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Stoke City

Stoke City: Feeble and half-hearted at best, negligent at worst

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke City

On Saturday afternoon, twenty-seven minutes into the first half at the Etihad Stadium, Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland stood on the edge of his eighteen yard box with a mixed look of bemusement and frustration etched across his face.

The England international, who is being tipped by many to displace Joe Hart as Gareth Southgate’s first choice stopper before the summer, had just picked the ball up out of his net for the third time in ten minutes after David Silva had provided the finishing touch to another flowing passing move constructed by Manchester City.

He, like the ten Stoke outfield players positioned before him, appeared to be little more than helpless bystanders as Pep Guardiola’s team went about ruthlessly dismantling them.

Butland exemplified Stoke’s afternoon – frustrated, bemused and helpless to stop the tsunami of light blue attacking waves.

Manchester City were electric on Saturday and the eventual 7-2 score line could have easily have crept into double figures. Guardiola’s team produced some scintillating football, arguably the best that any side has produced so far this campaign, and Stoke simply had no answers.

Yet, whilst the national media are, quite rightly, eulogising over The Citizen’s stunning performance there will be a lot of questions being asked back in The Potteries.

How Mark Hughes has failed to correct the mistakes of last season

The Stoke City supporters that travelled to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday attended the contest more in hope than expectation. Manchester City are undoubtedly one of the superpowers of European football and are arguably the best team in the country right now – and by some distance.

The disparity between the two clubs is facilitated by Sheik Mansour’s almost limitless financial backing that has seen the Abu Dhabi Group pour almost one billion pounds into constructing a team of superstars that is being guided by one of the best coaches of the modern era.

To put Manchester City’s spending power into perspective, the purchase of Kyle Walker in the summer exceeds the amount of money that Stoke have spent on their last three most expensive signings combined (Giannelli Imbula, Saido Berahino and Kevin Wimmer).

However, that will be of little comfort to the Stoke supporters who witnessed the 7-2 demolition of their team on Saturday.

Yes, Manchester City were good – very good in fact – but the resistance offered by The Potters was feeble and half-hearted at best, negligent at worst. The defeat highlighted once more some of the large cracks in Mark Hughes’ team and approach that have undermined the club’s performance over the last eighteen months.

Defensively, Stoke were shambolic. Manchester City may possess a deluge of world-class players but the ease and simplicity in which they carved open the visitors time after time was horrifying for those stranded in the away end.

As a defender surely your job is to make things difficult, get tight and deny opponents space, hell – even bother to put a tackle in from time to time (Stoke picked up just one booking during the contest).

Heavy defeats are nothing new for The Potters. They had already been beaten 4-0 by Chelsea prior to the international break and, under Hughes, the team have conceded four or more goals nine times in their last 49 fixtures. That means that Stoke fans can expect their side to be on the receiving end of a thrashing once every four or five matches.

Quite simply under Hughes, Stoke have no idea how to defend.

There are also increasing concerns over Stoke’s recent transfer policy. Hughes has spent roughly £50 million in the last couple of years on Giannelli Imbula, Saido Berahino and Kevin Wimmer and yet all of the indicators appear to suggest that all three will be poor investments.

Imbula, who is the Potters’ record signing, has already been excluded to France on loan having been frozen out of the first team squad last season whilst Berahino, who was supposed to be the solution to the club’s goal scoring problem, has failed to find the back of the net in almost two years.

Even Wimmer, an £18 million purchase in the summer, was substituted at half time at the Etihad Stadium after being bamboozled by the Manchester City strike force – his early performances do not suggest that he is a player worth the hefty price tag.

Finally, there are Hughes’ team selections and tactical approach. The Welshman has deployed a 3-4-3 formation for the majority of the season despite the fact that the club have no actual wing-backs on the books.

Mame Biram Diouf, a striker, Geoff Cameron, a central defender, and Ramadam Sobhi, an out-and-out winger, have all been shoe-horned into playing at right wing-back despite having absolutely no previous experience operating in that position.

