What does Stoke's victory against Watford mean for the future of Mark Hughes?
When the final whistle sounded at Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon there was an explosion of emotion from Mark Hughes, his players and those hardy Stoke City supporters who had made the trip down to Watford.
Make no mistake about it, Hughes has been under intense scrutiny throughout the last fortnight and there were genuine concerns that, after a poor start to the new campaign, The Potters were in danger of being sucked into a relegation battle.
The victory against Watford will have come as something of a surprise considering their form and recent performances under the guidance of Marco Silva and it helps to ease some of the pressure and tension that has been building in The Potteries.
This was a classic Stoke performance pulled straight out of the pages of a Tony Pulis coaching manual. It was neither pretty nor entertaining for any impartial observers but Hughes’ side demonstrated an impressive amount of grit, fight and an unwillingness to fold as they fought off what felt like wave after wave of Watford attacks in the second half.
It was a back-to-basics type of performance and the three points were claimed more as a result of the heart, work ethic and determination shown by the visiting players rather than any technical or tactical brilliance.
It was messy and scrappy (as exemplified by the two mid-match scuffles between the two sets of players) but the travelling supporters will have cared little. For Stoke, this was all about grinding out a result.
However, whilst the win may help to ease the immediate pressure on Mark Hughes, the Welshman’s long-term future is still shrouded in uncertainty.
Papering over the cracks?
Whilst victory on Saturday may have helped to ease Stoke City away from the relegation zone, for many supporters it will only be a temporary relief for Mark Hughes.
Prior to the weekend The Potters went into the contest against Watford perched on the periphery of the relegation zone and there is an argument, which is backed up by recent statistics, that the team have been regressing for the best part of eighteen months.
The long-term statistics do not make for positive reading.
Prior to the visit to Vicarage Road Stoke had conceded 20 goals in their opening nine Premier League fixtures and had suffered an early exit from the League Cup after being knocked out of the competition by what were effectively Bristol City’s reserve team.
However, the poor start to the season is no blip.
In 2017 The Potters have played 30 matches, winning eight games, and have scored just 28 times whilst conceding 48 goals. In addition to this, in their previous 66 Premier League contests the team have conceded three or more goal on 17 occasions – in short, Stoke supporters can expect to see their team suffer a heavy defeat in 25% of the games that they play.
Hughes has received criticism for his team selections, especially his insistence on using Mame Biram Diouf, a striker, at wingback, and his continual chopping and changing of personnel included in the starting eleven.
The summer saw The Potters rely heavily on bringing in free transfers (Darren Fletcher and Eric Choupo-Moting) and loan signings (Kurt Zouma and Jese Rodriguez) raising the question of whether the board still trust Hughes to spend big-money.
If they have doubts, you can hardly blame them.
Club-record signing Giannelli Imbula, who was frozen out of the team last season and sent out on loan to France in the summer, Saido Berahino, who was meant to solve the club’s goal scoring dilemma is yet to find the back of the net, and Kevin Wimmer, who was hauled off at half time against Manchester City and was left on the bench the following week, have cost the club the best part of £50 million.
In effect, none of Hughes’ last three big-money buys have had any significant impact on the team.
So, whilst victory against Watford may buy Hughes a moment of respite and ease the immediate pressure around the club, is it truly a turning point or just a case of papering over the cracks?
Mark Hughes buys himself a moment of respite
Mark Hughes certainly appears to retain the support of Stoke City owner Peter Coates and the remainder of the board whilst Darren Fletcher’s goal celebration on Saturday, racing half the length of the pitch with his team mates to enjoy the moment with his manager, suggests that the Welshman still has the backing of his players.
But you sense that, in the eyes of many Stoke supporters, Hughes is just one game away from being drawn over the coals once more.
One game certainly does not instantly dispel the issues of the previous eighteen months, nor does it suddenly turn the Welshman into a master tactician that is immune from criticism. It may, however, just buy him a little more time and space to start correcting some of the club’s prevailing problems.
The nature of the performance in the victory against Watford on Saturday, based on heart, grit and determination, should provide some comfort that there is still plenty of fight left in the club yet – something that was undoubtedly missing in the recent defeats against Manchester City and Bournemouth.
It provides Hughes with a foundation to build on in the coming weeks but, one thing is for sure, he still has plenty of work to do!