Stoke's defeat to Crystal Palace leaves Mark Hughes under further pressure
After Stoke City were comprehensively beaten 7-2 by Manchester City in late October, both manager Mark Hughes and chairman Peter Coates responded in almost identical fashion – the message to the club’s supporters: there is no need to panic, the fixture computer generated a difficult start to the season and there were a run of ‘winnable’ games coming up.
There was plenty of merit to what the pair were saying. The Potters had picked up just eight points from their opening eight Premier League fixtures but, in reality, having faced Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City during that period the eventual points return did not reflect too badly on a difficult run of games.
In addition to this, on paper at least, the upcoming fixtures represented what many would class as ‘winnable’ games for a club that was entering into its tenth consecutive campaign in the top flight.
After the loss to Manchester City the fixture list had Stoke lined up to face Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester City, Brighton and Hove Albion and Crystal Palace.
It was a run of games against clubs of similar size and stature, and provided a genuine opportunity for the Potters to rack up some points and ease some of the pressure that had been building around Mark Hughes.
The problem is that football is played on the pitch, not on paper, and Stoke have picked up just one victory from their five ‘winnable’ games.
On Saturday at Selhurst Park, they conceded an equalising goal just three minutes after taking the lead and contrived to hand Crystal Palace the win in injury time. The Potters had lost against the Premier League’s bottom club – a side that had been victorious just once in their previous twelve games.
It had not been much better the previous week in Sussex, where Stoke had twice taken the lead against newly promoted Brighton but finished the contest with a point and were forced to spend the closing moments of the match running down the clock in order to cling on to the draw.
Furthermore, the Potters managed to pick up just a single point from home games against Bournemouth and Leicester, while the club’s only victory came in unlikely fashion against Watford.
Pressure builds on Hughes
So, what happens now that Stoke City have failed to win a significant number of their so-called ‘winnable’ games?
The simple answer is that Mark Hughes now finds himself under an increasing amount of pressure from a frustrated fan-base with the Potters now in danger of being sucked into a relegation battled. That may sound like a panicked, knee-jerk reaction but the statistics do not make for good reading.
Stoke now have the joint-worst defensive record in the top-flight and are conceding on averaging two goals each time they take to the field.
That is despite possessing the one of the country’s best young goalkeepers (Jack Butland), England’s most underrated central defender (Ryan Shawcross), one of Europe’s brightest young defenders (Kurt Zouma) and having spent £25 million on new defensive recruits in the summer (Kevin Wimmer and Bruno Martins Indi).
The shambles that is the club’s defensive record is not even a new occurrence. Stoke have conceded an astonishing 118 goals in their last 70 league fixtures and on average suffer a defeat by three or more goals once every four matches.
So there are no prizes for guessing why The Potters are currently struggling to pick up results.
The problem for Hughes is that he has backed himself into a corner that he may struggle to escape from. By publicly highlighting that there were ‘winnable’ games coming up the Welshman had set himself up for a heavy fall when his team failed to perform well on the pitch.
If you are going to tell frustrated supporters that there are ‘winnable’ games then you better make sure that you win a significant number of them.
In the closing months of last season Hughes came under fire from some supporters who have grown frustrated with the apparent stagnation that had set in at the Bet365 Stadium.
It has been widely reported how the Welshman’s team selections, tactics, substitutions, approach and deals in the transfer market have left many remarking that the club has entered into a decline over the last two years.
That underlying feeling of frustration remained largely hidden during the close season, but a poor start to the new campaign, which has left Stoke sitting just three points clear of the relegation zone, has reignited the calls for managerial change.
In reality, the chances of Peter Coates sacking Hughes anytime soon are wide of the mark.
The Potters’ chairman has the ultimate faith in his manager and has almost inexhaustible patience, but, if the poor form continues, the genuine threat of relegation may just provoke a reaction.
For Hughes, the failure to follow through with his claim of ‘winnable’ games has left him high and dry. He now needs a dramatic upturn in fortunes in the coming weeks in order to guide the team away from the relegation zone and to secure his own long-term position at the club.
Four of the five clubs that currently sit below Stoke in the Premier League table have already implemented managerial change – Hughes has every right to be concerned that he may be the next managerial casualty.