manager at St. George's Park and editor of The Boot Room, The FA's Coaching Magazine. Peter has been with The Football Association for five years and holds the UEFA B Licence and The FA Youth Awards 1 and 2.
The Future Game Tactics Column takes a weekly look at the evolution of the modern game, linking to practices from The FA's Future Game philosophy and providing advice and tips for grassroots coaches.
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