Earlier today a message appeared in a twitter group chat, it read: “Right. Does anyone have an actual explanation for Fletcher?” The discussion moved onto how bizarre Fletcher’s decline has been, something that would normally only occur due to injury. Suggestions quickly came; ‘he’s just past it’, ‘maybe he is carrying an injury’, ‘he’s lost the ability to read the game’, but none of these seem to be a satisfactory enough answer.
Fletcher initially appeared to be a dominating midfielder (I even did a stats show on him), the likes Stoke had not seen since a Frenchman scorned us and moved to Spain. So for him to tail off so drastically to a point where many were wanting the return of Charlie Adam, seems totally perplexing.
Stoke have signed two fullbacks in the space of a week. That sentence will be the music to Potters fans’ ears considering the options that have been available for the last few months. A heavily declined England international, a striker, a Dutchman who just can’t seem to get it right and two developing teenagers have left Stoke crippled in the increasingly more important areas on a football pitch. Each of those mentioned either have or will have their part to play in Stoke City’s development and deserve our respect. However, Stoke’s defensive width is currently lacking and has been need of a revamp for a while. The arrival of new manager Paul Lambert was sandwiched between the signings of Moritz Bauer and Kostas Stafylidis. Let’s see what we’re getting.
Moritz Bauer is a 25-year-old Swiss-born Austrian right back. He arrived for £5.5m from Russian outfit Rubin Kazan and has signed a contract with Stoke which expires in 2022. Bauer’s professional career started in his native country with Grasshoppers, before earning a move to Russia in the Summer of 2016. Bauer spent 18 months with Rubin Kazan and broke into the Austrian national team during this time, he has four caps currently. Interestingly, Moritz is also a qualified pilot and flies regularly between football. He is also a polyglot and can also speak five languages including, perhaps most relevant currently, English.
Almost a week has passed since that sad Saturday afternoon in which Stoke City were sitting in the relegation zone, dumped out of the FA Cup to a heavily-rotated League 2 side and lost their manager. I wanted to allow time to pass before reacting to the weekend’s events: emotions were at an all-time high and I believe it’s important to respond with a clear head and heart. I want this to be a statement of gratitude for all the work you’ve done over the last four-and-a-half years: nothing more, nothing less. You deserve that.
Stoke City sit 18th place in the league, 4 points away from the bottom, with the worst goal difference in the league and worst defence in all of Europe’s major leagues. I remind everyone of this because I hope the board have failed to realise any of this, and that this ignorance is the reason Hughes is still in charge.
I would find it much easier to sleep tonight if Hughes remained in charge because of gross incompetence rather than an actual decision reached by discussion and critical thought.
Indulge with me as I tell you the tale of my most miserable afternoon as a Stoke City fan to date.
It’s matchday. I’ve driven back from Loughborough in the ice after moving out of my university accommodation for the Christmas break and I’ve arrived back in Stoke ready to brace the elements to go and watch my team play. I knew it was a big game today, with both teams threatened with relegation and an ex-Potters hero coming back to his old hunting ground. It’s been difficult to get excited about Stoke City in recent weeks, this time though I was pumped. Little did I know that this game was to be one of the most emotionally demanding I’d ever attended.
It wasn’t a great start to the afternoon, me and my dad had left home and arrived in Fenton without the tickets. We were worried that we’d miss the start of the game, with that and the fact that travelling to the stadium was being slowed down by the icy walkways. It turns out the delay to our adventure wasn’t going to cost us: a power surge at the bet365 Stadium meant that kick off was delayed until by an hour and we’d be locked outside the stadium in the freezing cold. It’s fair to say the fans were even more fired up, if nothing else.
We now have joint worse ‘goals against’ tally in the Premier League, having conceded 26 goals in 13 matches. Crystal Palace continued the awful stat of an average conceding rate at two goals per game; and yet I find myself scratching my head and thinking has it really only been 26?
The Premier League this season has been full of goals, this is partly due to the ‘big teams’ turning up this year, and we certainly felt that against Manchester City. However, the new craze that has swept the Premier League has left most teams now playing wing backs in a back three or back five, depending on how defensive or offensive the team has set up . Mark Hughes set this formation up early on in pre-season and made it clear that this was the formation he wanted to start the season with. The big question now is, why has this formation failed so badly? Or is it a work in progress?
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.
This question seems to be the strongest thread preventing the trap door from falling under Mark Hughes. Initially it appears to be a valid question, the market is not currently swarming with clear choices to come in and take control of Stoke. But with some deeper thought there is a wealth of targets that Mr. Coates can pursue should he finally lose patience with a manager blaming the wind for defeats. I’ve decided to put these options into a few different categories and will pick a most likely option from each to discuss in a little bit more detail.
Following a colourless season last year, being handed a tough start to the 2017/18 campaign and having spent the least amount of money in the Premier League: many fans and pundits outside of Stoke-on-Trent have tipped the Potters to struggle this season. Robbie Savage is one of those pundits: predicting that Premier League clubs will overtake Stoke in his column in The Mirror. Having played the game and spent his time following his playing days as a pundit, Robbie probably knows a hell of a lot more on the workings of football than I do. However, I can’t help but feel that some of Savage’s views are a little short-sighted when it comes to his disapproval of Stoke City’s ambition and that the clubs’s hierarchy are doing a better job than he, and other media outlets, are making out.
It’s fair to say that, on the whole, spending by Premier League clubs have inflated to ludicrous levels. Big money spent by Europe’s elite is compounding with the Premier League’s riches and transfer fees are inflating more than ever, leaving transfer records smashed day after day. Having only bought one player permanently for a transfer fee (£7m for Bruno Martins Indi), Stoke are one of the few exceptions to the rule and Savage says that Mark Hughes should feel frustrated that his squad hasn’t benefitted from similar levels of spending. He says that Saido Berahino and Peter Crouch will not be enough to bring in the amount of goals needed to survive in the Premier League and that Stoke will pay the price for not investing in a proven hitman.
As we all know, The Stoke City Transfer policy at the moment seems to be a bit of a shambles. Not only have we let the passion go out of the club (see my previous blog on my thoughts of that) but all we have signed is an ageing midfielder and an un-experienced left back that nobody knows if he can challenge Eric for the first team (God I hope he can).
Now, I have heard some people moaning on the BearPit page that Mark Hughes doesn’t know what he is doing, or that Coates is a tight ass and doesn’t want to splash the cash. One thing that I haven’t heard is that Tony Scholes who is basically the man to bring in the players doesn’t have the skills to do so. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts of that in the comments.