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Stoke City

Defensive fragility undermining Stoke City’s season and Mark Hughes’ job prospects

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke City

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.

Defensive fragility

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.

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.

Aston Villa

Should Paul Lambert consider a Gabriel Agbonlahor reunion at Stoke City?

The Stoke City boss got the best out of Agbonlahor at times during his spell at Aston Villa.

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Reports in the press this week are suggesting that Aston Villa forward Gabriel Agbonlahor may decide to retire from the sport this summer. The Sun is suggesting the striker may decide to hang up his boots this summer should he not receive an offer he deems appropriate.

The former England international is out of contract in the summer and his club has little or no interest in keeping him at Villa Park. After coming through the ranks at the club, Agbonlahor will bring an end to his 17-year association with Aston Villa.

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The striker has struggled with his fitness in recent years and his form has also dropped dramatically but, at just 31-years-old, it would be a strange move to quit altogether.

What Agbonlahor needs is to work with a former boss of his who got some of the best out of him. Paul Lambert had such an impact at Aston Villa. Agbonlahor pushed for an England recall in 2013 under the guidance of the Scottish manager. Lambert had him leaner and smarter in attack and generally, it was a good working relationship.

So could Lambert hand him a life-line?

Lambert looks like he will be managing in the Championship next season. The Stoke City boss saw his side draw 1-1 with Burnley today. The gap between the Potters and survival is getting no smaller.

In order to return to the top-flight Stoke will need some new recruits and Agbonlahor could be perfect.

(Photo credit should read GRAHAM STUART/AFP/Getty Images)

Whilst not the player he was five years ago, the experienced attacker has played just six times this season, scoring one goal, this is still a player who was a Premier League star under Lambert’s rule just five years ago.

Of course, he won’t be outpacing many players these days. But his experience and nous could be a vital addition to Stoke’s cause if they are fighting to return to the Premier League next season.

If Lambert can get Agbonlahor anywhere near his best, then the Potters would be on to a winner.

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Stoke City

Stoke City are facing a relegation scenario entirely of their own making

It has been a miserable season for Stoke City fans.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

Stoke City may have started the season celebrating the start of their tenth successive campaign in the top flight of English football but defeat against Everton now leaves the club facing the increasingly likely prospect of relegation.

The Potters are short of quality, form and confidence whilst they are quickly running out of time to save themselves with a miraculous turn of fortune and form required in the closing months of the season if they are to pull off a ‘great escape’ of their own.

The contest against Everton was the latest in a long line of ‘must win’ games in which Stoke have, quite simply, failed to win.

Paul Lambert has now won just one of his eight matches in charge since being appointed as Mark Hughes successor despite being handed a favourable run of fixtures that included games against Huddersfield Town, Brighton, Southampton, Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester City and Everton.

(Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)

Results are unlikely to improve in the near future, with Stoke facing Arsenal and Tottenham in their next two games.

Lambert has certainly not been helped by the catastrophic decisive errors that his players have been making on the pitch.

Against Everton, Charlie Adam was sent off in the first half for a rash, reckless and needless sliding challenge on Wayne Rooney with Stoke having been the better team in the opening stages of the contest.

Adam has already been the pantomime villain this season, missing a last-minute penalty against Brighton that would have guaranteed victory, whilst Jack Butland, quite literally, threw the three points away against Leicester when he fumbled a cross into his own goal.

To say that Stoke have not helped themselves would be an understatement – in reality, they have shot themselves in both feet multiple times, repeatably.

You could argue that relegation will not come as a major surprise. A ten-year stint in the Premier League is a significant achievement for a club of Stoke’s stature and size whilst the fans have certainly had plenty to celebrate, including an FA Cup Final appearance and Europe League tour.

Perhaps the club’s shelf life has simply expired and it is naturally Stoke’s turn to drop into the second tier as part of English football’s Lion King-esque ‘Circle of Life’.

However, the reality is that Stoke’s current predicament is entirely of their own making and there are plenty of villains to choose from.

Mark Hughes will rightly receive the brunt of the blame.

