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Stoke City

Defensive fragility undermining Stoke City’s season and Mark Hughes’ job prospects

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke City

On a cold, damp, weary night in Sussex, Stoke City supporters will have trudged out of the Amex Stadium with mixed feelings having seen their side produce a varied performance against Brighton and Hove Albion.

The Potters had led twice through goals from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Kurt Zouma but ended the game clinging on to a 2-2 draw after the home side had firmly taken control of the second half.

First Pascal Gross and then Jose Izquierdo levelled the deficit and the hosts were undoubtedly the team playing on the front during the second period to such an extent that Stoke appeared content to run down the clock in the closing moments rather than go in search of a winner.

On one hand, any point picked up on the road in the top-flight is undoubtedly a point gained, especially in a league where the group of clubs outside the so-called ‘big six’ are becoming ever-more competitive and closely aligned.

However, the manner of Stoke’s defensive display, which saw them concede their hard fought lead on two separate occasions through, quite simply, poor defending, will have left supporters feeling that this was two points dropped against a newly promoted team.

There is still an underlying feeling of frustration around the Potteries regarding the progress, or lack of, during the previous eighteen months of Mark Hughes’ reign.

The Welshman may have led Stoke to three consecutive top-ten finishes in the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history during his debut trio of campaigns but a bottom-half finish last year and a slow start to the new season has left many feeling that the Potters are in decline.

The fundamental issue for Hughes is the fact that his team are extremely fragile defensively. The Potters have the second-worst defensive record in the Premier League this season and are conceding goals at an alarming rate, letting in an average of two goals per game.

However, these defensive frailties are nothing new and over the previous eighteen months Stoke average a three-goal, or more, defeat every four games.

Defensive fragility

It is clear that Mark Hughes is fully aware of his team’s defensive frailties and the Welshman spent much of the summer attempting to solve Stoke’s horrendous defensive record.

The return of Jack Butland from a long-term injury in the final months of last season was seen as a timely boost and, despite his replacement, Lee Grant, being voted as the club’s Player of the Season, there is little doubt that the England international is one of the best young goalkeepers in the Premier League.

The 24-year-old has been in fine form since breaking into the starting eleven two years ago and his saves, as the cliché goes, are probably worth an extra four or five points a season to the Potters.

In the close season Hughes then went on a spending spree in order to patch up his back line with Kevin Wimmer, Bruno Martins Indi and Kurt Zouma all arriving prior to the start of the new campaign.

The trio of new arrivals, partnered with the existing presence of Ryan Shawcross, arguably provides the Potters with the strongest cohort of central defenders that they have ever had.

Hughes has also deployed a new-look 3-4-3 formation this season and, on paper at least, a defensive unit of Butland, Zouma, Shawcross and Wimmer protected by the holding midfield pair of Joe Allen and Darren Fletcher appears almost impenetrable.

However, despite playing with what is effectively a back five defensively with two holding midfielders Stoke have looked no more secure defensively so far this campaign than they did last year.

There are two main problems.

First, whilst the goalkeeper, back three and central midfield pair appear pretty solid, Hughes has completely overlooked the two key positions that require specialised personnel to make the 3-4-3 system work – wing-backs.

Eric Pieters is currently deployed as the left-wingback and he is fundamentally a defensive-minded full-back that provides absolutely no attacking threat going forward whilst Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, has been shoe-horned in at right wing-back.

Stoke have continued to conceded goals from wide positons simply because Hughes continues to force square pegs into round holes in the critical two positions required to make the formation work.

Secondly, due to the new system, the Potters appear completely incapable of retaining the ball for prolonged periods of time. In every contest so far this season they have had less possession than their opponents and this simply invites opponents to pile on the pressure.

Diouf and Pieters spend much of their time playing in an apparent back-five which leaves the front three isolated, further reducing the team’s ability to retain the ball.

A change in formation? or new recruits?

So what is the solution?

The problem for Mark Hughes is that the defensive fragility of his Stoke City team means that, on average, they need to score at least two goals in a match simply to grab a point. The defensive inefficiencies of the Potters are simply not sustainable and the Welshman needs to find some solutions, and quickly.

