If I were to ask you to make a list of Premier League managers whose jobs were under pressure what names would you put forward?
Arsene Wenger? The very public debate over the Frenchman’s future at Arsenal would mean that he would top most people’s list. David Moyes? The beleaguered Sunderland boss has not aided his job prospects after becoming embroiled in an off-field sexism scandal, not to mention the fact that his side are rooted to the foot of the table with little chance of survival.
What about Mark Hughes?
That suggestion may have those of you who reside outside North Staffordshire or not have a direct connection with the club scratching your head somewhat, but the Welshman is coming under an increasing amount of pressure at the Bet365 Stadium. Two lacklustre defeats in the space four days against Leicester City at the weekend and Burnley on Tuesday evening, in which The Potters mustered a total of just three shots on goal across both contests, saw the team booed off at Turf Moor by the travelling supporters with some calling for Hughes to be ousted.
All rosy in the Stoke City garden?
For those non-Stoke City supporters out there the garden in the Bet365 Stadium may look quite rosy. The Potters are currently situated in the relative safety of mid-table, a position that supporters have become accustomed to in recent seasons, and it would take a disastrous collapse of results in the final seven games for the club to be sucked into the relegation battle. Throw into the mix the fact that Mark Hughes has guided Stoke to three ninth-place finishes in his previous three seasons with the club, a feat that The Potters have not achieved for almost 80 years, and the calls for the Welshman’s head would appear completely bizarre to the uninitiated.
I think that it is important to point out that the Stoke supporters are not quite in open revolt, at least not compared to the scenario developing at the Emirates Stadium, but there is a growing section of the club’s fan base that has become increasingly frustrated with the direction and performances of the team. It is certainly not a majority of fans that are calling the change, but neither is it a minority either – and the numbers are increasing.
What is causing supporters to be frustrated?
So, what has Mark Hughes done that has got Stoke City supporters so upset?
Firstly, the team appears to have lost all sense of direction and purpose – there simply seems to be no long-term plan or vision and there is a lack of identity. Hughes has continuously chopped and changed the formation and playing personnel throughout the season, with his team selections and substitutions becoming increasingly hard to explain. The Potters have been deployed in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 formations so far this campaign in what simply comes across as a scattergun approach that has little thought behind it. On Tuesday Stoke played a 3-5-2 system that saw a striker, Mame Biram Diouf, shoe-horned into being a wing-back and the club’s most effective recent performer, Ramadam Sobhi, dropped to the bench. Needless to say, it did not work and the team suffered a third consecutive defeat in the league.
Secondly, the style and quality of football on show has declined remarkably. It was only eighteen months ago that Stoke were being branded as Stoke-a-lona by the media for the swift, stylish, possession-based football that the team were producing, with the attacking trident of Bojan Krkic, Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri causing Premier League defences all sorts of problems. However, now The Potters have very much reverted back to a direct get-it-and-lump it approach which is even more extraordinary considering it is the diminutive figure of Saido Berahino that these long balls are directed at. The current ‘Plan B’ when this approach fails is simply to send on the towering figure of Peter Crouch and go even more direct.
Thirdly, Hughes has bizarrely started to dismantle the Stoke-a-lona side that he built with his treatment of a number of key players leaving supporters scratching their heads. Club record signing Giannelli Imbula, who arrive just over one year ago for £18,000,000 has been completely frozen out of the first-team picture whilst Bojan Krkic is currently on loan at Bundesliga side Mainz 05 after becoming frustrated with a lack of game time despite being handed a new five-year contract extension. Wilfried Bony, who is currently at the Bet365 Stadium on a season-long loan from Manchester City, has similarly been frozen out of the match day squad leaving supporters wondering how much money the club is spending on the wages of players that are failing to even make the bench. Finally, question marks have been raised over the future of Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri after the winger has missed The Potters last nine games due to calf issues, but was fit enough to play for Switzerland during the international break.
Finally, supporters are rightly questioning Hughes transfer policy. In addition to the omission from the first team of Imbula, Shaqiri and Bojan, new signing Saido Berahino has been completely ineffective whilst Phillipp Wollshcheid and Joselu have been forced out on season- long loans. That is easily in excess of £50,000,000 worth of transfer fees spent on players that are either being frozen out of the first-team, are playing on loan at a different club, or, in Berahino’s case, simply failing to live up to their billing.
So, what now?
So what now for Stoke City and Mark Hughes?
From a personal perspective, I still feel relatively uncomfortable with supporters calling for a manager who has guided the club to three consecutive top-half finishes for the first time in 80 years to be sacked. Having said that I completely understand the current frustrations amongst an increasing section of the fan base and, as stated earlier, those criticising the manager certainly have plenty of ammunition to use. However, if I was sacked from my job for having one poor year after three consecutive years of progress and exceeding the targets that I had been set, then I would be well within my right to be unhappy. You would imagine that Mark Hughes would have a similar perception of the current scenario from his perspective.
The final decision will come down to Stoke City chairman Peter Coates, who demonstrated with his dismissal of Tony Pulis nearly four years ago, that he has little patience for stagnation or regression. The 79-year-old has gone on record this season to say that the current set of players are the best group that the club have managed to assemble in his lifetime, which would suggest that finishing in the bottom half of the table would not greatly appeal to a man who has invested much of his personal fortune into The Potters.
Mark Hughes now has seven games to convince the supporters, and the chairman, that he is the right man to lead the club next season. However, a defeat at home to Hull City on Saturday could leave The Potters just six points clear of the relegation zone – and then the pressure would really be piled onto the Welshman.
Feature Image: All Rights Reserved Alex Hannam (Alex Hannam)