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Stoke City

Is Mark Hughes’ time at Stoke City coming to an end?

Martyn Cooke



If I were to ask you to make a list of Premier League managers whose jobs were under pressure what names would you put forward?

Arsene Wenger? The very public debate over the Frenchman’s future at Arsenal would mean that he would top most people’s list. David Moyes? The beleaguered Sunderland boss has not aided his job prospects after becoming embroiled in an off-field sexism scandal, not to mention the fact that his side are rooted to the foot of the table with little chance of survival.

What about Mark Hughes?

That suggestion may have those of you who reside outside North Staffordshire or not have a direct connection with the club scratching your head somewhat, but the Welshman is coming under an increasing amount of pressure at the Bet365 Stadium. Two lacklustre defeats in the space four days against Leicester City at the weekend and Burnley on Tuesday evening, in which The Potters mustered a total of just three shots on goal across both contests, saw the team booed off at Turf Moor by the travelling supporters with some calling for Hughes to be ousted.

All rosy in the Stoke City garden?

For those non-Stoke City supporters out there the garden in the Bet365 Stadium may look quite rosy. The Potters are currently situated in the relative safety of mid-table, a position that supporters have become accustomed to in recent seasons, and it would take a disastrous collapse of results in the final seven games for the club to be sucked into the relegation battle. Throw into the mix the fact that Mark Hughes has guided Stoke to three ninth-place finishes in his previous three seasons with the club, a feat that The Potters have not achieved for almost 80 years, and the calls for the Welshman’s head would appear completely bizarre to the uninitiated.

I think that it is important to point out that the Stoke supporters are not quite in open revolt, at least not compared to the scenario developing at the Emirates Stadium, but there is a growing section of the club’s fan base that has become increasingly frustrated with the direction and performances of the team. It is certainly not a majority of fans that are calling the change, but neither is it a minority either – and the numbers are increasing.

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What is causing supporters to be frustrated?

So, what has Mark Hughes done that has got Stoke City supporters so upset?

Firstly, the team appears to have lost all sense of direction and purpose – there simply seems to be no long-term plan or vision and there is a lack of identity. Hughes has continuously chopped and changed the formation and playing personnel throughout the season, with his team selections and substitutions becoming increasingly hard to explain. The Potters have been deployed in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 formations so far this campaign in what simply comes across as a scattergun approach that has little thought behind it. On Tuesday Stoke played a 3-5-2 system that saw a striker, Mame Biram Diouf, shoe-horned into being a wing-back and the club’s most effective recent performer, Ramadam Sobhi, dropped to the bench. Needless to say, it did not work and the team suffered a third consecutive defeat in the league.

Secondly, the style and quality of football on show has declined remarkably. It was only eighteen months ago that Stoke were being branded as Stoke-a-lona by the media for the swift, stylish, possession-based football that the team were producing, with the attacking trident of Bojan Krkic, Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri causing Premier League defences all sorts of problems. However, now The Potters have very much reverted back to a direct get-it-and-lump it approach which is even more extraordinary considering it is the diminutive figure of Saido Berahino that these long balls are directed at. The current ‘Plan B’ when this approach fails is simply to send on the towering figure of Peter Crouch and go even more direct.

Thirdly, Hughes has bizarrely started to dismantle the Stoke-a-lona side that he built with his treatment of a number of key players leaving supporters scratching their heads. Club record signing Giannelli Imbula, who arrive just over one year ago for £18,000,000 has been completely frozen out of the first-team picture whilst Bojan Krkic is currently on loan at Bundesliga side Mainz 05 after becoming frustrated with a lack of game time despite being handed a new five-year contract extension. Wilfried Bony, who is currently at the Bet365 Stadium on a season-long loan from Manchester City, has similarly been frozen out of the match day squad leaving supporters wondering how much money the club is spending on the wages of players that are failing to even make the bench. Finally, question marks have been raised over the future of Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri after the winger has missed The Potters last nine games due to calf issues, but was fit enough to play for Switzerland during the international break.

Finally, supporters are rightly questioning Hughes transfer policy. In addition to the omission from the first team of Imbula, Shaqiri and Bojan, new signing Saido Berahino has been completely ineffective whilst Phillipp Wollshcheid and Joselu have been forced out on season- long loans. That is easily in excess of £50,000,000 worth of transfer fees spent on players that are either being frozen out of the first-team, are playing on loan at a different club, or, in Berahino’s case, simply failing to live up to their billing.

