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Stoke City

What does Stoke’s victory against Watford mean for the future of Mark Hughes?

Martyn Cooke

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When the final whistle sounded at Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon there was an explosion of emotion from Mark Hughes, his players and those hardy Stoke City supporters who had made the trip down to Watford.

Make no mistake about it, Hughes has been under intense scrutiny throughout the last fortnight and there were genuine concerns that, after a poor start to the new campaign, The Potters were in danger of being sucked into a relegation battle.

The victory against Watford will have come as something of a surprise considering their form and recent performances under the guidance of Marco Silva and it helps to ease some of the pressure and tension that has been building in The Potteries.

This was a classic Stoke performance pulled straight out of the pages of a Tony Pulis coaching manual. It was neither pretty nor entertaining for any impartial observers but Hughes’ side demonstrated an impressive amount of grit, fight and an unwillingness to fold as they fought off what felt like wave after wave of Watford attacks in the second half.

It was a back-to-basics type of performance and the three points were claimed more as a result of the heart, work ethic and determination shown by the visiting players rather than any technical or tactical brilliance.

It was messy and scrappy (as exemplified by the two mid-match scuffles between the two sets of players) but the travelling supporters will have cared little. For Stoke, this was all about grinding out a result.

However, whilst the win may help to ease the immediate pressure on Mark Hughes, the Welshman’s long-term future is still shrouded in uncertainty.

Papering over the cracks?

Whilst victory on Saturday may have helped to ease Stoke City away from the relegation zone, for many supporters it will only be a temporary relief for Mark Hughes.

Prior to the weekend The Potters went into the contest against Watford perched on the periphery of the relegation zone and there is an argument, which is backed up by recent statistics, that the team have been regressing for the best part of eighteen months.

The long-term statistics do not make for positive reading.

Prior to the visit to Vicarage Road Stoke had conceded 20 goals in their opening nine Premier League fixtures and had suffered an early exit from the League Cup after being knocked out of the competition by what were effectively Bristol City’s reserve team.

However, the poor start to the season is no blip.

In 2017 The Potters have played 30 matches, winning eight games, and have scored just 28 times whilst conceding 48 goals. In addition to this, in their previous 66 Premier League contests the team have conceded three or more goal on 17 occasions – in short, Stoke supporters can expect to see their team suffer a heavy defeat in 25% of the games that they play.

Hughes has received criticism for his team selections, especially his insistence on using Mame Biram Diouf, a striker, at wingback, and his continual chopping and changing of personnel included in the starting eleven.

The summer saw The Potters rely heavily on bringing in free transfers (Darren Fletcher and Eric Choupo-Moting) and loan signings (Kurt Zouma and Jese Rodriguez) raising the question of whether the board still trust Hughes to spend big-money.

If they have doubts, you can hardly blame them.

Club-record signing Giannelli Imbula, who was frozen out of the team last season and sent out on loan to France in the summer, Saido Berahino, who was meant to solve the club’s goal scoring dilemma is yet to find the back of the net, and Kevin Wimmer, who was hauled off at half time against Manchester City and was left on the bench the following week, have cost the club the best part of £50 million.

In effect, none of Hughes’ last three big-money buys have had any significant impact on the team.

So, whilst victory against Watford may buy Hughes a moment of respite and ease the immediate pressure around the club, is it truly a turning point or just a case of papering over the cracks?

Mark Hughes buys himself a moment of respite

Mark Hughes certainly appears to retain the support of Stoke City owner Peter Coates and the remainder of the board whilst Darren Fletcher’s goal celebration on Saturday, racing half the length of the pitch with his team mates to enjoy the moment with his manager, suggests that the Welshman still has the backing of his players.

But you sense that, in the eyes of many Stoke supporters, Hughes is just one game away from being drawn over the coals once more.

One game certainly does not instantly dispel the issues of the previous eighteen months, nor does it suddenly turn the Welshman into a master tactician that is immune from criticism. It may, however, just buy him a little more time and space to start correcting some of the club’s prevailing problems.

The nature of the performance in the victory against Watford on Saturday, based on heart, grit and determination, should provide some comfort that there is still plenty of fight left in the club yet – something that was undoubtedly missing in the recent defeats against Manchester City and Bournemouth.

It provides Hughes with a foundation to build on in the coming weeks but, one thing is for sure, he still has plenty of work to do!

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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