Stoke lose their identity to become the Premier League's most boring team
For Liverpool, dropping points against unfashionable bottom-half sides has become a familiar problem. Wednesday's 2-2 home draw with Bournemouth wasn't met with howls of astonishment from the Kop, but instead by moans of frustration.
Liverpool have a clear problem: they consistently perform excellently against good sides, then awfully against the rest. The statistics provide unquestionable evidence -- Liverpool have won 2.2 points per game against fellow top seven sides, but just 1.7 points per game against the bottom 13 sides in the league.
So what could be worse, then, than a weekend trip to Stoke?
Well, quite a lot of things, actually. Whereas Stoke City were once renowned as the division's toughest "smaller" side, and a trip to the Potteries was amongst the most feared dates on the calendar for top sides, they have seemingly completely lost their old ability to upset the big boys.
Indeed, Stoke essentially have the opposite problem to Liverpool -- Stoke only beat the Premier League's weaker teams, and struggle hugely against title challengers. To a certain extent, of course, that's entirely natural, but Stoke's tendencies are more extreme. For example, against the bottom seven sides they have the eighth-best record in the Premier League, but against the top seven it's the fourth-worst record. Stoke were once capable of upsetting the best. Now, they're flat-track bullies.
In part, this is because Stoke have completely changed their style of play since their formative Premier League years. In the early days, under Tony Pulis, they became renowned as both the most direct team in the division, concentrating upon long balls and crosses, and the most physical, repeatedly putting in hard challenges.
This inevitably earned them criticism, but it proved broadly successful. Having been hugely patronised for their directness upon their promotion in 2008, Stoke were never truly in a relegation dogfight, and instead established themselves as a solid midtable side. More notably, however, they contributed more tactical variety than any other side in the Premier League.
This was particularly true for home matches. The "wet and windy night at Stoke" line was probably overplayed, but the "at Stoke" part was key. Arsenal, for example, the side who have most notoriously struggled against the Potters, have won all nine Premier League clashes against Stoke at the Emirates, but during the same period have managed just one victory away from home. It was a tough game precisely because it offered something different, a challenge unlike anything else in the league.
Now, Stoke don't rile bigger sides because their style of play is, essentially, a watered-down version of the football played by Arsenal or Liverpool. Pulis' departure in 2013, and the arrival of Mark Hughes, has broadly been successful. Pulis took Stoke to respectable finishes of 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 13th. If the finishing places seem consistent, the points totals -- 45, 47, 46, 45, 42 -- are even more solid.
But Pulis was replaced, partly because of a feeling Stoke were stagnating despite significant investment, and partly because his style of play eventually became somewhat wearing. Indeed, the two are probably related.
Hughes has performed a fine job. Many suggested instability from the managerial upheaval would prove their downfall, that Stoke wouldn't be able to adjust their approach without suffering from a serious decline in results. Instead, they have improved, coming ninth three seasons in a row with points tallies of 50, 54 and 51, while also improving their style of play. The likes of Marc Muniesa and Erik Pieters are cultured defenders who wouldn't have been recruited by Pulis, while Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic are genuinely exciting forwards.
But Stoke no longer field the antithesis to Champions League footballers, just the same type of players who can't find employment at big clubs because they're not quite good enough. Consequently, they now lack real identity, and when combined with the fact they've essentially been bouncing around in midtable all season, their matches lack any kind of meaning for neutrals. Teams challenging for European places and those battling relegation offer obvious interest, but even other middling sides are more interesting than Stoke.
Bournemouth are an attractive, likeable side with that rare thing, a promising young English manager. Southampton's continued reinvention under different coaches remains fascinating. West Brom are now led by Pulis, and that old combination of direct play and set-piece threat can provide plenty of entertainment, as witnessed in their recent win over Arsenal. Burnley are perhaps the "new Stoke" in a different sense, with 32 of their 35 points coming at home. West Ham's adaptation to their new surroundings has been a major talking point, and where do you start with Leicester City? Arguably only Watford have been as uninteresting than Stoke this season, but even they've managed hugely impressive victories of 3-1 and 2-1 against Manchester United and Arsenal respectively.
Stoke seem to have lost that ability, and it's not all about Pulis' departure. Last season, Hughes masterminded wins over Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. His tactics were often at the heart of that, particularly in terms of pressing, and Stoke's counter-attacking was occasionally lethal. Now everything seems flat. Shaqiri has fallen out of favour, Gianelli Imbula hasn't had the impact many predicted and Bojan Krkic faded and has been loaned out to Mainz. Stoke aren't playing brutal "Route One" football or silky tiki-taka either. They've scored once in their last four matches, and that was a Jon Walters penalty.
Of course, Stoke's lack of headlines isn't necessarily a bad thing: owners crave Premier League stability. No news is good news, as they say. Yet Stoke's transformation is something of a shame: once they provided as much intrigue and interest as any club in the top flight. This season, however, they're probably the Premier League's least interesting side.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.