For almost a decade, the truest test of a successful Premier League team has been an away trip into the heart of Stoke-on-Trent. “Can they do it on a cold night in Stoke?” is the question posed by supporters and pundits alike, and quite often the credentials of title challenging teams, trophy chasing managers, and world renowned players have been judged on how they have performed at Stoke City’s Bet365 stadium in front of a raucous home crowd.
However, on Saturday afternoon Tottenham Hotspur finally blew apart the mystic surrounding Stoke City’s supposed home fortress.
Spurs have visited North Staffordshire twice within five months and on both occasions, they have walked away from the Bet365 Stadium with resounding four-goal victories. On Saturday, they had won the game within sixty minutes against an abject, shell-shocked Stoke team that finished the match in front of a half-empty stadium.
Mauricio Pochettino will have travelled back to North London satisfied, but his emotions will certainly not have been echoed by Mark Hughes, who finished the weekend as one of the favourites to be the first Premier League manager sacked with his side rooted to the foot of the table.
Hughes has steadily been rebuilding his managerial reputation in The Potteries following his notorious spell in the hot-seat at Queens Park Rangers. The Welshman has secured three consecutive ninth-place finishes since arriving at Stoke and came within a penalty shoot-out of reaching the League Cup final last year.
However, they have picked up just one point out of their opening four Premier League fixtures and supporters, despite many pundits suggesting that they would be challenging for Europe this season, have been left looking nervously over their shoulders.
So what has gone wrong for The Potters so far this campaign?
Stoke have conceded in all four of their league fixtures so far, including suffering four-goal routs in both of their home fixtures against Manchester City (4-1) and Tottenham Hotspur (4-0). But, worryingly for supporters, The Potters have been poor defensively since the second half of last season and the statistics do not make for good reading for Mark Hughes.
Stoke have kept just one clean sheet in their last twenty Premier League matches, the last shut-out coming way back in March against a relegation doomed Newcastle United, and in five of their last ten games The Potters have conceded four goals.
The Potters have not been fairing much better at the other end of the pitch either. Despite having an assortment of attacking talent at his disposal, including the likes of Bojan, Arnautovic, Shaqiri, Imbula, Diouf, Crouch and Bony, Mark Hughes’ team have managed to score more than one goal in a game on just two occasions in fourteen fixtures.
Even more concerning is the fact that Stoke have failed to score from open play so far this season, with goals coming via a direct freekick and penalty, and have only managed to muster a meagre seven shots on target.
Stoke have undoubtedly been plagued with injuries over the duration of the last eighteen months. Mark Hughes is currently without England goalkeeper Jack Butland, Glen Johnson, Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Affelay, and Stephen Ireland whilst the previous year saw the club report over seventy separate injuries suffered by senior players.
Bojan Krkic has failed to rediscover his form following a severe knee injury whilst Ryan Shawcross has been carrying a deteriorating back problem for over a year.
It does raise the question as to what exactly Stoke are, or are not, doing behind the scenes when you compare their injury record to that of other prominent clubs in England, whilst Hughes will need to defend the strength and depth of his squad that he has assembled over the last three seasons.
On the other hand, The Potters may just be cursed – twenty-two minutes into his first game out on loan at Deportivo, striker Joselu suffered knee ligament damage which will see him sidelined for six months!
Mark Hughes has assembled a squad that is unbalanced and predominantly top-heavy with attack minded players. In their twenty-five man squad, Stoke have three centre forwards (Bony, Diouf and Crouch), four natural wide players (Shaqiri, Sobhi, Arnautovic and Walters), and an astonishing six offensive central midfielders (Bojan, Adam, Imbula, Allen, Affelay and Ireland).
Glenn Whelan is the only defensive midfielder on the books at the club and Hughes has been unable to find a reliable centre-half to partner captain Ryan Shawcross as the heart of The Potters’ defence. During the summer Stoke were desperate for defensive recruits but were only able to secure the services of Dutch defender Bruno Martins-Indi on loan.
Stars Players Under-Performing
Mark Hughes has broken Stoke City’s transfer record twice in the last eighteen months, splashing almost £30 million pounds on the signings of Xherdan Shaqiri and Giannelli Imbula. In addition to this, The Potters can also boast of having a squad which includes internationally renowned attacking talents such as Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic.
However, so far this season none of the aforementioned players have come to the fore during The Potters’ hour of need. Imbula has been ineffective so far this campaign and looks a long way from being a player worth £18 million pounds, whilst Shaqiri has been sidelined since the opening day with niggling muscular injuries.
Meanwhile, Arnautovic, the clubs top goal scorer last season, has failed to reproduce the electrifying form which saw him attract the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs over the summer, whilst Bojan has struggled to hold down a place since he recovered from a severe knee injury almost eighteen months ago. Hughes needs his star men to start firing, and sooner rather than later!
So there we have it. A team that is leaking goals, an attack that has failed to score from open play so far this season, and an unbalanced squad that is blighted by injuries and failing to perform. There is certainly plenty for Mark Hughes to ponder over the coming week and, whilst he may not quite be as close to the sack as some bookies would have you believe, the Welshman will certainly be under pressure to start picking up points.
The Potters have fixtures against Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Hull City and Sunderland coming up and, if all goes well, the poor start to the season will soon be forgotten. However, if Mark Hughes fails to halt his team’s current downward spiral then he may well be looking for a new job by the start of November.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Dan Westwell.