In addition to this, Hughes seems incapable of deciding which striker should spearhead his attack. He has been consistently playing either Berahino or Jese Rodriguez as the lone striker, despite neither of the duo possessing the physicality or approach to fit into that role.

Meanwhile, Peter Crouch, who continues to score from the bench, and Diouf, who is stranded at wing-back, two players that are suited to playing as an isolated front man, are not being utilised correctly.

No wonder some Stoke supporters are pulling their hair out with frustration.

Perspective – but a need for definitive improvement

It is important to retain some perspective regarding Stoke City’s 7-2 defeat at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, but yet the performance exemplified the continuing issues within the club that Mark Hughes has failed to provide a solution for or has created himself.

Towards the end of last season supporters were beginning to lose patience with the Welshman, some even going as far as to call for him to be replaced. However, the general consensus was that he should be given the summer to re-mould the squad and tackle some of the prominent issues that had seen Stoke stranded in the mediocrity of mid-table.

There has been little, if any, progress made.

The saving grace for Hughes is that there is a friendly-looking run of fixtures coming up that will provide the perfect opportunity to pick up points and placate the frustrated supporters in the stands. However, if Saturday’s performance is anything to go by, then he has an awful lot of work to do over the forthcoming weeks and a drastic improvement is required.

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.

Bournemouth

Bournemouth 2-1 Stoke City: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the Vitality Stadium as Bournemouth recorded a 2-1 comeback victory over relegation rivals Stoke City.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth extended their Premier League unbeaten run to seven matches as they came from behind to complete the double over Stoke City.

Following their tremendous victory over Chelsea in midweek, the Cherries started with a hangover and conceded in the fifth minute when Xherdan Shaqiri – one of the smallest men on the pitch – headed past Asmir Begovic.

The hosts looked transformed in the second half and equalised through Joshua King on 70 minutes. The Cherries then continued to dominate and struck the knockout blow when Lys Mousset nodded in his first top-flight goal for the club.

This was Stoke’s first defeat under new manager Paul Lambert as they slipped back into the relegation zone.

Here are three talking points…

Cherries’ character again comes to the fore

A feature of Bournemouth’s impressive recent form, which has seen them climb out of the drop-zone and up to the dizzying heights of ninth place, has been their ability to overturn a deficit.

It started on Boxing Day when Callum Wilson’s controversial injury-time goal rescued a point against West Ham United.

Twice they came from behind to earn a draw with Brighton & Hove Albion on New Year’s Day and now in their past two home matches, the Cherries have recovered from an early setback to register victories over Arsenal and Stoke.

In their previous two seasons in the Premier League, Bournemouth were renowned for making fast starts, but they often struggled to hold on to a lead.

Eddie Howe will be pleased with his side’s never-say-die attitude, particularly at such a crucial stage of the campaign.

Only a month ago, the Cherries were in real danger of being caught up in a relegation dogfight. Now, with 15 points from their past seven games, that threat has been alleviated.

Lambert suffers his first setback as Stoke boss

With four points from his first two games in the hot-seat, Lambert had made an impressive start following the demise of his predecessor, Mark Hughes.

His troops started well again on the south coast, as Shaqiri was somehow left unmarked to head home a cross from new signing Badou Ndiaye.

The Potters pressed their opponents high up the pitch and gave them little space or time on the ball, but perhaps their endeavours contributed to a sloppy second-half performance.

The visitors retreated under intense pressure from Bournemouth, who capitalised with two goals inside nine second-half minutes to claim all three points.

With the lower half of the table incredibly tight, this was a real blow to Stoke’s ambitions.

Victory would have seen them climb as high as 14th, but instead they have plummeted into the bottom three on goal difference. Currently, Stoke are one of three teams locked on 24 points.

The battle for survival is going down to the wire.

Substitutes make the difference for Bournemouth

A hamstring injury to Steve Cook in the 13th minute disrupted Howe’s plans.

With his side already 1-0 down, the Bournemouth manager decided to unleash striker King instead of replacing like-for-like.

This prompted a change in formation, with the hosts ditching the 3-4-3 system that worked so well against Chelsea in favour of a 4-4-2, with Ryan Fraser dropping into an unfamiliar right-back position.