The Welshman led The Potters to three consecutive top-ten finished for the first time in over a century, but the final eighteen months of his reign were characterised by bizarre tactics and a deterioration of results.

This was exemplified by Hughes’ insistence on playing a 3-4-3 formation this season despite not having the personnel that suited the system, with Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, forced to operate as a wing back.

However, the club hierarchy must also take a large portion of the blame.

Despite the majority of Stoke supporters recognising that the team were spiralling towards the relegation zone, chairman Peter Coates appeared oblivious to any danger.

In December, he told the Staffordshire Sentinel that he “did not understand what all of the fuss was about”, demonstrating either an outstanding level of complacency or that the club hierarchy were completely out of touch with reality.

Furthermore, Coates was extremely slow to dismiss Hughes despite deteriorating results. Prior to Christmas, he suggested that the manager’s future would be determined by games against Burnley and West Ham.

Stoke lost both contests, yet it took a further month and an embarrassing defeat in the FA Cup against fourth-tier Coventry City before the Welshman eventually received his P45.

Coates’ loyalty to his manager was admirable but the consensus is that he acted far too late.

Stoke’s attempts to appoint a new manager were equally as indecisive and chaotic, with the club hierarchy publicly stumbling from one rebuttal to another.

(Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)

Gary Rowett and Martin O’Neill both turned the job down whilst Quique Sánchez Flores said yes initially, only to conduct a dramatic U-turn 24 hours later by deciding to remain with Espanyol.

The eventual solution was to appoint Paul Lambert, who had reportedly been turned down for the Hull City job earlier in the season.

It may seem harsh to criticise Lambert, but the Scotsman has simply proven that he is not a Premier League manager. True, he did walk into a crisis zone, but it is noticeable that he has failed to stimulate an upturn in results.

Defeat against Arsenal at the weekend would mean that Lambert will have picked up fewer points than his predecessor against the same teams this season whilst failure to beat Tottenham could leave the Scotsman with just one win from his ten games in charge.

Underpinning Stoke’s problems on the pitch has been, what can only be described as, a shambolic transfer policy off it.

This is exemplified by Saido Berahino, who was signed for £12 million and has failed to score in over a year, Kevin Wimmer, signed for £18 million and now training with the reserves, and club record-signing Giannelli Imbula, who is in exile in France on loan with Toulouse.

That is almost £50 million worth of talent that has been poorly invested in the previous two years.

The future is bleak for the Potters and although the fat lady has not sang yet, she is currently waiting behind the curtain preparing to perform.

There is a slight glimmer of hope, but that could be quickly extinguished if Stoke fall to defeats against Arsenal and Tottenham in their next two games and results go against them.

There will be plenty of time for reflection, but Stoke supporters know that this is a relegation entirely of the club’s own making.

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Stoke City

It’s crunch time for Stoke City under Paul Lambert

The next two months are crucial for the future of Stoke City.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

There are only eight games left of the Premier League season and with Manchester City running away with the Premier League title the attention now turns to the race for survival.

Stoke City began the season celebrating their tenth consecutive year as a top-flight club and yet the campaign could ultimately culminate in relegation to the Sky Bet Championship.

The warning signs were there in the summer when star winger Marko Arnautovic forced through a transfer to West Ham United and claimed that the Potters ‘lacked ambition’, something that the club hierarchy strenuously denied before forcing Mark Hughes to be reliant on free transfers and loan signings.

The further departure of club stalwarts such as Jonathan Walters and Glen Whelan was also a loss in the dressing room and behind the scenes, if not necessarily on the pitch.

The campaign actually got off to a promising start as Stoke secured four points from their opening two home fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester United, but the wheels quickly began to fall off.

Hughes had opted to deploy a new look 3-4-3 formation and, despite some early success, it soon became apparent that the Potters did not have the personnel or quality to make the system work.

The sight of Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, stranded as a wingback pretty much summarises the tactical naivety of Hughes and his unwillingness to revert to a back four, despite poor results, saw the club slip into the relegation zone.

