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Stoke City

Why the loss of Bojan could break Stoke’s season

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It isn’t every day that a former Barcelona star signs for Stoke City. So when Bojan Krkic joined the Potters this summer, the footballing world went into a state of shock. Could he do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke?

At the time, it seemed like the ultimate coup for Mark Hughes’ new look Stoke. This is a player who broke Lionel Messi’s record to become the youngest ever first-team debutant at Barca. There was so much hype surrounding Bojan at the Camp Nou; the next starlet from La Masia who was also expected to dominate the international stage.

Bojan went on to make over 160 appearances for Barca before he moved to pastures new in 2011, joining Serie A side Roma. It was here when Bojan’s promising career began to slide.

He failed to make a mark at Roma, and loan spells at AC Milan and Ajax saw a poultry return of seven goals from over 40 games. Bojan was in danger of falling into the footballing abyss, until Stoke snapped him up for a tiny fee of £1.3m last summer.

Initially, he struggled to take the Britannia Stadium by storm. It wasn’t until November that he became a regular starter, and from there Bojan never looked back. 4 goals and 1 assist followed in the next 9 games, and for the first time since his Barcalona days, Bojan looked like he was enjoying his football again.

Playing as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system, Bojan is given plenty of freedom by Hughes to express himself on the pitch. He epitomises this new Stoke side we are seeing in the Premier League; after years of being berated for their physical and aggressive playing style, Stoke now play some of the best football in the division.

Hughes has got his side playing the ball out from the back, and looking to start attacks through short, sharp and intricate passing, quite the contrary to how Stoke played under Tony Pulis not too long ago.

But on Monday night in the FA Cup away at Rochdale, Stoke suffered huge blow. After putting the Potters ahead with a stunning left foot volley, Bojan was substituted before half-time and scans later revealed he had sustained a knee ligament injury and would miss the rest of the season.

Hughes has stated how gutted he is about the news, and you can see why. With 5 goals from his last 10 games in all competitions, Bojan was bang in form and offered Stoke so much in attack. The Potters had moved up to 10th place in the league table, only 7 points behind Arsenal in 6th. Some sections of the media were even backing the Linyola-born star to add to his single Spanish cap sooner rather than later.

What will be interesting now is how Stoke bounce back from this. They are still a talented side who, with Bojan, would have been challenging for a place in the Europa League come May. That doesn’t mean they still can’t achieve this, it just seems a much harder task now.

There is no doubt that Bojan has resurrected his career in Staffordshire, and what’s important for him now is to come back and start next season with a bang.

It’s easy to forget that Bojan is still only 24 years of age, so time is on his side. He has categorically answered the question of whether he can do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke. However, it was a cold Monday night in Rochdale that proved costly for the Catalonian wizard.

Stoke City

Three things Paul Lambert must address to ensure Stoke City’s survival

Martyn Cooke

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Paul Lambert
Photo: Reuters

Stoke City have announced that Paul Lambert has been appointed as the club’s new manager after signing a two-and-a-half-year contract with the Premier League strugglers.

The 48-year-old succeeds Mark Hughes, who was dismissed after The Potters were knocked out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier side Coventry City earlier this month, and must now shoulder the responsibility of guiding the club away from the relegation zone.

Stoke are currently eighteenth in the Premier League table and are facing up to the realistic possibility of dropping out of the top flight for the first time in almost a decade.

Lambert’s appointment has brought an end to Stoke’s prolonged search for a new manager that has reportedly seen the position turned down by a number of high profile candidates.

The club hierarchy were initially keen on securing Gary Rowett, prior to him agreeing new contract with Derby County, and have also been snubbed by Espanyol manager Quique Sanchez Flores and Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill.

Essentially Stoke have had to be content with securing their fourth-choice managerial candidate and there is a considerable amount of uncertainty and frustration among supporters that the club were unable to attract a more prestigious figure.

However, with time running short prior to the transfer window closing at the end of the month The Potters have elected to hand the job to Lambert, who has been out of work since leaving Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer.

The former Scotland international faces an uphill task to convince Stoke supporters that he is the right figure to rally behind and must now take on the challenge of saving the club from the drop.

Here The Boot Room looks at three things that Lambert needs to do in order to retain Stoke’s Premier League status.

Organise the defence

Mark Hughes’ position as manager was made untenable by his inability to organise an effective defensive unit.

The Potters currently have the worst defensive record in any of Europe’s top-flight divisions and have conceded 47 goals in 22 league games so far this season – that is an average of over two a game.

