Is this the right fit, and other questions raised by Cameron’s Stoke move

11 Comments

Geoff Cameron’s about to make the big leap to England, finishing a meteoric rise from Major League Soccer second round draft pick to Premier League (as Steve detailed here). Stoke is, however, a very specific type of team under Tony Pulis, known for a hard-edge pragmatism that’s built around brawn at the back, direct play in transition, and the reliance on size and strength for goals.

The symptoms:

  • In 2011-12, Stoke was the only team in the Premier League to score more set piece than open play goals (16 to 14);
  • They were last in the league in shots per game (9.9) and shots on target (2.5);
  • And they were the only team in the league to post more than 10 percent of their shots from inside six yards (16 percent; Manchester United second with nine percent);
  • Stoke was the only team to average less than 40 percent of Opta possession (39.9);
  • They had the worst passing completion percentage in the league (69.5);
  • And recorded the fewest interceptions per game (12.1).

Basically, they played like a big, slow squad incapable of keeping or winning the ball. Which they were.

Stoke has devoted too many squad spots to interchangeable forwards who lack diversity. The defense corps are all similar: Central defenders, enough of whom have the minimal versatility to play elsewhere. Their forwards are a series of target men who, like their defensive counterparts, might do enough to serve as an ill-cast number 10s.

It leaves the team with only one way to play. Having devoted too many resources to collecting center halves and number nines, Stoke’s lack of midfield talent inhibits their ability to influence any match.

That’s the situation Cameron’s being pulled into, raising four questions as to how this transfer will immediately play out:

1. Can Cameron crack Stoke’s defensive depth?

Stoke’s back four seemed set: Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross, Matthew Upson and Andy Wilkinson (with Mark Wilson thrown in), all players who profile as central defenders. It’s an approach that’s generally helped Tony Pulis meet minimal expectations: Start four central defenders along the back, and let size be your advantage.

Huth and Shawcross are locks. Upson is hurt enough to where Cameron could get time, though don’t expect a healthy Upson to sit. Even if he does, Wilson’s more likely to get the call, playing at left back while Huth moves in (from right back). Time on the right could be taken from Wilkinson, but Ryan Shotton’s as likely to get it as Cameron.

If Danny Higginbotham returns to health and form, Cameron will have another obstacle for playing time off the bench.

2. Will midfield enter the picture?

It was a common question at MLS Cup in November: Do you see yourself as a defender, now? Cameron didn’t seem ready to give up him midfield identity. He was starting to get used to the idea of being a defender (he said), and his USMNT future depended on that adjustment, but you could tell: He still thought he could make an impact in the middle.

Will that versatility tempt Pulis? Wilson, a player who has similar versatility (though plays as a full back in defense, not a central defender), has at times been used in central midfield since moving from Portsmouth in January 2011. Last year, injuries kept him at the back, but even during his days at Pompey, Wilson provided a valuable midfield option for coaches who wanted to indulge their conservative side.

Could Pulis use Wilson and Cameron as a way to get six defenders onto the field? With Ryan Shotton on the right, that number could go as high as seven. Who knows with this Stoke team? Whereas two years ago they seemed to be embracing a less brutal approach, now Pulis has the personnel to play to the extremes.

It worked when Stoke first came up, and after struggling last season, perhaps the Potters are ready to relent: This is what we are.

3. What does Stoke’s style of play mean for Cameron?

One thing Cameron does well, especially for a defender: play with the ball at his feet. He’s not Thiago Silva or Mats Hummels, but his years as a midfielder leave him highly skilled for a central defender.

One thing Stoke’s players (let alone defenders) don’t do: play with the ball at their feet. In terms of holding, passing, protecting and retrieving the ball, they were amongst the worst in the Premier League, data that hits at a beguiling vortex between style and talent.

Particularly with the approach Jurgen Klinsmann’s trying to implement with the national team, you have to wonder if Stoke is a good fit. Even if Cameron does get valuable playing time in England, that playing time may instill bad habits.

4. And what does this mean for Cameron’s national team future?

On the surface, it seems like a given: Cameron’s time in England can only help. Right?

I’m not so sure. If, at this crucial stage of his development, Cameron goes to Stoke and absorbs too much of the Potters’ approach, he could be develop into a more limited player than Klinsmann would like from his center halves – a player more on the Oguchi Onyewu than Carlos Bocanegra path. Gooch was a stalwart under Bob Bradley. Under Klinsmann, he seems miscast.

And that assumes Cameron plays. The competition to get into the team should only help him, and if he does break into Tony Pulis’s starting XI, he will provide a dimension Stoke’s defense desperately needs.

If Pulis embraces those dimensions and incorporates them into a more progressive approach, Cameron’s move should only help his quest to claim the spot next to Bocanegra in Jurgen Klinsmann’s defense.