The Season So Far
Stoke City’s season has collapsed, the wind not only gone from their sails but the hull overflowing with water and a gaping hole in the side of the ship ushering yet more in. Relegation is slowly but surely becoming a reality for the Potters and their fans and barring a miraculous escape, they will begin life in the Championship in August after a very creditable ten year absence from the world’s foulest division.
It’s been a story of mismanagement, delayed reactions to said mismanagement and terrible problem solving. Mark Hughes, long since outed as a man out of his depth in the rarefied air of elite football management, had done admirable work at the Britannia but had lost his way well over a year ago and was somehow allowed to stay and oversee this season. It was no surprise when Stoke started like a team that had absolutely no tactics or spirit whatsoever, and it was equally inevitable when Hughes fell out with senior players over his stubbornness and his aloof manner.
Hughes left in January following an FA Cup defeat to League Two Coventry City, with Stoke still capable of saving themselves, provided they appointed the right manager and plugged the holes in their side with the right players. Instead, they hired Paul Lambert, a manager semi-decent at developing youth and winning promotion to the Premier League, but one with zero credentials as a bottom-of-the-table firefighter and a leader of senior professionals and internationals. It was, in a season of underwhelming appointments, possibly the most misguided hire of all.
Lambert has won just one game of his nine in charge, overseeing miserable losses to off-form Bournemouth and Everton and failing to take the points in must-win games against Watford, Brighton, Leicester and Southampton. With a more inspiring short-term hire, the Potters could have saved themselves and taken a better decision over a new, long-term manager in the summer. Instead, by first hanging onto Hughes for way too long and by appointing the wrong man to take his place, Stoke have ensured their own demise.
If there has been a bright spark, there has been only one: Xherdan Shaqiri, while inconsistent, has been reason enough to keep one eye on Stoke at all times. The nimble, powerful Swiss has magic in his boots and is capable of anything. Not for nothing has he played for Bayern Munich and Internazionale, and he’ll be back at the top level before long. Éric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, as well, will find suitors queuing up at his door.
The Season Ahead
Stoke are three points from safety and have to outperform Southampton and Crystal Palace significantly between now and the end of the season to survive. It’s not impossible – Southampton’s fixtures are positively deadly – but Palace have a fairly decent run-in and can expect to take a reasonable number of points from their remaining games, making Stoke’s task all the more difficult. No-one expects them to beat Tottenham or Liverpool, but games against Burnley, Swansea and a colossal showdown with Palace can and probably will decide their fate.
Paul Lambert has almost always favoured a dynamic 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 in a classic Bundesliga style and he’s been playing the same setup most of the time here. Against the top six he has selected a third midfielder and we should expect Geoff Cameron to take up that role again here, so Stoke should be 4-1-4-1.
The goalkeeper and back four have been set in stone for a while now, but the midfield and the attackers vary – primarily because no-one bar Shaqiri and Joe Allen looks any good. In any case, they’ll look to absorb pressure and break down the flanks, and they won’t produce very much regardless of how hard they work. There’s not really much else to say.
The obvious strength, in case you haven’t realised already, is Xherdan Shaqiri: he is the Potters’ top scorer on 7; their top assister on 6; he has taken more shots than any other player; created more chances; won the second highest number of fouls; and his creativity in open play is matched by his delivery from dead balls. If Stoke threaten at all here, it will certainly be through him and through him only. The good news is this makes them highly predictable.
Their Plan B is to attack via set plays: only four Premier League sides have created more chances from corners this season, and seven have created more chances from free-kicks. This is partly because of their aerial dominance, long a trademark of Stoke City: no team has won more aerial duels per game, or come anywhere near Stoke for that matter.
They’re total crap.
The big worry for ages has been that they don’t score enough goals. Bar Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting, now injured, there’s no-one to put the ball in the net. Mame Biram Diouf is no more than a backup at this level and Peter Crouch is 37 (thirty-seven). On the flanks, there is no creativity bar that of Shaqiri, and there is no quality in midfield bar that of Joe Allen. The stench of mediocrity is overpowering.
The expected goals numbers are not good: in the nine games since Lambert took over, they’ve produced 5.78 xG – only in one game have they actually gone above 1 xG. No-one can be that bad at attacking and not go down.
Stoke have been a joke when it comes to controlling games and protecting their own goal for a couple of years now and nothing’s changed there. This is not the dogged team of years gone by which kept opponents at arms’ length and suckered them on the counter. If Jack Butland doesn’t perform miracles in the Stoke goal, they will concede three or four every week.
The only doubt is whether Diouf will be fit enough to play up front or whether Crouch will take that role. Kurt Zouma will be challenging for a place after recovering from a recent injury, but Lambert seems to fancy the back four that self-destructed at Arsenal last week.
Tottenham have all the momentum and it would be a surprise if that wasn’t converted into goals and points. 2-0, Kane and Alli.