Stoke City’s two-goal defeat at relegation threatened Swansea on Saturday afternoon brutally exposed the team’s current issues as Mark Hughes continues to come under pressure from an increasing number of frustrated supporters.
Goals from Fernando Llorente and Tom Carroll earned The Swans a vital three points as they continue their fight to avoid the drop whilst Marko Arnautovic’s wild penalty miss simply heaped further agony on the travelling supporters who have had little to cheer since the turn of the year.
Remarkably, The Potters have now failed to score in any of their last six away contests in the Premier League and those fans that travelled to South Wales were certainly left unimpressed by a lethargic and error strewn performance by their side.
The manner of the display at the Liberty Stadium, in addition to the result, will do nothing to ease the mounting pressure on Hughes who has plenty of problems to solve and questions to answer despite leading Stoke to three consecutive top-half finishes for the first time in 80 years.
Lack of consistency
It has become an almost impossible task to predict what the Stoke City starting line-up might look like this season, prior to the team sheet being announced before any given game.
Mark Hughes has chopped and changed both the formation and playing personnel on such a regular basis, and to such an extent, that you almost have to question whether he is simply picking names out of a hat.
On Saturday he deployed a 4-4-2 formation (as opposed to the 3-4-3 system that he used in the previous week, or the 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 structures that he has used since the turn of the year) and dropped Marc Muniesa, arguably the team’s best performer against Hull City, to the bench.
Ramadam Sobhi, one of the few bright sparks in a relatively uneventful season, was also restricted to a role as a substitute, whilst Jack Butland, who looked like he was making his first appearance in over twelve months, was thrown in at the deep end and started in goal on foreign soil.
Throw into the mix the fact that Hughes did not make a substitution on Saturday until the 77th minute, with Stoke already two goals down, and it is easy to see why some supporters are frustrated.
The lack of consistency and continuous alternating of the formation and players can surely only be having an adverse effect on the performances of the team.
Lack of identity
Currently, you get a sense that Stoke City are very much limping along from one game to the next – everything around the recent performances suggests a hint of lethargy and lack of forward thinking. This leads me to question – what exactly is Mark Hughes’ long term-plan? What is his playing philosophy and what identity is he trying to impose on the club?
The lack of identity is there for all to see. Saturday’s performance, which was a replica of numerous games throughout the last twelve months, was characterised by slow, predictable possession in the defensive third with a handful of long, hopeful balls and crosses into the lofty figure of Peter Crouch.
Whilst Swansea clearly had a game plan, which involved playing out of the back, through the thirds and overloading wide areas, Stoke simply reverted to aimless possession, in nonthreatening areas, and direct play, when they were put under pressure.
In many respects, if Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri are not performing or are struggling to have an impact on the game then The Potters revert to route one football.
In truth, the frustrations of many supporters would be eased somewhat if there was a clear logic being applied by Mark Hughes in his decision-making. Unfortunately, the lack of direction and long-term plan is there for all to see.
Performance in the transfer market
It would take much longer than one article to provide a thorough critique of Mark Hughes’ performance in the transfer market but Saturday’s squad selection stood out, once again, due to the omission of two marquee signings.
Club-record signing Giannelli Imbula and on-loan striker Wilfried Bony were both absent from the match day squad to face Swansea City.
It is a self-imposed damming indictment of Mark Hughes’ transfer dealings that a player signed just over twelve months ago, for in excess of £18,000,000, and a high-profile forward, who the club are footing a significant bill for, have been cast aside so quickly.
Imbula, who arrived from Porto in January 2016, has made just two appearances for Stoke, both from the bench, since he was hauled off at half-time in the 2-0 FA Cup defeat at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers in early January.
Whilst the 24-year-old may have his defensive faults, he certainly has an abundance of talent that simply has not been utilised during his time in North Staffordshire and it is clear that Hughes does not have any faith in him.
Mistakes happen in the transfer market and not every signing will work, but to simply give up on your record signing within the space of a year does not reflect well on the manager.
The case of Wilfried Bony is slightly different. The Ivorian joined Stoke on a season-long loan from Manchester City in the summer in a move that was proclaimed as a master stroke both by supporters and pundits alike.
However, the striker has not made a single appearance since the turn of the year and his last game came as a late substitute at Anfield in late-December with The Potters already trailing 4-1.
Simply because Bony’s transfer was a loan deal should not deflect away from the failings of Mark Hughes to get the best out of a proven Premier League goal scorer, especially when you consider that Stoke are footing the vast majority of the forward’s £150,000 per week contract.
So that is a £18,000,000 club record signing and a high-profile loanee earning in excess of £100,000 per week that were not even selected to face Swansea. To rub salt into the wounds Bojan Krkic, who has been shipped out to Mainz on loan by Hughes, scored at the weekend against Bayern Munich to earn his current side a point.
Problems to solve
So there we have it. Another away game. Another defeat. Another goalless display.
From an external perspective everything might be looking rosey in the Stoke City garden – Mark Hughes has secured three consecutive top ten finishes and the club is set to finish in the mediocrity of mid-table this time around – but the patience of supporters is starting to wear increasingly thin.
Many of the problems that the team currently face are very much of the manager’s own making and it remains to be seen whether Chairman Peter Coates believes that the Welshman is the right man to provide the solutions.
One thing is for sure, though, those Stoke City supporters who have followed the club across the country and have failed to see their side score in six consecutive away contests deserve much better.
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