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Stoke City

Mark Hughes’ Stoke City failings brutally exposed by relegation threatened Swansea

Martyn Cooke

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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.

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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.

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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.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved Lana2021 (Lana2021

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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