The results were not immediate and the Cherries struggled to adapt, with Stoke enjoying large spells of possession. However, the second half was one-way traffic as the hosts peppered Jack Butland’s goal.

King netted his fourth of the campaign after finding himself in space before Mousset, another substitute, scored for the first time in the Premier League since his move from his native France in the summer of 2016.

For Howe, the result was justification for his early tactical change and he deserves immense credit. Modest as always, he will deflect it to his players.

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Stoke City

Stoke 0-0 Watford: Three talking points from the Bet365

Martyn Cooke

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There were plenty of fresh faces in the dugout at the Bet365 Stadium on Wednesday evening as Stoke City and Watford played out an uninspiring goalless draw.

Paul Lambert was taking charge of his second game for the hosts, looking to build on the victory against Huddersfield Town ten days earlier, whilst Javi Gracia made his second managerial appearance for the visitors.

However, there was little for either manager to get too excited about during the ninety minutes with the game fizzling out to become a poor spectacle.

The point keeps Stoke and Watford clear of the relegation zone, for now, but both teams will need to improve in the coming weeks if they are to secure survival.

Here we look at three talking points from Stoke City versus Watford…

This relegation scrap isn’t going to be pretty

With Manchester City currently waltzing their way to the Premier League title the attention of football fans and the media has now been refocused on battle for survival.

The bottom half of the table is so tight that only five points separate Swansea City in 19th place from Bournemouth in 10th and almost a dozen clubs are nervously looking over their shoulders.

However, if this contest is anything to go by, it is clear that this relegation scrap is not going to be pretty.

The game was a dour spectacle with plenty of effort but a total lack of quality. At times it felt like you were watching a match in the park on a Sunday morning with neither side able to string together two passes or build any sort of momentum.

Clear goal scoring opportunities were few and far between and there was a absence of creativity, composure or innovation from both teams.
The Premier League likes to proclaim that it is the ‘best league in the world’, but there will be plenty more games like this in the battle for survival as clubs desperately scramble for points.

Lambert needs to find a balance between attack and defence

Under the management of Mark Hughes, Stoke City had the worst defensive record of any top-flight team in Europe and were conceding an average of two goals per game.

Paul Lambert has moved quickly to address these defensive frailties and be will be delighted that the team have kept two clean sheets in his first two games in charge of the Potters.

Under the Scotsman, Stoke are now more organised, harder to beat and have a new found resilience that bodes well for their battle for survival.

However, on Wednesday evening this defensive solidarity was undermined by a lack of quality in the final third.

Goals win games and Stoke simply were not able to create enough chances to secure the three points, much to the frustration of the home supporters. Barring Xherdan Shaqiri’s second half strike, Watford goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis had little to do.

Lambert should take the plaudits for finding an immediate solution to Stoke’s defensive issues but he needs to get the right balance between attack and defence if he is to successfully guide the club to safety.

A solid start for Javi Gracia

The managerial merry-go-round has been in full flow at Watford this month with Marco Silva dismissed and replaced by the little-known figure of Javi Gracia.

The 47-year-old was handed a trip to The Potteries for his second game in charge of The Hornets and he will have been relatively content with a draw to start his reign.

Gracia made only two notable changes to the team, recalling Troy Deeney to the starting line-up and handing Gerard Deulofeu his debut, whilst setting up his side to stifle the hosts.

In fact, the visitors were arguably the better team on the night but struggled to create clear cut goal scoring opportunities.

Watford have struggled to pick up points on their travels this season so a draw at the Bet365 Stadium, regardless of how dour the contest, is a good result.

Only time will tell whether Gracia is the right man to guide The Hornets to safety, but this was certainly a positive result and something that he can build on in the coming weeks.

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Stoke City

Three things learnt from Paul Lambert’s debut as Stoke City manager

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

There were plenty of raised eyebrows around the Premier League, especially throughout ‘The Potteries’, when Stoke City announced that Paul Lambert would be succeeding Mark Hughes at Bet365 Stadium.

