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.