One option may be to revert back to the 4-3-3 type formation that Hughes has preferred for much of his time in the Potteries, although that will mean dropping one of his new big-name central defenders.

It will leave Stoke with fewer defensive bodies but with a greater control in the middle third of the pitch that may reduce the amount of pressure on the defensive unit.

If Hughes does decide to stick with the 3-4-3 system then it is vital that he purchases two wing-backs in the January transfer window. Players that are equally adept at attacking and defending are hard to find so it may be there he has to convince Peter Coates to hand him a substantial transfer budget to play with.

Andrew Robertson, who has struggled to break into Liverpool’s starting eleven this season, would be a perfect example, although whether he wants to depart Anfield after only joining in the summer is another question.

What is clear is that Stoke cannot continue defending in the fashion that they are currently exhibiting. If they continue to leak goals at the current alarming rate then the club will be looking nervously over their shoulder towards relegation rather than at a place in the top half of the table.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Stoke City

Three things Paul Lambert must address to ensure Stoke City’s survival

Martyn Cooke

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Paul Lambert
Photo: Reuters

Stoke City have announced that Paul Lambert has been appointed as the club’s new manager after signing a two-and-a-half-year contract with the Premier League strugglers.

The 48-year-old succeeds Mark Hughes, who was dismissed after The Potters were knocked out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier side Coventry City earlier this month, and must now shoulder the responsibility of guiding the club away from the relegation zone.

Stoke are currently eighteenth in the Premier League table and are facing up to the realistic possibility of dropping out of the top flight for the first time in almost a decade.

Lambert’s appointment has brought an end to Stoke’s prolonged search for a new manager that has reportedly seen the position turned down by a number of high profile candidates.

The club hierarchy were initially keen on securing Gary Rowett, prior to him agreeing new contract with Derby County, and have also been snubbed by Espanyol manager Quique Sanchez Flores and Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill.

Essentially Stoke have had to be content with securing their fourth-choice managerial candidate and there is a considerable amount of uncertainty and frustration among supporters that the club were unable to attract a more prestigious figure.

However, with time running short prior to the transfer window closing at the end of the month The Potters have elected to hand the job to Lambert, who has been out of work since leaving Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer.

The former Scotland international faces an uphill task to convince Stoke supporters that he is the right figure to rally behind and must now take on the challenge of saving the club from the drop.

Here The Boot Room looks at three things that Lambert needs to do in order to retain Stoke’s Premier League status.

Organise the defence

Mark Hughes’ position as manager was made untenable by his inability to organise an effective defensive unit.

The Potters currently have the worst defensive record in any of Europe’s top-flight divisions and have conceded 47 goals in 22 league games so far this season – that is an average of over two a game.

Furthermore, the last eighteen months of Hughes’ reign was characterised by heavy defeats, especially against the so-called ‘top teams’, on a regular basis. Stoke have already been hammered at the hands of Tottenham (5-1), Chelsea (4-0 and 5-0) and Manchester City to name just a few.

So Paul Lambert’s immediate concern is to plug the leaky sieve that is Stoke’s defence.

The 48-year-old needs to get back to basics by making The Potters organised, fitter and harder to beat. That might mean taking a more conservative or pragmatic approach and that may result in having to side-line some of the club’s more enigmatic and creative players in order to create a team that is more defensively solid and robust.

If Lambert can close the floodgates and stop Stoke leaking goals then he will have already have solved the team’s most prominent issue.

Find a system that suits the players available

Stoke City’s issues this campaign can be largely attributed to the formations and systems deployed by Mark Hughes that simply did not suit the players that he had available. This is exemplified by the Welshman’s decision to play 3-4-3 despite having no natural wing-backs – eventually being forced to shoe-horn Mame Biram Diouf, a forward by trade, into a right-wing back role.

The current squad is not short of talent, but rather it has been widely misused in the past eighteen months, and it is now Paul Lambert’s responsibility to find a way of maximising the potential of players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Ramadam Sobhi, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and, maybe even, Saido Berahino.

