The ultimate test of football masculinity. - Laurence Griffiths
The legend has it the great Burmese king Bayinnaung (Wiki link) once applied extreme recruiting methods to assemble a squad of 500 brave soldiers. The candidates must withstand a pin being hammered into their right thumb. Those who did not wince got chosen. Bayinnaugn ain't no sissy either: he went first.
I recount this story, which I've learnt as a child from the Burmese history books, for two reasons. First, Stoke City squad is stacked with players who will undoubtedly pass this test of bravery (Remember, bravery is in the eye of the beholder). Robert Huth. With flying colors! Ryan Shawcross. You're in! Kenwyne Jones. Never a doubt! Jonathan Walters. Yawning as the pin sank deep into his thumb. These are
hard men HARD MEN is my point.
Secondly, by virtue of being a group of HARD MEN, Tony Pulis's team, in turn, has become the toughest examination of footballing masculinity. "Wet Wednesday night at Stoke" is the football version of "downing 20 shots of vodka in a minute," of "taking the bull by the horn, literally," of "opening a beer bottle with your eye socket." Tackles will slide in from all direction. Fouls will be committed. Aerial assults will be launched. The balls of this radically Hobbitized Chelsea will be weighted and measured at the Britania Stadium. Let us prepare for the challenge.
* Intentional use of Italics to tone down massive masculinity.
Who's surprised the scorelines aren't just made of 1's and 0's? Join the club. Stoke typically neither score nor concede much. In fact, they have ended 14 of their 21 league games, 66.6% (if that's not a sign, I don't know what is), with the scoreline 0-0, 1-1 or 1-0 this season. But a glitch in the universe appeared out of nowhere the day after Christmas when the Potters beat fellow mid-table dweller, Liverpool, 3-1. That was followed by an even more surprising 3-3 draw against Southampton at home. In the previous nine home games of this season, the highest number of goal conceded by Stoke was 1.
The 3-0 away loss to Manchester City was not out of the ordinary. And Pulis's men earned a goalless draw against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup recently. I'm guessing that the glitch is over, that Stoke are back to their "hard as hell to break down" selves, but those couple of results make them slightly less predictable.
In defense, Stoke deploys a simple, yet effective, 4-5-1 shape. Two walls of four protect the goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and Jonathan Walters often drops back from his advance position to help out his defense. They tend to crowd the center of the pitch, forcing opposition to move to the flanks. They don't care the crosses into the box, you see. Huth and Shawcross have the combined height of 3.74 meters (slightly shorter than an average great white shark) and that usually solves the problem.
Chelsea can take two routes to the Stoke goal. First option: tiki-taka through the center using the magical feet of their tiny attacking midfielders and triangular rotations (you didn't forget that term, did you?). Or just take what Stoke gives you and put in a ton of crosses from the wide area: a method likely to be more successful with Demba Ba leading the attack than Fernando Torres' identical twin with an accounting degree, Alberto Hernandez.
In attack, Stoke utilizes the physical strength of Jones to receive long passes and hold the ball before finding his attacking partners. They use their width with Matthew Etherington and
Keira Michael Kightly moving down the flanks and delivering crosses into the box for Jones and Walters. This is not a complicated attacking method. Doing the simple things right in defense--holding a good 4-4-1-1 defensive shape, attacking players tracking back, defenders clearing the aerial threats--will be the key to Chelsea earning a clean sheet here.
In Stoke's 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, Jonathan Walters plays in that hole behind the striker. A position typically occupied by small, technical players (e.g. Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and David Silva). Walters does not possess great technical abilities, but he brings other qualities to the table.
He is more defensively-abled than most attacking midfielders. His work rate off the ball is exemplary. He has the energy to track, press and defend. He has played up front as the main striker and on the wings; his versatility makes him less predictable.
His two goals against Liverpool in their recent victory illustrate that Walters has the knack for getting himself into good position to get the second ball from Jones. But they also showed that Walters has the skill and the composure to finish these chances when they come along. If Chelsea can't compete for the ball against Jones, they should concentrate on clearing the second ball ahead of the predatory Walters.
Full Speed Ahead
The ultimate test of football manliness awaits. There will be pain. There will be blood. There is no turning back. From a distant past, the battle cry of David G. Farragut still rings loud and clear: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"