The 48-year-old former Norwich, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss was certainly not at the top of the managerial wish list of many supporters and his recent achievements in the dugout would not have set many pulses racing, yet his reign got off to the best possible start on Saturday afternoon.

Goals from Joe Allen and Mame Biram Diouf secured a comfortable two-goal victory against Huddersfield Town in front of a raucous Bet365 Stadium, earning The Potters their first Premier League points since the respective reverse fixture during the Christmas period. The three points were enough to move Stoke out of the relegation zone and firmly established a feel-good factor around the club.

Here, The Boot Room highlight three things that we learnt from Paul Lambert’s first game in charge of Stoke City…

Back to basics

One of the factors that led to Mark Hughes’ departure was his persistence with playing a 3-4-3 system despite not having the personnel to suit the formation, exemplified by the fact that Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, was shoe-horned in as a right wing-back. The team was unbalanced, stranded in a system that simply did not work and  gradually had their confidence eroded.

However, Paul Lambert’s first meaningful action as Stoke City manager was to go back to basics.

The 48-year-old deployed a 4-1-4-1 formation and selected the players that best suited the system. Darren Fletcher was deployed as the holding midfield player, Diouf’s pace and mobility was utilised in a striking role and the creative duo of Xherdan Shaqiri and Eric Maxim Choup-Moting were given the freedom to drive forward from their wide positions.

The central midfield trio of Fletcher, Joe Allenn and Charlie Adam were industrious and solid whilst the central defensive pairing of Ryan Shawcross and Kurt Zouma formed an impenetrable wall. Stoke have the unenviable record of having conceded more goals than any other top-flight team in Europe and this was their first clean sheet since October.

There was nothing complex or complicated about Lambert’s tactical decisions, but there did not need to be. It was back to basics and it worked perfectly.

Drive, desire and work rate

During the final months of Mark Hughes’ reign the performances of the team were increasingly ineffective and lethargic. This was exemplified by Xherdan Shaqiri, who was recently jeered by the Stoke City supporters after he made a half-heart attempt to retrieve an over-hit through ball against Newcastle United.

What a difference a new manager can make.

Based on Saturday’s performance Paul Lambert has re-enthused and re-motivated the Stoke players and there was a clear increase in energy, dynamism and work rate in his first match in charge. This was emphasised by the post-game statistics with the Staffordshire Sentinel reporting the team made 13% more sprints against Huddersfield Town than in the previous Premier League fixture against Newcastle.

In contrast to Hughes’ approach, which often saw the team surrendering possession and sitting deep in their own half, Lambert has instilled a playing style that is reliant on pressurising opponents all over the pitch. The drive, desire and intensity of the players on Saturday prevented the visitors from finding any kind of rhythm and Mame Biram Diouf’s goal came from is team mates winning the ball in the oppositions half.

Just to further underline the change in approach, mid-way through the second half Shaqiri chased an opponent thirty yards across the pitch before winning possession with a slide tackle. It was the perfect metaphor for the change of approach and attitude instilled by Lambert.

A new sense of togetherness

Paul Lambert’s name would certainly not have been top of many Stoke City supporter’s managerial wish lists following the dismissal of Mark Hughes, yet it was clear on Saturday that The Potters fanbase were fully behind their new manager.

Within moments of the game kicking off a chant of ‘Paul Lambert’s red and white army’ echoed around the ground and that set the tone in the stands. Supporters rolled back the years to create a loud, intimidating and fearsome atmosphere inside the Bet365 Stadium that has been absent in recent months.

It was a direct reaction to Lambert’s high intensity tactical approach and it was clear from his demeanour on the touchline that this opportunity means a great deal to him. He probably did more running up and down the touchline than some of his players but the crowd undoubtedly fed off his obvious energy and passion in the dugout – it was a complete contrast to the emotionless figure that Hughes often cut.

After the final whistle Lambert directed his players to walk across to the Boothen End of the ground to applaud the supporters and earn some Brownie points. Suddenly a club that looked so fractured just two weeks ago looks united both on and off the pitch.

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