The most obvious solution would be to revert to a back-four, yet it is what the 48-year-old does with the midfield and attacking units that will define his career at the club.

He has plenty of questions to answer: does he use Shaqiri as a winger or a number 10? Does he play with a lone striker? Does he play with a front two? What system will get the most out of Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen in the central of midfield? Which wingers does he place his faith in?

At this stage, Stoke supporters will be willing to buy into whatever decisions that Lambert makes as long as they are logical and appear to be part of a clear, definitive game plan. As long as they do not have to see a striker being forced to play as a right-back they will back into their new manager’s decisions

Get supporters onside

There is no secret that Paul Lambert was far from being top of the managerial wish-list for Stoke City supporters and it is no surprise that the fanbase has been left feeling underwhelmed by his appointment.

However, the club’s failure to secure a more high-profile appointment now leaves The Potters with little option other than to rally behind what was effectively the hierarchy’s fourth choice option to succeed Mark Hughes.

Lambert faces a difficult challenge to steer the club away from the relegation zone and he needs to get the supporters onside as soon as possible.

The Bet365 Stadium was once renowned for its loud, raucous and passionate atmosphere after Stoke first achieved promotion in 2008. The crowd often had a key influence on matches and a trip to The Potteries was something that opposition players feared.

However, that atmosphere has dissipated in recent seasons following the club’s steady decline under Hughes and if Lambert can give supporters cause to rally around him then they can play a crucial role in the relegation battle as the metaphorical ‘twelfth man’.

The only way that Lambert can do this is by inspiring some fight, drive and determination on the pitch, which is something that has been sorely lacking in recent months.

The supporters will give the manager and the team their full support if they see their side putting everything into the cause that they can – it is now down to Lambert to show that he can stimulate a dramatic improvement in performances.

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Stoke City

Stoke City appoint Paul Lambert – A supporter’s point of view

Martyn Cooke

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Paul Lambert
Photo: Reuters

There are reportedly five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

You can bet that Stoke City supporters have experienced all five of those emotions in the last week as the club’s search for a new manager resulted in the surprise appointment of Paul Lambert.

It was announced on Monday afternoon that the 48-year-old would be Mark Hughes’ successor, ten days after the Welshman’s four-and-a-half year reign in the Potteries came to an end. However, it was a move that came out of the blue and has left the club’s fanbase shell-shocked.

The decision to dismiss Hughes was undoubtedly the correct one. After three consecutive top-ten finishes in the Premier League the team had been in terminal decline for the following eighteen months and the resounding defeat against Coventry City in the FA Cup was the final nail in the coffin. Hughes’ departure briefly re-enthused the supporters who were excited to see a new figure take the reins who would hopefully provide some fresh impetus and a new direction.

And that is where things began to go wrong.

The Stoke hierarchy first sounded out Gary Rowett, who swiftly ran a metaphorical mile and immediately signed a new contract with Derby County. Quique Sanchez Flores was next on the list and the Espanyol manager reportedly agreed to relocate to the Potteries – that was until he slept, released that he was leaving Barcelona for the Midlands and pulled a hand-break U-turn.

Thing were not quite going to plan, but at least the club could turn to the experienced, old head of Martin O’Neill, who surely would fancy one last crack at a top-flight job? In fact, the Republic of Ireland boss said no as well!

Which brings us to Paul Lambert.

The 48-year-old was effectively fourth-choice on Stoke’s managerial wish list and had been out of work since departing Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer.

To say that his managerial resume is somewhat underwhelming would be a significant understatement and the biggest question was how he was so far up the list of candidates for a Premier League managerial position in the first place.

So what was the reaction of Stoke City supporters? Grief. All five stages of grief.

First comes denial:

“Until the club release an official statement I will not believe it!”

Then anger, whilst channelling our inner John McEnroe:

“Look at this club statement – YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!”

Then bargaining:

“Come back Mark Hughes, all is forgiven!”

