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Stoke City: How to solve a problem like Saido Berahino?

Martyn Cooke

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Strikers are judged on one thing and one thing only – goals.

They may come in many different shapes and sizes with various contrasting styles of play being utilised but the only statistic that truly matters is how often they can find the back of the net.

Thierry Henry would sprinkle magic dust to bewilder defenders, Alan Shearer would demonstrate power and sheer desire to batter through defensive units, Gary Lineker would operate as a fox in the box using his poachers’ instinct, whilst Peter Crouch simply uses his height and aerial prowess.

All four are, or were, completely different types of strikers that built their careers on a mutual ability to score goals on a regular basis. Which is more than can be said for Stoke City‘s Saido Berahino at the moment.

The 24-year-old was once one of the brightest, most sought after young players in English football after he burst onto the scene with West Bromwich Albion during the 2014/15 season.

He found the net 20 times during the campaign and his raw pace, athleticism and trickery suggested that his career trajectory was only heading in one direction.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, just gone, and it is astonishing how times have changed.

Berahino trudged off the pitch at the Bet365 Stadium in the 70th minute having been substituted after producing an inconspicuous performance that was defined by a penalty miss during the first half.

Once again, he had failed to impress, failed to have any real impact on the game and failed to break the goal drought that is surely threatening to end his career as a top-flight striker.

The statistics do not make for good reading.

Berahino has yet to find the back of the net in a Stoke City shirt in 18 appearances since his £12 million arrival in January. It is now 32 matches, equating to 31 hours and 48 minutes of football, since the 24-year-old last scored a competitive goal – a run that goes back to February 2016.

The man that Mark Hughes brought in to solve Stoke’s goal scoring conundrum is stuck in a rut that he shows little sign of escaping from.

How do you solve a problem like Saido?

Saido Berahino arrived at the Bet 365 Stadium in January engulfed in controversy.

His public fall-out with West Bromwich Albion and the subsequent news that he had been handed a suspension by the Football Association after failing a routine drugs test have all been well documented. However, ultimately his transfer to Stoke represented a fresh start and a new beginning. It was a chance to restart his career at a new club and put the turbulence of the previous eighteen months behind him.

That kick-start to his career has yet to materialise.

Berahino looks a shadow of the player that burst onto the scene three years ago with West Bromwich Albion. His pace is non-existent. His movement is laboured. He lacks confidence, sharpness or any real signs to suggest that he is capable of rediscovering his previous form. In fact, he is a striker that does not even look like scoring.

The problem for Mark Hughes is that Berahino is simple not getting into positions to find the back of the net. A striker missing chances is one thing, but a striker who does not even have the opportunity to miss is nothing other than a grave concern. This is highlighted by the fact that Berahino has attempted just two shots so far this season, one of which was the penalty he missed on Saturday – characterising his impotence in front of goal.

So what is the solution?

Mark Hughes appears to have two options. First, he could persist with Berahino in the hope that a goal eventually arrives and reignites his career. However, is one goal really going to have such a dramatic impact that a player who has failed to find the back of the net in 32 matches will suddenly be converted into a goal machine?

It seems implausible when you look at it from that angle. So, should Hughes admit that Berahino is simply a gamble that has not paid off and cut his losses? That poses the further questions of who will be willing to purchase the 24-year-old now and how much of the £12 million will Stoke be able to recoup?

There is no definitive black and white solution.

It should be noted that Berahino’s failings are certainly not down to a lack of effort or a poor attitude. On Saturday the striker certainly closed down and pressurised opponents and attempted to get into positions to receive the ball. There was no lack of running or work rate, yet he appears to have lost all of the sharpness and instinctiveness that is required to perform in the Premier League.

In addition to this, the Stoke supporters have shown remarkable patience and support for Berahino, with those packed inside the Bet365 Stadium willing him to break his drought.

Next up for Stoke City following the international break is a trip to Manchester City. Playing at the Etihad Stadium is unlikely to provide Berahino with an opportunity to score his first goal for The Potters and thus revive his career.

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

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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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

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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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