Before I start let’s just establish some ground rules. Just because I criticise the manager and suggest that he may no longer be the best man for the job does not mean I do not support the club. Obviously we have been much worse in the past but this is totally irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and my demand for more comes from the care I hold. Further to this when a player is criticised it is done so for their current performances and their history with the club should not have a drastic effect on the debate. Okay, agreed? Good. Let’s get into it then, the performance against Bournemouth shows serious failings within the management of Stoke City. This is for a number of reasons that will be covered in this blog post.
One of the major talking points after the match this weekend has turned to the importance of the Irishman within our squad. This derives from the lack of a holding midfield presence within the side, and is not actually Stoke missing the underperforming Glenn Whelan, but Mark Hughes neglecting the importance of this role.
Above are some average position maps from the Bournemouth, West Ham, Hull and Sunderland matches. These clearly show the missing hole at the base of the midfield in the Bournemouth fixture, whilst the bottom two (Hull and Sunderland) show how Cameron also sits in this important position, and it was in these two games where we kept our only clean sheets. This clearly points to a managerial failing, as one of two things has occurred. Hughes has either failed to instruct one of Charlie Adam or Joe Allen, who plays in this exact position for Wales, to fill in to this holding role. Or it indicates a failing from Hughes to see that neither of these players were playing in this role as both players stayed on, in the same position, for the entire 90 minutes.
If you manage to sit at a match and not lose a significant proportion of hair come the 70th minute then my hat is well and truly off for you. It is a moment in the match that I can firmly say that I dread. The moment when Hughes chooses to bring on a pair of immobile, inaccurate and lethargic attackers; who have not scored a league goal for a combined total of 796 days. In doing so he leaves the most promising talent from an entire continent on the bench and leaves one of our quickest and most athletic players out of the match day squad. I ask you to put yourself in the shoes of a tiring defender, who would you rather face for the last 20 minutes of the match Mame Biram Diouf or Jon Walters? I know who I’d pick. Combine this with the failure to spot the gaping hole in the midfield on Saturday and I would much rather Mark Hughes stop making subs all together.
Who do we Play?
Hughes appears to struggle to pick a side when the side isn’t picking itself. We saw it last season with the revolving door policy on who would lead the attacking line. Over the season 5 different players were played in the role with the longest run of matches going to Bojan with only 6 consecutive starts. This season it appears to be the central midfielders who are facing the revolving door policy. Cameron, Whelan, Adam, Allen, Imbula and Bojan are the players who have played in the central three so far this year and we are only 12 games in. Yes there has been injuries to this area of the pitch but even when 2 of these six our out the one to miss out is the 18 million pounds record signing.
How do we Play?
This is a question that plagues me most match days, Stoke seem to be the only side in the entire Premier League who lack a clear and defined style. The attitude towards our tactical set up currently seems to be “ooo we will try this and see if it works”. The instant something or someone comes unstuck, and is exploited, the whole system undergoes a revamp. This was best shown with the short lived ‘false nine’ formation that saw Stoke totally dominate two of the best sides in the League, and then was scrapped the second it went wrong. The formation was not perfect, but the two losses suffered against Palace and West Brom came from a) a wonder goal and b) an awful referring performance. The true disappointment of the false nine came against Liverpool in the cup semi-final, as Klopp out-pressed Stoke, something he has shown since then that his side can do to almost any side. Instead of trying to adapt the formation it was binned and never seen again.
The best example of the total lack of tactical awareness is the current situation revolving around Wilfried Bony. Bony played so deep against Bournemouth that his average position had him sat behind Joe Allen, and this comes from a variety of factors, the main being a refusal to play to his strengths. Bony is best at holding the ball up just in front of the defence, drawing out defenders and such creating gaps for others to run into. But this could not be further away from how Stoke play, the main service Bony receives currently is through balls into channels that he will never ever ever reach. When signing a new striker you would have expected Hughes to adjust the style to accommodate to his new main man, but the former Welsh centre forward has failed to do so yet again.
So What Now?
Mark Hughes has 6 months to address these problems. Failing to do so, in the most competitive Premier League to date, will see Stoke tumble down the table to mid table mediocrity. The question over the dismissal of Hughes is not will we go down? It is instead will we go up? By up I mean further progression with the final aim of being in Europe. The fact we are even having to discuss relegation is a huge sign of failure. If Hughes fails to implement the change required and Stoke do slip into the lower half of the table then the month of June may be a month of enforced change. If you disagree and think everything is okay then let me leave you with one stat. In 2016 Stoke have only beaten two sides outside of the bottom 5, and we have just failed to beat those two sides in our last two fixtures.
Written by Tom Thrower
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