Furthermore, the last eighteen months of Hughes’ reign was characterised by heavy defeats, especially against the so-called ‘top teams’, on a regular basis. Stoke have already been hammered at the hands of Tottenham (5-1), Chelsea (4-0 and 5-0) and Manchester City to name just a few.

So Paul Lambert’s immediate concern is to plug the leaky sieve that is Stoke’s defence.

The 48-year-old needs to get back to basics by making The Potters organised, fitter and harder to beat. That might mean taking a more conservative or pragmatic approach and that may result in having to side-line some of the club’s more enigmatic and creative players in order to create a team that is more defensively solid and robust.

If Lambert can close the floodgates and stop Stoke leaking goals then he will have already have solved the team’s most prominent issue.

Find a system that suits the players available

Stoke City’s issues this campaign can be largely attributed to the formations and systems deployed by Mark Hughes that simply did not suit the players that he had available. This is exemplified by the Welshman’s decision to play 3-4-3 despite having no natural wing-backs – eventually being forced to shoe-horn Mame Biram Diouf, a forward by trade, into a right-wing back role.

The current squad is not short of talent, but rather it has been widely misused in the past eighteen months, and it is now Paul Lambert’s responsibility to find a way of maximising the potential of players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Ramadam Sobhi, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and, maybe even, Saido Berahino.

The most obvious solution would be to revert to a back-four, yet it is what the 48-year-old does with the midfield and attacking units that will define his career at the club.

He has plenty of questions to answer: does he use Shaqiri as a winger or a number 10? Does he play with a lone striker? Does he play with a front two? What system will get the most out of Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen in the central of midfield? Which wingers does he place his faith in?

At this stage, Stoke supporters will be willing to buy into whatever decisions that Lambert makes as long as they are logical and appear to be part of a clear, definitive game plan. As long as they do not have to see a striker being forced to play as a right-back they will back into their new manager’s decisions

Get supporters onside

There is no secret that Paul Lambert was far from being top of the managerial wish-list for Stoke City supporters and it is no surprise that the fanbase has been left feeling underwhelmed by his appointment.

However, the club’s failure to secure a more high-profile appointment now leaves The Potters with little option other than to rally behind what was effectively the hierarchy’s fourth choice option to succeed Mark Hughes.

Lambert faces a difficult challenge to steer the club away from the relegation zone and he needs to get the supporters onside as soon as possible.

The Bet365 Stadium was once renowned for its loud, raucous and passionate atmosphere after Stoke first achieved promotion in 2008. The crowd often had a key influence on matches and a trip to The Potteries was something that opposition players feared.

However, that atmosphere has dissipated in recent seasons following the club’s steady decline under Hughes and if Lambert can give supporters cause to rally around him then they can play a crucial role in the relegation battle as the metaphorical ‘twelfth man’.

The only way that Lambert can do this is by inspiring some fight, drive and determination on the pitch, which is something that has been sorely lacking in recent months.

The supporters will give the manager and the team their full support if they see their side putting everything into the cause that they can – it is now down to Lambert to show that he can stimulate a dramatic improvement in performances.

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Stoke City

Stoke City appoint Paul Lambert – A supporter’s point of view

Martyn Cooke

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Paul Lambert
Photo: Reuters

There are reportedly five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

You can bet that Stoke City supporters have experienced all five of those emotions in the last week as the club’s search for a new manager resulted in the surprise appointment of Paul Lambert.

It was announced on Monday afternoon that the 48-year-old would be Mark Hughes’ successor, ten days after the Welshman’s four-and-a-half year reign in the Potteries came to an end. However, it was a move that came out of the blue and has left the club’s fanbase shell-shocked.

The decision to dismiss Hughes was undoubtedly the correct one. After three consecutive top-ten finishes in the Premier League the team had been in terminal decline for the following eighteen months and the resounding defeat against Coventry City in the FA Cup was the final nail in the coffin. Hughes’ departure briefly re-enthused the supporters who were excited to see a new figure take the reins who would hopefully provide some fresh impetus and a new direction.

And that is where things began to go wrong.

The Stoke hierarchy first sounded out Gary Rowett, who swiftly ran a metaphorical mile and immediately signed a new contract with Derby County. Quique Sanchez Flores was next on the list and the Espanyol manager reportedly agreed to relocate to the Potteries – that was until he slept, released that he was leaving Barcelona for the Midlands and pulled a hand-break U-turn.

