Defensive fragility undermining Stoke City's season and Mark Hughes' job prospects
On a cold, damp, weary night in Sussex, Stoke City supporters will have trudged out of the Amex Stadium with mixed feelings having seen their side produce a varied performance against Brighton and Hove Albion.
The Potters had led twice through goals from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Kurt Zouma but ended the game clinging on to a 2-2 draw after the home side had firmly taken control of the second half.
First Pascal Gross and then Jose Izquierdo levelled the deficit and the hosts were undoubtedly the team playing on the front during the second period to such an extent that Stoke appeared content to run down the clock in the closing moments rather than go in search of a winner.
On one hand, any point picked up on the road in the top-flight is undoubtedly a point gained, especially in a league where the group of clubs outside the so-called ‘big six’ are becoming ever-more competitive and closely aligned.
However, the manner of Stoke’s defensive display, which saw them concede their hard fought lead on two separate occasions through, quite simply, poor defending, will have left supporters feeling that this was two points dropped against a newly promoted team.
There is still an underlying feeling of frustration around the Potteries regarding the progress, or lack of, during the previous eighteen months of Mark Hughes’ reign.
The Welshman may have led Stoke to three consecutive top-ten finishes in the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history during his debut trio of campaigns but a bottom-half finish last year and a slow start to the new season has left many feeling that the Potters are in decline.
The fundamental issue for Hughes is the fact that his team are extremely fragile defensively. The Potters have the second-worst defensive record in the Premier League this season and are conceding goals at an alarming rate, letting in an average of two goals per game.
However, these defensive frailties are nothing new and over the previous eighteen months Stoke average a three-goal, or more, defeat every four games.
It is clear that Mark Hughes is fully aware of his team’s defensive frailties and the Welshman spent much of the summer attempting to solve Stoke’s horrendous defensive record.
The return of Jack Butland from a long-term injury in the final months of last season was seen as a timely boost and, despite his replacement, Lee Grant, being voted as the club’s Player of the Season, there is little doubt that the England international is one of the best young goalkeepers in the Premier League.
The 24-year-old has been in fine form since breaking into the starting eleven two years ago and his saves, as the cliché goes, are probably worth an extra four or five points a season to the Potters.
In the close season Hughes then went on a spending spree in order to patch up his back line with Kevin Wimmer, Bruno Martins Indi and Kurt Zouma all arriving prior to the start of the new campaign.
The trio of new arrivals, partnered with the existing presence of Ryan Shawcross, arguably provides the Potters with the strongest cohort of central defenders that they have ever had.
Hughes has also deployed a new-look 3-4-3 formation this season and, on paper at least, a defensive unit of Butland, Zouma, Shawcross and Wimmer protected by the holding midfield pair of Joe Allen and Darren Fletcher appears almost impenetrable.
However, despite playing with what is effectively a back five defensively with two holding midfielders Stoke have looked no more secure defensively so far this campaign than they did last year.
There are two main problems.
First, whilst the goalkeeper, back three and central midfield pair appear pretty solid, Hughes has completely overlooked the two key positions that require specialised personnel to make the 3-4-3 system work – wing-backs.
Eric Pieters is currently deployed as the left-wingback and he is fundamentally a defensive-minded full-back that provides absolutely no attacking threat going forward whilst Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, has been shoe-horned in at right wing-back.
Stoke have continued to conceded goals from wide positons simply because Hughes continues to force square pegs into round holes in the critical two positions required to make the formation work.
Secondly, due to the new system, the Potters appear completely incapable of retaining the ball for prolonged periods of time. In every contest so far this season they have had less possession than their opponents and this simply invites opponents to pile on the pressure.
Diouf and Pieters spend much of their time playing in an apparent back-five which leaves the front three isolated, further reducing the team’s ability to retain the ball.
A change in formation? or new recruits?
So what is the solution?
The problem for Mark Hughes is that the defensive fragility of his Stoke City team means that, on average, they need to score at least two goals in a match simply to grab a point. The defensive inefficiencies of the Potters are simply not sustainable and the Welshman needs to find some solutions, and quickly.
One option may be to revert back to the 4-3-3 type formation that Hughes has preferred for much of his time in the Potteries, although that will mean dropping one of his new big-name central defenders.
It will leave Stoke with fewer defensive bodies but with a greater control in the middle third of the pitch that may reduce the amount of pressure on the defensive unit.
If Hughes does decide to stick with the 3-4-3 system then it is vital that he purchases two wing-backs in the January transfer window. Players that are equally adept at attacking and defending are hard to find so it may be there he has to convince Peter Coates to hand him a substantial transfer budget to play with.
Andrew Robertson, who has struggled to break into Liverpool’s starting eleven this season, would be a perfect example, although whether he wants to depart Anfield after only joining in the summer is another question.
What is clear is that Stoke cannot continue defending in the fashion that they are currently exhibiting. If they continue to leak goals at the current alarming rate then the club will be looking nervously over their shoulder towards relegation rather than at a place in the top half of the table.