The Season So Far
Much like Stoke City’s 2015-16 season, so far 2016-17 has been something of a triumph against the odds. Manager Mark Hughes has almost never had a full-strength eleven to put on the pitch, and even though they’ve never managed to put together a coherent system or stem the tide of shots on their goal, they’re in 9th place as always, miles clear of the relegation battle and, somehow, enjoying themselves all the while.
The season started horrifically. Getting thumped by Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs is nothing to be embarrassed about – most Premier League teams will suffer that fate this season – but getting absolutely destroyed by the likes of Crystal Palace and losing to Bournemouth doesn’t speak well of anyone. Most of all, this does not reflect well on the manager.
Signings like Wilfried Bony, Bruno Martins Indi and Giannelli Imbula were supposed to raise the bar in the Potteries, but while Martins Indi has impressed at times, Bony and Imbula have flopped horrendously, sucked into the same mediocre stupor as the rest of the squad. This does not reflect well on the manager.
On the plus side, Joe Allen has impressed in a surprisingly un-Welsh-Xavi box-to-box/second-striker role, but besides Allen, Martins Indi and left-back Erik Pieters, no Stoke player has had a good season. Well, maybe Mame Biram Diouf, but, well… he’s Mame Biram Diouf.
Admittedly, Stoke’s rotten luck with injuries has consistently hampered their chances of improving as a unit. Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and Geoff Cameron have all been unavailable for varying spells, while injuries to first choice strikers and goalkeeper have meant that Peter Crouch (35) and Shay Given (40) have seen rather more action than expected, while Jonathan Walters (33) keeps getting minutes under his belt.
And yet… they’re still 9th.
The Season Ahead
There remains the hope that one day Stoke will click and produce the spectacular football they’re so obviously capable of, but under Hughes it’s hard to shake the feeling that they’ll forever remain maddeningly flawed and easy to beat. This does not reflect well on the manager.
The manager’s position remains in doubt and after a horrible spell in winter Hughes came perilously close to losing his job. The worst thing is that even when Stoke win, they don’t look like a proper team. Looking at the numbers, it doesn’t look like they have any kind of plan, or a style of play, or an identity, nor that they’re moving towards one at any notable rate. Frankly, what Hughes does on the training ground all week is anyone’s guess.
To be fair to Hughes, there’s also a strong argument against sacking him – at least until the important absentees have returned and he’s been allowed to fail with his strongest team. Basically, there’s every chance things will turn around as soon as the likes of Butland and Cameron returned and Shaqiri and Bojan found form, regardless of the manager’s identity. If Stoke can finally put their strongest team out and nothing changes, then Hughes really will be on a hiding to nothing.
For most of the season, Hughes has switched between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations depending on the opposition and his team’s aims in the game. Regardless of whichever system they use they’re pretty unbalanced and very poor at keeping the ball, so the basic idea seems to be to pack the centre and make it hard for the other team to progress up the pitch. At their worst – in the 4-1 shellacking away to Liverpool, for example – they’ve been beyond dire. At their best, they’ve been just about okay. This does not reflect well on the manager.
On the plus side, their deep (read: out of control) base position gave a lot of space to play on the counter, and Joe Allen has expertly exploited space and driven Stoke up the pitch all season. Shaqiri and Marko Arnautović, unsurprisingly, have caught the eye when things have gotten frantic enough to allow them to play one-against-one with opposition full-backs, but neither has produced the goods anywhere near as often as their talent suggests they should have. This does not reflect well on the manager.
Most of Stoke’s strengths are pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They remain positively mighty in the air: 21.6 aerial duels won per game is the third highest average in the league, and although Tony Pulis is long gone, the Potters retain the look of a team built by the evil Welshman: eleven of their players are 6’1” or taller and several of those have yet to learn that the ball can be kicked as well as headed.
Unsurprisingly, given their lack of ability to control games or play as a collective, Stoke have to work very hard off the ball. However, little of this hard work comes in midfield and even less in attack, meaning that the back five does basically everything to stop Stoke conceding goals. This does not reflect well on the manager.
On a more positive (and bizarre) note, only Bournemouth have been fouled more times than Stoke so far this season. If these fouls were won in the box, or if Stoke had a coherent plan to exploit set pieces via the cultured left feet of Shaqiri and Charlie Adam, for example, they could make something of this. Alas, they don’t.
So, in summary: no significant strengths bar the occasional flash of individual talent and the guile of Allen.
Stoke’s shot figures are basically atrocious. 11.5 total shots per game taken is one of the league’s middling figures, just below the league average, while 3.8 shots on target per game puts them below Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Swansea and Watford. While personnel issues may go some way to explaining this, the fact is Stoke can’t make chances or finish them. This does not reflect well on the manager.
To make matters considerably worse, they’ve allowed an average of 14.6 shots per game and 4.7 of them have ended up on target. One reason that Stoke give away so many chances is that they can’t keep the ball or win it back: 75.7% pass completion is one of the league’s lower averages, while they don’t make anywhere near enough tackles or interceptions to balance out their basic badness. On top of this, they’re prone to making atrocious individual errors and gifting the opposition chances. No team blocks fewer passes and only three teams block more shots. It’s very difficult to have such a pitiful attacking threat and so little stopping the opposition getting to your goal and do anything other than lose.
When you’re struggling to compete that badly and giving away that many shots, you need your keeper to bail you out. Last season Jack Butland did a very good job of that, and won many plaudits in the process, but in his absence the decrepit Shay Given and the below-par Lee Grant have been rather worse. Butland can’t return soon enough.
TL;DR: Mark Hughes is an idiot.
As ever, Stoke’s line-up will be heavily depleted by injuries and will bear little resemblance to what is theoretically their strongest eleven. This is good news for Spurs.
After yet another European embarrassment, Spurs badly need a win here. They’ll surely get one.