The Season So Far
Stoke City’s 2015-16 season was something of a triumph against the odds. Mark Hughes almost never had a full-strength eleven to put on the pitch, and even though they never managed to put together a coherent system or stem the tide of shots on their goal – no team in the top half of the table scored fewer goals or conceded more – they finished in 9th, avoided the relegation battle completely and bloodied the noses of some of the Premier League’s big boys to boot.
Instead of kicking on and cementing their place in mid-table with performances that match results, Stoke have been even worse than last season. 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.
Signings like Wilfried Bony, Bruno Martins Indi and Giannelli Imbula were supposed to raise the bar, but instead all have been sucked into the same mediocre stupor as the rest of the squad. Arguably the worst thing is that even when Stoke win, they don’t look like a proper team. Frankly, what Hughes does on the training ground all week is anyone’s guess.
Admittedly, Stoke’s rotten luck with injuries has continued in the same vein as last season. 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.
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. Now only seven points above the drop zone, most Stoke fans will surely be hoping that their 2016-17 doesn’t turn into a relegation battle. It’s not particularly likely, if only because Hull, Swansea and Sunderland remain total garbage, while Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Leicester will all pick up points at a slower rate than the Potters. That said, there’s most definitely a sinking feeling at the Britannia and some kind of change is needed.
After a season and a half of dire performances and now four games without a win, manager Hughes is fighting to save his job. Odds on him being the next Premier League manager to be sacked are falling and discontent is becoming more vocal among the Stoke faithful. In the short term, Hughes badly needs to put a run of results together. That being the case, a visit to Stamford Bridge is hardly ideal.
While it’s very difficult to shake the feeling that Hughes has overseen a long period of relative stagnation after initially pushing on and moving Stoke away from the horrors of late-era Pulisball, 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 out. Basically, there’s every chance things would 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 that doesn’t happen, 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 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. In the last game, the 4-1 shellacking away to Liverpool, Hughes played a Conte-esque 3-4-2-1 and it may be the same here – although given the last result, perhaps not.
It hasn’t really worked for them – in their last five games, Stoke have received 95 (NINETY-FIVE) shots on their goal. Even Burnley, who have averaged a paltry 9.3 shots per game this season and can’t score goals away from home, took 14 shots at the Britannia.
On the plus side, their deep (read: out of control) base position gives a lot of space to the freewheeling midfielder Giannelli Imbula, who has so far averaged an admirable 2.3 dribbles per game this season. Joe Allen has also prospered in a box-to-box role, expertly exploiting space and driving Stoke up the pitch. Shaqiri and Marko Arnautović, unsurprisingly, have at times caught the eye when things have gotten frantic enough to allow them to play one-against-one with opposition full-backs, but nowhere near as often as they arguably should have.
Most of Stoke’s strengths are pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They remain positively mighty in the air: 20.7 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 have yet to be told that the ball can be kicked as well as headed.
Unsurprisingly, given their lack of ability to control games or play as a coherent unit, Stoke have to work hard off the ball. Only four teams make more tackles per game, only three teams block more shots and only six teams block more crosses. That said, despite such defensive heroics, only five teams have seen their keepers worked more often.
On a more positive (and bizarre) note, only Chelsea have been fouled more times than Stoke so far this season. If these fouls were won in the box, or if they had a coherent plan to exploit set pieces via the cultured left feet of Shaqiri and Charlie Adam, for example, Stoke could make something of this. Alas, they don’t.
So, in summary: no significant strengths.
How long have we got?
Stoke’s shot figures are basically atrocious. 11.6 total shots per game taken is one of the league’s middling figures, while 3.7 shots on target per game puts them below 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. To compound matters, they’ve allowed an average of 14.3 shots per game and 4.8 of them have ended up on target. It’s very difficult to have so little attacking threat and so little stopping the opposition and do anything other than lose.
One reason that Stoke give away so many chances is that they can’t keep the ball or win it back: 75.5% pass completion is one of the league’s lower averages, while 12.2 interceptions per game is the league’s second lowest figure and 5.5 passes blocked per game the lowest. On top of this, they’re prone to making atrocious individual errors and gifting the opposition chances.
When you’re struggling to compete that badly and giving away that many shots – 95 in the last five games, remember – you need your keeper to bail you out. Last season Jack Butland did a very good job of that, but in his absence the decrepit Shay Given and the below-par Lee Grant have been rather worse. Butland can’t return soon enough.
Also, this is less a weakness than a warning: Charlie Adam will try to rearrange Eden Hazard’s skeleton.
After the horror show at Anfield, Mark Hughes must be desperate to make eleven changes to his side. However, his options remain limited. A similar side will take to the field at Stamford Bridge, presumably with very clear orders not to dare be so stupid again.
The in-form Pedro is suspended, so presumably Willian will keep his place in the side, while Eden Hazard will drop back to accommodate the returning Diego Costa. The unlucky Cesc Fàbregas will probably drop out of the side.
Anything other than a comfortable Chelsea win would be a massive shock.