Ultimately, it has been Stoke’s inability to defend that has underpinned their demise this season.

At one stage, the Potters had the unenviable record of possessing the worst defensive record of any club in the top flight of European football, whilst only West Ham United have conceded more goals or kept fewer clean sheets in the Premier League this season.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

The Manager

Mark Hughes was dismissed in late January after Stoke City had been knocked out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier Coventry City and were stranded in the Premier League relegation zone.

There is little doubt that the Potters were correct to part ways with the Welshman, although in hindsight the club hierarchy had remained too loyal for too long.

Stoke’s attempt to hire a successor was chaotic, disorganised and became something of a soap opera.

Gary Rowett was the first manager to publically turn down the job after being approached and was swiftly followed by Quique Sánchez Flores, who conducted a swift U-turn within twenty-four hours of reportedly agreeing to leave Espanyol, and Martin O’Neil.

Stoke supporters were eventually left with the uninspiring appointment of Paul Lambert who, quite clearly, was nobodies first choice for the role.

The former Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss has certainly had a positive impact since arriving in the final weeks of January and has undoubtedly made the team more organised and harder to beat.

However, Lambert has overseen just one win in seven fixtures, at a time when the club are desperate for points, despite having been handed a favourable run of fixtures that included Huddersfield Town, Watford, Brighton, Bournemouth, Southampton and Leicester City.

The 48-year-old will need to stimulate a dramatic improvement in results of The Potters are going to have any hope of avoiding the drop.

The Squad

On paper, the current Stoke City squad consists of a core contingent of proven international players that should have the quality and experience to pull away from the relegation zone.

Jack Butland, who is vying to be England’s first choice goalkeeper, Kurt Zouma, one of the most highly rated young defenders in Europe, Joe Allen, a central midfielder of undoubted quality, and Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri make up the spine of the starting eleven, whilst Moritz Bauer and Badou Ndiaye arrived in January to add further quality.

However, there is an obvious lack of creativity in the current squad and the responsibility for facilitating goal scoring opportunities rests solely on the shoulders of Shaqiri.

In addition to this, Stoke lack a proven goal scorer with Mame Biram Diouf (inconsistent), Peter Crouch (one dimensional) and Saido Berahino (who has yet to score in over two years) the only options at Paul Lambert’s disposal.

This imbalance in the squad has been reflected in recent results. Since Lambert’s arrival in late-January Stoke have lost just once in seven games, against the champions-elect Manchester City, and have kept three clean sheets in the process.

However, in the same period, they have only won once, in Lambert’s first match against Huddersfield Town, and have found the net just five times – three of which were provided by Shaqiri.

It is the lack of creativity and goals that is undermining any shoots of recovery at the Bet365 Stadium.

Remaining Fixtures

Everton (H), Arsenal (A), Tottenham (H), West Ham United (A), Burnley (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H) and Swansea City (A).

Stoke City have a semi-difficult run of fixtures but there are certainly opportunities to accumulate points over the closing weeks of the season.

Home games against Everton, Crystal Palace and Swansea City are ‘must win’ based on the fact that the Potters have the worst away record in England, having won just once on their travels this campaign, but trips to Olympic Stadium and the Liberty Stadium could provide a chance to rectify that.

Fundamentally, if Stoke can get to the final two games of the season and still be in with a chance of securing safety then they will be relatively pleased. It could all come down to the last day of the season with a mouth-watering fixture against Swansea.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Will They Survive?

Although Paul Lambert has certainly had a positive impact since being appointed in late-January, making the team more organised and harder to beat, it is difficult to see where Stoke City will secure the three or four wins required to guarantee safety.

The Potters have won just six games all season and the lack of creativity throughout the side and the absence of a proven striker leaves you wondering where the goals are going to come from.

There is certainly still hope for Stoke supporters, but Lambert will need to facilitate a dramatic improvement in performances if he is to guide the club to safety.

It will be an achievement if he can get the Potters to the final two games of the season, against Crystal Palace and Swansea City, and still be in with a chance of surviving.

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