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Stoke City

What does Stoke’s victory against Watford mean for the future of Mark Hughes?

Martyn Cooke

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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!

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 should avoid re-signing Robert Huth and look to the future

Although a romantic idea, the Potters should avoid resigning the 34-year-old.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, Leicester City announced that Robert Huth would be leaving the club at the end of the season after three-and-a-half years with the Foxes.

The German defender has made 93 appearances during that period, scoring six goals, and became a fans favourite at the King Power Stadium for the prominent role that he played in the club’s recent success.

He was a crucial facet of the Leicester team that were crowned Premier League champions in 2016 and was widely admired for his tough, no-nonsense style of defending.

However, Huth will go into the summer as a free agent after the Foxes decided not to renew his contract when it concludes at the end of the campaign.

The German has struggled to regain his place in the first team squad since suffering a string of injuries in the closing stages of last season and is behind the likes of Wes Morgan, Harry Maguire and Aleksander Dragovic in the pecking order for a starting role.

Huth remains a popular figure among Stoke supporters after his contributions helped to establish the club in the Premier League, reach an FA Cup final and progress to the latter stages of the Europa League.

His central defensive partnership with club captain Ryan Shawcross is widely perceived by fans as being the best in the club’s modern era.

With the Potters being relegated to the Sky Bet Championship and Huth set to leave Leicester in the summer, some Stoke supporters have been left wondering if the German is set for a dream homecoming.

The current Stoke squad will undoubtedly experience a dramatic overhaul during the summer as the club prepares for life in the second tier and the departure of Kurt Zouma, who returns to Chelsea when his loan expires next week, will mean that the Potters will be in the market for a defensive replacement.

However, the potential signing of Huth would not represent a positive move.

The central defender is now 34-years-old and has barely featured for Leicester over the last twelve months. In fact, the German has yet to make an appearance this season and has struggled with multiple consecutive injuries over the last year.

If The Potters are serious about reclaiming their place in the Premier League then they must avoid trying to relive the past and start to look to the future.

Regardless of the place that Huth has in the hearts of Stoke supporters, it makes little sense objectively to purchase an aging defender who has barely played in twelve months.

Attempting to recreate the glory days of half-a-decade ago is unlikely to solve the club’s current issues in the here and now.

(Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

A defensive partnership of Huth and Shawcross would have a combined age of 64 – you have to question how effective the pairing would be in the intense world of football in the Championship where the games come thick and fast with often two matches a week in a congested fixture list.

There is little to gain from trying to relive the past.

Instead, Stoke should be looking to bring together a young, hungry group of players that are developing towards the prime of their careers and still have everything to prove.

It should be about building with the future in mind, rather than reminiscing about creating an ‘old boys’ club.

A return for Huth to the Bet365 Stadium would be an idealistic and romanticised concept in the minds of some supporters, but is he truly the best option?

Huth will forever be remembered as a genuine Stoke City legend, but he represents the past and it is the future that the club need to be focusing on.

A return to ‘The Potteries’ may be a romantic notion for some supporters, yet it would not represent forward thinking or progress for a club that needs to rebuild after a period of regression.

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Newcastle United

Newcastle should swoop for Stoke’s Joe Allen in the summer window

The Welshman will be hot property as he seeks a return to the top flight.

Josh Kerr

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Photo: Getty Images

Newcastle United should make a move for Stoke City midfielder Joe Allen, who will be looking to stay in the Premier League after the Potters relegation to the Championship was confirmed on the weekend.

Earlier this month, The Sun reported that the likes of West Ham and the Magpies were interested in the £20 million-rated Welshman’s signature after Paul Lambert’s side became the first Premier League team to face the drop.

The former Liverpool midfielder is only 28 and may still feel his talents are best suited to the Premier League. Therefore, a move away from Staffordshire may be the best solution in order for him to stay at the highest level.

Allen has featured for the Potters in a more defensive role this season, one that has seen him grab two goals as well as six assists.

A player with significant Premier League experience, the Welshman would bring a lot to this Newcastle side, and a host of other top-flight clubs would no doubt love to have him in their engine room.

Lovingly referred to as the ‘the Welsh Xavi’, Allen is by no means the most prolific midfielder, but his work rate and experience are second-to-none. He is a real leader in the dressing room that the Magpies would be foolish to ignore.

The £20 million would be a club record signing for Newcastle, surpassing the fee spent on Michael Owen’s capture from Real Madrid back in 2005. However, Allen represents stability and Benitez will be searching for that if his side are to stay up again next season.

Allen’s relentless energy in the middle of the park will suit the Spaniard, and his experience will see him set the example for the young players around him to follow. He also looks real Rafa Benitez signing, a player whose work-rate and dedication matches his quality.

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English Premier League

Xherdan Shaqiri has progressed despite Stoke City relegation

The Swiss international has eight goals and six assists this season.

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Getty Images

Xherdan Shaqiri arrived in England with a big reputation after playing for both Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.

The Swiss international was regarded as one of the brightest talents to emerge from his homeland in several years, but his lack of consistency and selfish style prevented him from being a success at two of the biggest clubs on the continent.

Despite that, it was still seen as a huge surprise that he joined mid-table Premier League side Stoke City.

At the time, the attacker would have seen the club as a stepping stone to bigger things with a move to a top-six Premier League team in his future.

His first two seasons were underwhelming, as he managed to contribute only seven goals and eight assists in 48 matches.

He was involved in a goal every 249.9 minutes, which isn’t good enough for a player with his quality.

The environment at Stoke didn’t help him play to his potential, as there was little ambition at the club with the only focus being to stay in the division.

Although there were some nice moments from Shaqiri, he didn’t impact matches on a consistent basis and that stopped a bigger club from making a move for him.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Saturday was the day of Stoke City’s relegation from the Premier League and that has created doubt regarding the future for Shaqiri, but he is one of the few players in the squad to emerge from this season with credit.

In the match against Crystal Palace, the 26-year-old gave his side some hope with an excellent strike from a free-kick, but the Potters once again showed that they couldn’t hold on to a lead and that is one of the major reasons for their current position.

That goal took Shaqiri up to eight goals and six assists for the season.

He has nearly matched his contribution from the last two seasons combined and that shows the improved consistency that he has found, despite Stoke’s struggles. This has been helped by his playing time, as he has started all but two of the team’s matches.

As the season progressed to a climax, there was a lot of pressure on Shaqiri to produce the magic to save Stoke City.

The plan seemed to be ‘defend and give the ball to the winger’ to provide a match-winning moment.

It may not have worked, but it gave a platform to the Swiss international to show his ability and he has managed to do that with some impressive showings.

(Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

The relegation will hurt Shaqiri today, but his performances over the course of the season mean that he is unlikely to have to play Championship football.

He is far too good for that and he has the opportunity to leave this summer.

The World Cup will be his first priority, but he could use the tournament as a shop window and attract a club of the highest calibre possible.

A top-six club may be beyond him, despite his improvement. However, there will be a lot of Premier League interest and it would be a good decision to remain in England.

The style of football suits him and there is no telling how effective he could be in the right system.

Stoke never provided that, but there will clubs that will. It may not feel like it today, but this season has represented progression for Shaqiri.

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