Thing were not quite going to plan, but at least the club could turn to the experienced, old head of Martin O’Neill, who surely would fancy one last crack at a top-flight job? In fact, the Republic of Ireland boss said no as well!

Which brings us to Paul Lambert.

The 48-year-old was effectively fourth-choice on Stoke’s managerial wish list and had been out of work since departing Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer.

To say that his managerial resume is somewhat underwhelming would be a significant understatement and the biggest question was how he was so far up the list of candidates for a Premier League managerial position in the first place.

So what was the reaction of Stoke City supporters? Grief. All five stages of grief.

First comes denial:

“Until the club release an official statement I will not believe it!”

Then anger, whilst channelling our inner John McEnroe:

“Look at this club statement – YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!”

Then bargaining:

“Come back Mark Hughes, all is forgiven!”

Then depression:

“We are doomed! Someone find me the map to Burton Albion – we are going to need it …”

And finally acceptance.

The truth is that for the first time in almost a decade Stoke’s position as a Premier League club is under realistic threat and although the appointment of Lambert is unlikely to have left many supporters enthused or excited now is the time for unity.

Everyone involved with the club needs to baton down the hatches, circle the wagons and pull up the drawbridge – there needs to be a togetherness that transcends who occupies the managerial hot seat.

Whilst Lambert may not have been everyone’s first choice – he may not have been anyone’s choice actually – there is a general acceptance among supporters that we need to give him and the players our full backing support. There are fifteen games remaining to save the season and there is still a favourable chance that the the Potters can play, scrap or crawl their way out of trouble.

Stoke now face a run of five fixtures that will shape the very future of the club. There are home matches against Huddersfield Town, Watford and Brighton and Hove Albion as well as trips to Bournemouth and Leicester. Lambert has little choice but to hit the ground running and to start picking up points immediately.

However, the supporters may have the most crucial role to play in the forthcoming weeks and months. At one time the Bet365 Stadium was one of the most intimidating venues for top-flight teams to ply their trade. The crowd were raucous, passionate and tribal – those same qualities, which have recently disappeared in a haze of complacency, need to rediscovered by those in the stands.

I fully share the frustrations of supporters and many of their qualms and concerns have merit. Was Mark Hughes given too much time before receiving his P45? Has the board invested enough money in the transfer market? Who is to blame for the current predicament? These are all questions that will need to be answered, but at the end of the season rather than now.

Right now, Stoke supporters are onto that final stage of grief – acceptance. It is time to accept our new manager, pull together and provide Paul Lambert with all of the support that we can muster.

You can be certain that he will need all of the help that he can get.

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Manchester United

Manchester United 3-0 Stoke City: Three talking points from Old Trafford

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Manchester United
Photo: Reuters

Newly-announced Stoke City manager Paul Lambert watched on from the stands as two stunning first-half strikes helped Manchester United condemn the Potters to defeat at Old Trafford on Monday night.

The former Norwich and Aston Villa manager was named as Mark Hughes’ successor in charge after his sacking following the Potters’ FA Cup defeat to League Two Coventry City last weekend and he was at Old Trafford to see his new team in action for the first time ahead of taking over officially on Tuesday.

But it wasn’t to be a winning start for Lambert, who watched his side go behind early on when the returning Antonio Valencia fired a thunderous left-foot strike high into the net to put United ahead.

The visitors had chances to get themselves back into the game, with Stephen Ireland – making his first Premier League start since April 2015 – twice spurning clear-cut chances from inside the penalty box.

Stoke’s wastefulness came back to haunt them when Anthony Martial doubled the hosts’ lead before the break in fine fashion, meeting Paul Pogba’s pass with a first-time finish high into the net.

David de Gea was forced into a fine reaction right save on the brink of half-time to push Xherdan Shaqiri’s effort away and keep United’s two-goal lead in tact and from that point on United completely turned the screw and dominated, with Romelu Lukaku’s shot saved at the front post.

The Belgian got his rewards shortly after though when he held the ball up and fired low past Jack Butland, before Marcus Rashford came close to a fourth when his deft heel-flick was held.

The hosts then comfortably saw out the remainder of the game to close the gap on leaders Manchester City to 12 points, whilst Stoke City remain a point adrift of safety down in 18th.

Lambert watches on as Stoke fall to defeat

There are no illusions that this job will be easy.