Then depression:

“We are doomed! Someone find me the map to Burton Albion – we are going to need it …”

And finally acceptance.

The truth is that for the first time in almost a decade Stoke’s position as a Premier League club is under realistic threat and although the appointment of Lambert is unlikely to have left many supporters enthused or excited now is the time for unity.

Everyone involved with the club needs to baton down the hatches, circle the wagons and pull up the drawbridge – there needs to be a togetherness that transcends who occupies the managerial hot seat.

Whilst Lambert may not have been everyone’s first choice – he may not have been anyone’s choice actually – there is a general acceptance among supporters that we need to give him and the players our full backing support. There are fifteen games remaining to save the season and there is still a favourable chance that the the Potters can play, scrap or crawl their way out of trouble.

Stoke now face a run of five fixtures that will shape the very future of the club. There are home matches against Huddersfield Town, Watford and Brighton and Hove Albion as well as trips to Bournemouth and Leicester. Lambert has little choice but to hit the ground running and to start picking up points immediately.

However, the supporters may have the most crucial role to play in the forthcoming weeks and months. At one time the Bet365 Stadium was one of the most intimidating venues for top-flight teams to ply their trade. The crowd were raucous, passionate and tribal – those same qualities, which have recently disappeared in a haze of complacency, need to rediscovered by those in the stands.

I fully share the frustrations of supporters and many of their qualms and concerns have merit. Was Mark Hughes given too much time before receiving his P45? Has the board invested enough money in the transfer market? Who is to blame for the current predicament? These are all questions that will need to be answered, but at the end of the season rather than now.

Right now, Stoke supporters are onto that final stage of grief – acceptance. It is time to accept our new manager, pull together and provide Paul Lambert with all of the support that we can muster.

You can be certain that he will need all of the help that he can get.

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Manchester United

Manchester United 3-0 Stoke City: Three talking points from Old Trafford

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Manchester United
Photo: Reuters

Newly-announced Stoke City manager Paul Lambert watched on from the stands as two stunning first-half strikes helped Manchester United condemn the Potters to defeat at Old Trafford on Monday night.

The former Norwich and Aston Villa manager was named as Mark Hughes’ successor in charge after his sacking following the Potters’ FA Cup defeat to League Two Coventry City last weekend and he was at Old Trafford to see his new team in action for the first time ahead of taking over officially on Tuesday.

But it wasn’t to be a winning start for Lambert, who watched his side go behind early on when the returning Antonio Valencia fired a thunderous left-foot strike high into the net to put United ahead.

The visitors had chances to get themselves back into the game, with Stephen Ireland – making his first Premier League start since April 2015 – twice spurning clear-cut chances from inside the penalty box.

Stoke’s wastefulness came back to haunt them when Anthony Martial doubled the hosts’ lead before the break in fine fashion, meeting Paul Pogba’s pass with a first-time finish high into the net.

David de Gea was forced into a fine reaction right save on the brink of half-time to push Xherdan Shaqiri’s effort away and keep United’s two-goal lead in tact and from that point on United completely turned the screw and dominated, with Romelu Lukaku’s shot saved at the front post.

The Belgian got his rewards shortly after though when he held the ball up and fired low past Jack Butland, before Marcus Rashford came close to a fourth when his deft heel-flick was held.

The hosts then comfortably saw out the remainder of the game to close the gap on leaders Manchester City to 12 points, whilst Stoke City remain a point adrift of safety down in 18th.

Lambert watches on as Stoke fall to defeat

There are no illusions that this job will be easy.

Paul Lambert – arguably Stoke’s third or fourth choice of manager in their pursuit of a replacement for Mark Hughes over the past week – was well and truly thrown in at the deep end on Monday evening as he travelled to Manchester with the Potters to see his new side in action for the first time as manager.

Earlier in the day Lambert’s arrival on a two-and-a-half-year deal was announced to a somewhat muted reception from Stoke fans, with his managerial CV not one containing too much Premier League pedigree other than respective spells at Norwich City and Aston Villa.

