A week ago, Stoke lost 7-2 to a spellbinding Manchester City side. Despite it being Stoke’s heaviest defeat under Mark Hughes, the fans’ response after the game was relatively calm. Probably partially due to the sheer ruthlessness of the Citizens and partially due the string of heavy Stoke defeats over the last couple of seasons prior to this game. The Stoke players and manager demanded a reaction against Bournemouth; after a very difficult opening set of fixtures, this game was certainly a chance for Stoke’s season to kickstart. Stoke proceeded to lose to Bournemouth 2-1 at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday, and it appears those in the club who were prompting a ‘reaction’ wore no trousers.
This defeat saw Stoke plunge into the bottom three after nine games, a quarter of a season, played. Admittedly, it was a fate that was predicted at the start of the season – Stoke have already faced five of last season’s top seven – and it’s a situation that Stoke have plenty of time to turn around. Despite this, Potters fans’ frustrations have peaked. Talks of the club regressing, a growing sense of apathy and evidence of time, money and talent being wasted means that fans’ hostility – to the club and each other – is at its highest in years.
Let’s start by talking about the Bournemouth game in isolation. In terms of the result, this is poor: one of the more winnable fixtures of the season tossed away, despite the fact that Stoke should have been given at least two penalties in the game and therefore a chance to take all three points. The performance as a whole was nothing short of shameful for the majority of the game. Being 2-0 within the opening sixteen minutes is unacceptable against any team, let alone a side who currently sit in one of the available two spots below Stoke. To then respond by allowing the opposition to sit comfortably and protect their lead is equally as bad. It wasn’t a case of a lack of effort but no Stoke player showed any composure, I think, at any point in the game: passes were inexplicably astray, tackles wild, penetration basically non-existent.
This was eptomised I think by Bournemouth’s second goal: having just conceded the first, Darren Fletcher receives the ball from kick off and immediately concedes a throw in deep into the Stoke half. The Cherries were unmarked as they breezed their way into the penalty area, only for returning captain Ryan Shawcross to stupidly hack down Benik Afobe in the area and concede a penalty. Stoke weren’t outdone, or outfought, or blown away for this goal; they simply just didn’t think about what they were doing. It was barbaric.
It wasn’t as if this was just a one-off, it was a common theme throughout the ninety minutes. Erik Pieters and Geoff Cameron were especially guilty of giving up possession in crucial situations. Kurt Zouma looked a shadow of his former self following the previous week’s humiliation, although still the best of the defenders in red and white. Glen Johnson’s performance was summed up by being greeted by one of the more aggressive jeers that I’ve ever heard, after being subbed off with half an hour still to play. Jese, although inventive, failed to pull off anything of note. Maxim Choupo-Moting and Mame Diouf were making darting runs all game but none of their teammates deemed them good enough to respond too with a through pass. Allen, although industrious and man of the match, couldn’t unpick the Bournemouth defence any better than anyone else on the field. No one excelled. No one.
Now I do understand that Stoke are, once again, were without some key players for this game. We missed Xherdan Shaqiri’s impact going forward, Bruno Martins Indi would have bolstered the defence, recent debutante Tom Edwards probably would have started at right wing back. But we cannot allow ourselves to simply capitulate without any of these players. We should, and do, have enough quality in squad depth to overrun some of the sides we’re currently losing too. We can’t rely on just our talisman to carry us through matches, simply for times such as this.
The tactics were ridiculous too. Stoke’s Twitter account posted a weather warning for wind at the bet365 Stadium; this clearly didn’t reach the manager as he seemed content enough to allow his players to kick the ball long, high and into the gales. The formation changed at least twice in the game and, not only were there square pegs in round holes, I would say that some players didn’t really know their roles. Certainly some players are bemused with some tactics: Choupo-Moting was visibly nonplussed by Stoke’s infamous long-ball kick off routine for example. The Sentinel’s Pete Smith has claimed that the players are behind the manager. I’m sure they would be, he seems like a good man manager in certain situations; although I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that all that players have some concerns and that certain players are unhappy with the current regime altogether.
Above all this, what’s concerning is that this performance was one primed as a ‘reaction’. If that’s Stoke trying to prove the doubters wrong, to prove that our position in the league is a false one, to prove that we’re better than this… I’m deeply concerned. However I can quite understand that it was the performance of a team that have just been pasted. The tentativeness, the absence of risk, the desperation in the tackle; it’s human nature that players would behave like this, but it is counter-intuitive. It makes me wonder whether the manager is unable to instill confidence or fire back into the side and whether he’s just allowing the team to let their concerns rot away inside them.
What’s even more concerning is that this isn’t the only time we’ve been promised a reaction this season. After the thumping by Chelsea, after being binned out of the cup by Bristol City, after damp squib of a performance at St. James’ Park. After none of these promises did we really respond, even the Southampton win after the Chelsea match was less than convincing to say the least. Mark Hughes speaks so eloquently in his press conferences but I wonder how much of what he says to the press is repeated back in the dressing room. We’ve heard it all before, and I for one am getting bored of it.
And then bringing the lens further back, it’s been almost two years since that League Cup semi final disappointment at Anfield and Stoke have never truly recovered since. The lethargic football is a catalyst for the dry goal return and sieve-like defence. Players that have been promised game-time and opportunities have been given otherwise. Millions and millions of pounds worth of untrusted talent are either on the bench, not in the squad or on loan in a different country. The amount of thumping defeats to the top teams, the amount of careless performances against our league rivals and the amount of shock cup upsets we’ve accumulated it far from good enough.
If we’d always been this way under Mark Hughes I would understand. We could claim that his appointment was a mistake and we could move onto a different plan with no complaints from either party. Yet it’s the fact that Mark Hughes has achieved fantastic things with Stoke, we’ve bought and utilised genuinely world class players and Stoke fans have witnessed some of the greatest football this age old club have ever produced under his management. We are regressing, and there’s little evidence to suggest that the club realise that anyone from the players, to the management, to the top of the hierarchy are going to do anything about it, or even know that the issue exists. I think I speak for the majority of Stoke fans when I say the fans want change, whatever it takes. Because this isn’t acceptable
Come on, Stoke City, give us a real damn reaction.
Written by Ben Rowley
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