Stoke City have stagnated under Mark Hughes,. There’s no other way to dress it up and he now looks set to be the next Premier League manager to be shown the exit door. The club are in the relegation zone after seven defeats in their last 10 matches.
Reports have emerged claiming his position as manager is being considered but state he will take charge of the FA Cup tie against Coventry City. It’s clear those in making the decisions at the club aren’t on the same page as their manager if they’re weighing up whether he’s the best man to take them forward.
Asked after the game against Newcastle if his four-and-a-half-year reign at the Bet365 Stadium was under threat, Hughes replied: “Who else is going to do it?”
The 54-year-old added: “In terms of the knowledge of the group and the progress in my time here, I’m the best person to do it.”
A ninth placed finish in his first season with the club was their highest in the top flight since 1975 and he repeated the finish in the following two seasons but they fell to 13th in 2016/17 season. It’s a reasonable mid-table finish but they fell seven points short of their 2015/16 points tally.
That’s not progress.
Furthermore, It’s not progress to be at a club for four full seasons yet not have a clear playing identity. The Stoke squad is filled with technical players, ones who need the ball at their feet to flourish but their style this term has been very direct.
Stoke Aren’t Playing To Their Strengths
In fact, no team this season has averaged fewer passes per minute in possession than Stoke (10.2). Ball playing teams like Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool all average 14.5 or more. Stats courtesy of Wyscout.
For further context, the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Burnley, teams famed for their direct style, are the only teams along with Stoke to average fewer than 11 passes.
Eric Choupo-Moting has lead the line at times for Stoke City but averages just the 1.6 aerial duels per 90 minutes – nowhere near Chris Wood’s 4.3 or Salomón Rondón’s 4.1.
Hughes has turned to Peter Crouch at times and although the ex-Liverpool forward is dominant in the air (7.7), he’s 37-years-old at the end of the month and he’s not a reliable goalscorer by any stretch of the imagination.
It doesn’t help that he doesn’t have the right sort of supporting cast behind him. Xherdan Shaqiri, Ramadan Sobhi and Jesé Rodriguez are all players who thrive when they’re able to pick the ball up in the middle third and drive at people. Playing long balls up to Crouch and expecting them to feed off knockdowns in congested areas isn’t playing to their strengths.
For example, Sobhi is averaging 1.5 dribbles this term down from 2.1 last season, Shaqiri is down 0.5 on last season’s tally and Jesé was averaging 2.4 dribbles per 90 minutes for Las Palmas but just the 0.8 whenever he’s played for Stoke. The latter has no doubt struggled adapting to the Premier League but it’s not helped that he’s playing in a direct system.
Then there’s Joe Allen who is still one of the most underrated midfielders in the Premier League. He’s averaging 1.5 dribbles this season, a remarkable number given the system he’s operating in. If Stoke played possession based football they have a player in midfield capable of bypassing the press and creating chances.
He’s another not being used effectively.
Stoke appear to be in limbo because the system doesn’t get the best out of the players. Not only are they averaging the lowest number of passes per minute in the league, they’re also the fourth lowest when it comes to how long they retain possession.
On average they have the ball for 10 seconds. Only West Brom, Leicester City and Burnley have it for less – all of whom are perfectly set up to play directly. Burnley and WBA to target men while Leicester look to make use of the pace they have in attack.
Manchester City are FREAKS. pic.twitter.com/cnoLAlYBSj
— Bobby (@BobbyGardiner) December 23, 2017
To make matters even worse for Hughes’ men, they aren’t pressuring the opposition when not in possession. Teams have, on average, possessions last 21 seconds. Only WBA and Brighton allow the opposition to have the ball longer. A breakdown of these stats can be found here courtesy of Football Whispers’ very own Bobby Gardiner.
Failures in the transfer market
It’s hard to build a style and create an identity when there’s a high turnover of playing staff. Stoke have been active in the market since Hughes arrived at the club. The issue is many of his signings haven’t come good.
Of the players he signed during his first summer in charge only Erik Peters, Stephen Ireland and Marc Muniesa remain, albeit it on loan, after Marko Arnautovic departed in the summer.
Mame Biram Diouf, Bojan, Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell and Philipp Wollscheid arrived during Hughes’ second summer at the club and only the former is still with the club.
The of 2015/16 season saw Stoke bring in a number of players. Gianelli Imbula, Xherdan Shaqiri, Joselu, Jakob Haugaard, Shay Given and Glen Johnson all signed for the club on permanent deals while Marko van Ginkel joined on loan.
Hughes cut short van Ginkel’s deal, Joselu is a Newcastle United player, Imbula is now on loan with Toulouse while Given was released in the summer. Only really Shaqiri and Johnson made an impact on the starting XI.
The 2016/17 season saw Stoke sign Allen, Sohbi and Saido Berahino but only one of those is a regular starter. The club then spent £18 million on Kevin Wimmer during the 2017 summer window as well as a reported £8million on Bruno Martins Indi while bringing in Choupo-Moting, Darren Fletcher and Josh Tymon on free transfers.
Clubs pay scouts and analysts big money to identify players to fit a certain profile. If signings are failing it’s either an issue with recruitment or an issue with the manager.
A Porous Defence
The expected goals stat is becoming more common in football these days. The next stat to be adopted by mainstream media will be the expected goals against one. It gives a number to the high quality chances your team concedes in a match.
In terms of xGA this season no team in the Premier League is worse than Stoke. Using understat.com again, you can see the opposition have created high quality chances worth 40.15 goals in just 22 matches. At their current rate they’re on target to have an xGA for the season of 70. Only two teams during the 2016/17 season conceded more than 70 and one of them went down.
In reality they’ve conceded 47 goals this season so they may be outperforming their xGA but even when doing this they’re still the worst in the league.
Sometimes it can be put down to bad luck but Hughes and his players can’t lay all the blame on that when the xGA is just as bad.
Team are creating high quality chances against them at an alarming rate and it’s not something that should be happening when you’re playing a direct 3-4-3 system.
They’re looking to play long whenever possible which means they should have plenty of men behind the ball. Furthermore, they’re not pressing the opposition so they should be compact and hard to play through.
Hughes may have taken Stoke forward initially but the club need a new man at the helm now if they’re to avoid a relegation battle. One with an identity and one who can get the best out of the players at his disposal because right now all the stats are pointing towards this being sustainable and not just a blip.