Paul Lambert – arguably Stoke’s third or fourth choice of manager in their pursuit of a replacement for Mark Hughes over the past week – was well and truly thrown in at the deep end on Monday evening as he travelled to Manchester with the Potters to see his new side in action for the first time as manager.

Earlier in the day Lambert’s arrival on a two-and-a-half-year deal was announced to a somewhat muted reception from Stoke fans, with his managerial CV not one containing too much Premier League pedigree other than respective spells at Norwich City and Aston Villa.

It may not be the most eye-catching move from Stoke’s board of directors but the same has been said this season about David Moyes and Roy Hodgson – and those two have started in fine fashion and completely turned the tides for their respective sides.

The sole objective for Lambert will be to haul Stoke away from any relegation trouble, and he’ll know the magnitude of the job at hand with the Potters sitting in the relegation zone in 18th place.

In truth, there’s not a lot he would have learnt in defeat to Manchester United.

It was never the sort of game that Stoke were expected to get anything from considering their current predicament and neither will it be the sort of game that will help them avoid relegation.

Instead, it’s the upcoming run of games against Huddersfield, Watford, Bournemouth, Brighton and rivals at the bottom Southampton – all of which take place in the next six league games – that may well define Stoke’s season and Lambert’ll know the job really begins when 15:00 comes on Saturday.

Potters defence in need of tightening up

That said, he’ll be fully aware that it’s the defence that’s in dire need of tightening up.

In conceding another three goals on Monday night Stoke have the unwanted title of having the Premier League’s worst defence – and by a long margin – after conceding 50 goals in 23 matches.

It may have been two fine strikes in the first-half that got United up and running but the defending leading up to the goals was questionable at best. For the first, Antonio Valencia was allowed the time to shift the ball onto his left-foot before putting an unstoppable effort into the top corner, whilst for the second nobody in a Stoke jersey tracked the run of Anthony Martial to the edge of the area before he fired home.

And after the break they were fortunate to keep it to just three – largely indebted to Butland for making some smart stops – as Pogba, Lukaku and Martial found regular space far too easily.

Their attacking play showed signs of positives during the first-half in a much-changed side under caretaker boss Eddie Niedzwiecki, and they arguably should have scored at least one before half-time had both Stephen Ireland and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting found the back of the net.

There are more than enough attacking options in the squad, who have enough proven prowess in front of goal, to avoid the drop this year, but they need help from their worryingly leaky back-line before things start to get truly ugly for the Potters.

Mkhitaryan left out as Sanchez waits in the wings

What a roller-coaster week it’s been for Manchester United.

For a side that rarely does its business in the mid-season transfer window shockwaves were sent through the Premier League when their interest in Arsenal’s talisman Alexis Sanchez was first reported by Sky Sports Italia, and it seems increasingly likely that they’ve hijacked Manchester City’s proposed move for the Chilean.

In fact, as Monday’s match was going on against the Potters fresh reports suggested that Pep Guardiola is out of the race for Sanchez – leaving the door wide open for an Old Trafford switch.

And, despite comfortably winning on the night, it was clear to see where he will slot in.

Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were the designated wide outlets for Monday’s clash but neither pride themselves on being out-and-out wingers, and at times United were crying out for an attacking player that can hug the touchline and deliver consistent balls into the box.

At times Romelu Lukaku went out onto the right-wing himself to try and get in the game such was United’s lack of crosses into the area, and as a striker he shouldn’t be the one forced into delivering.

Ultimately it mattered little as a result of two top-class individual strikes but, going forward, the looming arrival of Sanchez could not only add quality on the flanks but improve Lukaku’s play too and enable him to rekindle the sort of prolific form he showed at Everton last season.

But whilst one player looks to be moving ever closer to arriving, one looks equally close to an imminent exit as Henrikh Mkhitaryan was once again left out of Jose Mourinho’s matchday squad.

The Armenian’s fall from grace has been well-documented this season – despite starting the year firing – and reports claiming that he could be included as part of the deal to bring Sanchez to Manchester will only gain traction after comments made by the United manager prior to kick-off.

Asked about Mkhitaryan’s omission on Monday, he told Sky Sports:

“I would lie if I said it was just a tactical decision. Just a choice of the players that we know in this moment they have 100% their heads in Manchester United and no doubts about the future.”

Should Sanchez indeed arrive before the end of the month then there’s a very high probability that Mkhitaryan won’t be a United player come February, and he’ll be hoping that his next career move will help re-ignite the form that attracted Mourinho in the first place back in 2016.

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