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Stoke City

The three reasons behind Mark Hughes’ Stoke City dismissal

Martyn Cooke



Photo: Reuters

Mark Hughes became the latest high-profile managerial casualty of the season when he was sacked by Stoke City just hours after the club had been knocked out of the FA Cup by League Two side Coventry City.

The result marked a new low point in what has been an increasingly turbulent, disappointing and concerning season for supporters and with The Potters having slipped into the relegation zone less than seven days earlier it was no surprise to see the club hierarchy dismiss their Welsh manager.

Hughes had been one of the longest serving managers in the Premier League prior to his dismissal and although his time in The Potteries ended on a sour note the 54-year-old should look back on his four-and-a-half years at the club with some pride.

He led Stoke to three consecutive top-ten finishes in the top flight for the first time in almost a century and helped to reinvent the team’s playing style, switching to a more possession-based philosophy after the direct football employed by his predecessor Tony Pulis.

However, the last eighteen months have seen a gradual decline in performances and results eventually culminating in Hughes being relieved of his duties. Here, The Boot Room looks at three reasons why Stoke decided to part company with ‘Sparky’.

Poor performances and results

Football managers are ultimately judged on the results and performances that they can inspire out on the pitch and in the last eighteen months they quite simply have not been good enough under Mark Hughes.

The Potters currently sit eighteenth in the Premier League table and have been sliding towards the relegation zone since mid-November.

In addition to this, the team were knocked out of both domestic cup competitions at the first time of asking after being defeated by Bristol City in the League Cup and by League Two side Coventry City in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Ultimately this has led to supporters having little to look forward to for the remainder of the season barring a relegation battle.

However, it was the manner of the performances, rather than the results themselves, that ultimately led to Hughes’ demise. Stoke have the worst defensive record of any team in any of Europe’s top-flight divisions and have been conceding over two goals per game on average so far this campaign.

The team have been on the receiving end of a number of hammerings, including against Manchester City (7-2), Tottenham Hotspur (5-1) and Chelsea (4-0 and 5-0), which has been further exacerbated by defeats to clubs in the bottom half of the table, exemplified by home losses against Bournemouth (2-1), Newcastle United (1-0) and West Ham United (3-0).

Results and performances were not acceptable for a team that has now spent a decade in the top flight and there has been little in recent weeks to suggest that Hughes was capable of turning Stoke’s fortunes around.

A loss of identity

Two years after his appointment Mark Hughes had built a Stoke City team that had a clear identity.

The Welshman had implemented a new style of play that promoted possession-based football and dynamic attacking play, far removed from the direct approach adopted by his predecessor Tony Pulis, with players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic and Bojan Krkic providing the flare and creativity.

The Potters ripped apart Manchester City and Manchester United during December 2015 with the team being referred to by the media as ‘Stoke-alona’ as Hughes’ vision for the club began to take shape.

However, defeat in the League Cup semi-final against Liverpool in early 2016 appeared to signal the decline in Stoke’s fortunes. Results and performances began to deteriorate and the possession-based football slowly began to be eroded and replaced by a reliance on long balls and crosses towards Peter Crouch. Arnautovic and Bojan both departed the club and soon the team had lost all sense of identity, stumbling along from week-to-week.

Hughes clearly did not know what his best team was and this was reflected in the constant switching of personnel and formation. His decision to switch to a 3-4-3 formation at the start of the season, despite having no adequate wing-backs in the squad, was incredibly naïve on reflection and supporters were left scratching their heads watching striker Mame Biram Diouf effectively being shoe-horned in as a right-back.

In the final months of his reign Hughes had reverted to a 4-5-1 system with the team aimlessly lumping direct balls in the direction of an isolated Peter Crouch. The ‘Stoke-a-lona’ identity was long gone.

Errors in the transfer market

The gradual decline in Stoke City’s fortunes on the pitch has occurred in parallel with an increasing number of failures and mistakes in the transfer market. Whilst Mark Hughes should be credited for bringing the likes of Bojan Kirkic and Marko Arnautovic to The Potteries for minimal fees in his debut season his more recent signings have been catastrophic.

Club record signing Giannelli Imbula was signed for in excess of £18 million in January 2016 but, despite a bright start to his Stoke career, he quickly found himself frozen out of the first team squad altogether and is currently on loan a Toulouse.

Likewise, Saido Berahino was purchased for £12 million from Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion in order to solve the club’s goal scoring dilemma but instead the striker has failed to hold down a regular first team spot and has yet to find the net in his first year with the club.

In short, Hughes has wasted significant amounts of money in recent transfer windows on players that have made absolutely no impact at the club. These failing have been further exacerbated by the 54-year-old’s failure to address some of the key issues that have undermined Stoke’s performances this season, with his refusal to purchase natural wing-backs in the summer, despite using a 3-4-3 formation, an especially bizarre error of judgement.

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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