It may not be the most eye-catching move from Stoke’s board of directors but the same has been said this season about David Moyes and Roy Hodgson – and those two have started in fine fashion and completely turned the tides for their respective sides.

The sole objective for Lambert will be to haul Stoke away from any relegation trouble, and he’ll know the magnitude of the job at hand with the Potters sitting in the relegation zone in 18th place.

In truth, there’s not a lot he would have learnt in defeat to Manchester United.

It was never the sort of game that Stoke were expected to get anything from considering their current predicament and neither will it be the sort of game that will help them avoid relegation.

Instead, it’s the upcoming run of games against Huddersfield, Watford, Bournemouth, Brighton and rivals at the bottom Southampton – all of which take place in the next six league games – that may well define Stoke’s season and Lambert’ll know the job really begins when 15:00 comes on Saturday.

Potters defence in need of tightening up

That said, he’ll be fully aware that it’s the defence that’s in dire need of tightening up.

In conceding another three goals on Monday night Stoke have the unwanted title of having the Premier League’s worst defence – and by a long margin – after conceding 50 goals in 23 matches.

It may have been two fine strikes in the first-half that got United up and running but the defending leading up to the goals was questionable at best. For the first, Antonio Valencia was allowed the time to shift the ball onto his left-foot before putting an unstoppable effort into the top corner, whilst for the second nobody in a Stoke jersey tracked the run of Anthony Martial to the edge of the area before he fired home.

And after the break they were fortunate to keep it to just three – largely indebted to Butland for making some smart stops – as Pogba, Lukaku and Martial found regular space far too easily.

Their attacking play showed signs of positives during the first-half in a much-changed side under caretaker boss Eddie Niedzwiecki, and they arguably should have scored at least one before half-time had both Stephen Ireland and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting found the back of the net.

There are more than enough attacking options in the squad, who have enough proven prowess in front of goal, to avoid the drop this year, but they need help from their worryingly leaky back-line before things start to get truly ugly for the Potters.

Mkhitaryan left out as Sanchez waits in the wings

What a roller-coaster week it’s been for Manchester United.

For a side that rarely does its business in the mid-season transfer window shockwaves were sent through the Premier League when their interest in Arsenal’s talisman Alexis Sanchez was first reported by Sky Sports Italia, and it seems increasingly likely that they’ve hijacked Manchester City’s proposed move for the Chilean.

In fact, as Monday’s match was going on against the Potters fresh reports suggested that Pep Guardiola is out of the race for Sanchez – leaving the door wide open for an Old Trafford switch.

And, despite comfortably winning on the night, it was clear to see where he will slot in.

Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were the designated wide outlets for Monday’s clash but neither pride themselves on being out-and-out wingers, and at times United were crying out for an attacking player that can hug the touchline and deliver consistent balls into the box.

At times Romelu Lukaku went out onto the right-wing himself to try and get in the game such was United’s lack of crosses into the area, and as a striker he shouldn’t be the one forced into delivering.

Ultimately it mattered little as a result of two top-class individual strikes but, going forward, the looming arrival of Sanchez could not only add quality on the flanks but improve Lukaku’s play too and enable him to rekindle the sort of prolific form he showed at Everton last season.

But whilst one player looks to be moving ever closer to arriving, one looks equally close to an imminent exit as Henrikh Mkhitaryan was once again left out of Jose Mourinho’s matchday squad.

The Armenian’s fall from grace has been well-documented this season – despite starting the year firing – and reports claiming that he could be included as part of the deal to bring Sanchez to Manchester will only gain traction after comments made by the United manager prior to kick-off.

Asked about Mkhitaryan’s omission on Monday, he told Sky Sports:

“I would lie if I said it was just a tactical decision. Just a choice of the players that we know in this moment they have 100% their heads in Manchester United and no doubts about the future.”

Should Sanchez indeed arrive before the end of the month then there’s a very high probability that Mkhitaryan won’t be a United player come February, and he’ll be hoping that his next career move will help re-ignite the form that attracted Mourinho in the first place back in 2016.

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