Mark Hughes faces crucial month after Stoke give supporters some Christmas cheer
After a turbulent start to the season Mark Hughes has provided Stoke City supporters with a scattering of festive cheer over the Christmas period. Or maybe it is just relief.
The Potters have picked up four vital points from their two fixtures over the Christmas break, a 3-1 victory on home soil against West Bromwich Albion and a point from their trip to Huddersfield Town on Boxing Day, which will provide Hughes and the supporters with some much needed respite.
Prior to that the club appeared to be spiralling towards the relegation zone, conceding goals at an alarming rate and struggling to produce positive performances or pick up results, with an increasing number of fans calling for Hughes to be replaced. There were rumours that the Welshman had two games to save his job and a heavy defeat against fellow strugglers West Ham United will have done little to ease the building pressure.
So the four points from the last two games will have come as a significant relief for Hughes, who, for now at least, has bought himself some time, and for the Stoke supporters, who were beginning to face up to the realistic possibility of relegation. However, neither of the performances against West Brom or Huddersfield were convincing and the issues that have undermined Stoke throughout this season have been papered over rather than solved.
Against the Baggies, despite going into the half-time interval two goals ahead, Stoke found themselves desperately hanging on to the three points after being penned into their own half for the vast majority of the second period. A late break-a-way goal from Ramadam Sobhi ensured that the score line somewhat flattered the victors.
The subsequent performance against Huddersfield was equally as unconvincing, although the team demonstrated a sense of fighting spirit to come back from a goal behind to secure the draw.
Not that Mark Hughes will care much. The most important thing for him was to stop the rot and to ensure that his side put some points up on the board – the two Christmas results suddenly catapulted the Potters into mid-table, albeit still a long way from safety.
So Stoke have eased the fear of relegation and Hughes has bought himself some time, but the Welshman will be under no illusions that he is facing one of the most crucial transfer windows of his career. The current team is distinctly unbalanced and there is a definitive lack of strength in depth throughout the squad – significant and efficient investment is desperately required.
Hughes’ recent record in the transfer market, which includes spending a combined £30 million on Saido Berahino and Giannelli Imbula, is questionable at best or negligent at worst and there is certainly no room for error this time around.
The Potters require a left-back to replace Eric Pieters, who has looked increasingly short of confidence and form this season, and a right-back to ease the pressure on Tom Edwards, the academy graduate who has been well and truly thrown in at the deep end.
Stoke also need to add a mobile central midfielder to their ranks, with Darren Fletcher looking physically drained in recent weeks, and a forward player to share the creative workload that has been solely shoulder by Xherdan Shaqiri for much of the season.
Quite whether the Stoke hierarchy will hand Hughes the finances to implement the required changes is an entirely different matter. The Potters were among the lowest spenders in the summer, despite having sold star-winger Marko Arnautovic, and the club continuously trot out the sound-bite of wanting to be self-sufficient. However, if you were Peter Coates, would you want to hand an open cheque-book to the man that spent £12 million on Berahino?
So, whilst Hughes may have temporarily eased some of the pressure with four points over the Christmas period he will undoubtedly be desperate to bring in some fresh faces when the transfer window re-opens.
The Welshman will need to spend wisely and start to correct some of the issues that have undermined his position as the season has progressed. He needs to demonstrate to an unconvinced Stoke fan-based that recent results are a foundation to build on, rather than simply a case of papering over the cracks, and that he has a plan to ensure that the club moves forward in a positive directory.
Hughes may have survived the initial calls for him to be dismissed, but the next month will be crucial if he wishes to still be in employment by this time next year. The four points over the Christmas break have come as a relief to supporters and they now need to be convinced that the club have ambition and a clear plan for the remainder of the season.