Stoke City’s indifferent start to the season has left manager Mark Hughes under pressure. Despite the Welshman originally being viewed as the man to lead Stoke into a new era, patience from the stands is beginning to wear thin. With the Potters sitting 15th in the table, is it time for Hughes to move on?
In the summer of 2013, Mark Hughes was chosen as the successor to club stalwart, Tony Pulis. The mood around the Potteries was bleak, with Pulis’ style turning even the most bullish fan into a pessimist. The project that Hughes was about to undertake, wasn’t just about a ‘new manager bounce’, but a complete overhaul of approach.Embed from Getty Images
Under Pulis, Stoke would play a regimented 4-5-1 with an extremely low rate of ball retention. His idea was to hit his front man with direct passing, in an attempt to bypass the midfield and retain the ball in the opponents half.
His compatriot’s switch to a more possession based, short passing philosophy, gave the players a chance to build attacks rather than launch them. Despite difficulties implementing his new ethos, the changes enacted by Hughes were irrefutable. This was reflected in the end of season statistics, which positioned Stoke City in 11th for short passes completed – an 8 place rise on the previous season.
The freedom provided by Hughes’ less structured ideology, took Stoke to three consecutive 9th place finishes. The humdrum style of their previous manager was beginning to feel like a distant memory, with other teams beginning to show Stoke the respect they deserved.
Hughes’ side struggled to get going at the start of the 16/17 campaign, finding themselves winless after 7 games. With the sale of Premier League viewing rights inflating the transfer market, top flight clubs were finding it difficult to find value. Despite the increase in revenue, Stoke City went on to spend £10m less over the next two transfer windows than the previous season. A point in time that some fans hark back to, when asked for their opinion on Stoke’s recent struggles.Embed from Getty Images
Regardless of transfer dealings, Stoke fans were used to their team showing grit and determination – with the infamous weather driven cliche, continually being hauled out before the majority of winter fixtures. However, as the campaign drew to a close, hopeful buoyancy had turned to dejected despondency, with Stoke lapsing to their worst finish under Hughes.
Despite the majority of media outlets focusing on their final league position, what proved to be more alarming, was their frequent capitulations throughout the campaign and beyond. In their previous 62 league fixtures, Stoke City have conceded 4 or more goals on 13 occasions. This contributes heavily to their current league position, having conceded 36 league goals in only 17 games.
One of the early alterations implemented by Hughes, was the change in philosophy. The adjustments to personnel and tactics, allowed his Stoke side to rise up the table and become a more aesthetically pleasing team to watch. However, Stoke’s eventual fall from grace wasn’t only linked to conceding a high amount of goals, but also to a deviation from it’s intended identity.Embed from Getty Images
Across his initial three years at the club, Hughes’ side averaged 49% possession and 77% pass accuracy. Though their figures may not seem significant, a correlation appeared with regard to ball retention and final league standing. Though their 9th place finish slightly outperforms the underlying statistics, the measured style implemented by Hughes was beginning to have the desired effect.
Since their drop off in performance, Hughes has adapted his thinking in an attempt to get the best out of his players. Despite some positives, his tendency to tinker with match tactics from game to game, seems more counterintuitive than productive.
The lack of consistent characteristics displayed by Hughes’ side, may be a cause for concern. Not in terms of relapsing to their previous approach all together, but switching between styles from week to week. This constant change in build up, causes players to question what positions to take up, resulting in confusion and a seeming lack of intent.Embed from Getty Images
If the theory of correlation between passing metrics and final league position is to be believed, Stoke may be required to adopt a more consistent way of attacking. Currently, only one team is under performing Hughes’ side in possession – with just three teams having a lower success rate of passing. The numbers posted by Stoke may seem inconsequential, but with their methodology so intrinsically linked to success in the league, improvements in terms of ball retention may be crucial if their form is to improve.
Regardless of how he could improve performances whilst in possession, it is paramount that Hughes begins to fix his side’s long-term defensive frailties. Despite Stoke steering off relegation thus far, a top flight team conceding 4+ goals in 1 out of every 5 league matches, can only be a recipe for disaster.
The upcoming visit of West Ham United, whilst important in terms of the club’s relegation worries, could represent the last chance for Hughes to destabilise his beliefs. However, if the Welshman is unable to reinforce his original ideology, or find a new one that benefits his players, a win this weekend may just be a prolonging the inevitable.