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So, what now?

So what now for Stoke City and Mark Hughes?

From a personal perspective, I still feel relatively uncomfortable with supporters calling for a manager who has guided the club to three consecutive top-half finishes for the first time in 80 years to be sacked. Having said that I completely understand the current frustrations amongst an increasing section of the fan base and, as stated earlier, those criticising the manager certainly have plenty of ammunition to use. However, if I was sacked from my job for having one poor year after three consecutive years of progress and exceeding the targets that I had been set, then I would be well within my right to be unhappy. You would imagine that Mark Hughes would have a similar perception of the current scenario from his perspective.

The final decision will come down to Stoke City chairman Peter Coates, who demonstrated with his dismissal of Tony Pulis nearly four years ago, that he has little patience for stagnation or regression. The 79-year-old has gone on record this season to say that the current set of players are the best group that the club have managed to assemble in his lifetime,  which would suggest that finishing in the bottom half of the table would not greatly appeal to a man who has invested much of his personal fortune into The Potters.

Mark Hughes now has seven games to convince the supporters, and the chairman, that he is the right man to lead the club next season. However, a defeat at home to Hull City on Saturday could leave The Potters just six points clear of the relegation zone – and then the pressure would really be piled onto the Welshman.

Feature Image: All Rights Reserved Alex Hannam (Alex Hannam)

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.

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



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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Manchester City

Manchester City close in on title after brushing aside feeble Stoke City

Manchester City have one hand on the Premier League title after victory on Monday night.

Martyn Cooke



Photo: Getty Images

So that answers that question then – Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team can handle a dark, cold and wet mid-week fixture against Stoke City at the Bet365 Stadium.

Not that the result of this game was ever in doubt.

Manchester City are undoubtedly one of the best club sides in the world at this present moment in time and arrived in ‘The Potteries’ 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League table.

It was little surprise to see them nonchalantly brush aside Stoke on Monday evening courtesy of two goals from David Silva and, in the process, increase their lead over second-placed Manchester United to 16 points.

City now require just three more wins to confirm the title and are on course to break the 100-point mark.

Guardiola’s side were dominant at the Bet365 Stadium and continued to produce the breath-taking football that has characterised their season. It is the perfect mixture of pace, precision and technique and Stoke quite simply did not possess the quality, confidence or character to muster a challenge.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

This was procession more than it was a contest and Manchester City were not required to get out of first gear.

A trip to ‘The Potteries’ used to spark fear into the hearts of opposing players – facing a Stoke team that was characterised by discipline, hard-work and an up-and-at-‘em approach that was backed by a passionate home crowd – but on Monday night all of the above were lacking. The players were lethargic on the pitch and the home supporters were apathetic in the stands.

Paul Lambert and his side appeared content to lose the game as long as the scoreline was kept respectable and it was clear from the first whistle that the Potters were in damage limitation mode.

Stoke failed to muster a shot on target in the entire game and there was no purpose, urgency or direction to their play. They offered little defensively either. There was no attempt to press the visitors or ruffle their feathers, demonstrated by the fact that only Joe Allen picked up a yellow card, and the sight of Manchester City stroking the ball around unopposed at walking pace will have been a demoralising sight for the locals.

Yes, you have to acknowledge that Manchester City are good, very good in fact, but the way that the hosts simply rolled over without a fight was indicative of a campaign that will possibly result in their relegation.

Wigan Athletic, Burnley and Basel have all demonstrated since Christmas that Guardiola’s side are far from invincible, yet the Potters opted to wave the white flag from the onset.

Lambert certainly has a task on his hands at the Bet365 Stadium if he is to guide the club to safety. A predictable loss to the champions-elect will not define their future, but the upcoming home fixture against Everton on Saturday certainly will. Stoke supporters can only hope that their team shows more character, fight and direction at the weekend than they did on Monday.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

For Manchester City, the Pep Guardiola football revolution continues to roll on. The focus now for City will be to wrap up the Premier League title as soon as possible so that additional emphasis can be placed on progressing to the latter stages of the Champions League.

Beyond this season, the future continues to look bright.

Guardiola’s squad consist primarily of young starlets or players that are in their mid-late twenties and are at or just entering, the peak of their powers.

Raheem Sterling (23), Leroy Sane (22), Bernardo Silva (23), Gabriel Jesus (20), John Stones (23) and Ederson (24) are all under the age of 24 whilst  Kevin De Bruyne (26), Kyle Walker (27) and Sergio Aguero (29) have yet to hit their thirties.

The Premier League must now face up to the prospect that the current crop of Manchester City players, under the guidance of one of the best coaches of the modern era, have the potential to dominate the domestic scene for the foreseeable future.

If the runaway train is to be stopped, teams will have to demonstrate a much more positive attitude and a desire to compete than that shown in the performance by Paul Lambert and his players on Monday evening.

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Stoke City

Errors continue to cost Stoke City despite improvement under Paul Lambert

Stoke City have proved the makers of their own downfall under Paul Lambert in recent weeks.

Martyn Cooke



Paul Lambert
Photo: Getty Images

When Stoke City kicked off the season back in August the club were celebrating the start of a tenth consecutive campaign in the top flight of English football.

Now, six months on, the Potters have just ten games left to clamber out of the relegation zone to ensure that their supporters will be travelling to Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge next season rather than the Pirelli Stadium, Oakwell and New Meadow.

Relegation is now staring Stoke straight in the face and the threat of dropping into the Championship is now a very realistic possibility.

Saturday’s draw against Leicester City leaves the club stranded in the relegation zone, albeit only one point from safety as it currently stands, but time and ‘winnable’ games are beginning to run out at an alarming rate.

(Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The appointment of Paul Lambert in January has stimulated a revival of sorts in the Potteries.

The Scotsman has made Stoke more organised, harder to beat and has been busy attempting to find solutions on the training ground with double sessions each week for the players.

However, the improvement in performances has not been reflected by results on the pitch as basic errors continue to undermine the club’s attempts to generate points and build momentum in the closing months of the season.

On Saturday, Stoke appeared to be grinding out an invaluable three points against Leicester at the King Power Stadium with Xherdan Shaqiri’s stunning long-range strike, his third in as many matches, giving the Potters an invaluable lead.

Defensively Lambert’s men appeared relatively comfortable, denying both Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez the time or space to have any meaningful impact on the game and the hosts were struggling to create clear-cut goal scoring opportunities.

However, Stoke have developed a dangerous habit of shooting themselves in the foot this season.

In their previous fixture, it was Charlie Adam’s late penalty miss that cost the Potters a win against Brighton whilst on Saturday it was Jack Butland’s failure to catch a low cross, instead deflecting it into his own net, that led to two more vital points being dropped.

Had Adam converted from the penalty spot and Butland caught a bread-and-butter cross then Stoke would have four additional points on the board and be well on their way to securing safety.

(Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The reality is that the Potters now face a relegation six-pointer against Southampton at the weekend that they simply need to win. However, it may already be too late.

Since arriving at the Bet365 Stadium Lambert has won just one of his five fixtures, with all of the opposition coming against teams in the bottom half of the table.

Six points from matches against Brighton (home), Huddersfield (home), Watford (home), Bournemouth (away) and Leicester (away) may ultimately not be enough with the club facing a tough run of fixtures to close the season.

In their final ten matches, Stoke face Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – with just one win in their previous nine games it is hard to see the Potters picking up any points from those four contests.

There are then away fixtures against Southampton, West Ham and Swansea City, which will undoubtedly be made more difficult by the fact that the club have the worst away record in the top four divisions of English football.

Then, there are crucial must-win home games against Crystal Palace, Everton and Burnley.

To say that there is no longer room for error is an understatement and Stoke can certainly not afford to make the same fundamental mistakes that have cost them vital points in both of their previous two fixtures. In truth, The Potters need a miraculous turn of form, particularly on the road, if they are to have any chance of survival.

(Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

There is still hope, though.

Lambert has made a positive impact since his arrival and there has been an improvement in performances.

Stoke are harder to beat and in Xherdan Shaqiri have someone who is capable of making something out of nothing – the diminutive winger is The Potters’ main creative focal point and his form will have a direct impact on results and, ultimately, the club’s future.

So, Stoke’s tenth consecutive campaign in the top flight of English football has basically come down to a ten-match season where their Premier League status is in need of saving.

All that the supporters can do now is buckle themselves in and get ready for what will undoubtedly be a rollercoaster end to the campaign.

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