The Season So Far
Stoke City’s season has been something of a disappointment and unless results improve soon, heads will roll. It’s worth saying that at least Stoke haven’t gone the way of Everton, West Ham or Crystal Palace, clubs of similar stature who have made a total mess of their campaigns and will take years to recover, but at the same time the Potters are quietly drifting into a relegation battle when they were supposed to be looking to move up the table after years of comfortable mid-table finishes. Mark Hughes is now under concerted pressure from the fans and the media, and seems a pretty good bet to be the next Premier League manager to leave his job.
The undisputed high of the season so far was the home win over Arsenal, in which Stoke absolutely Stoked it and Arsenal well and truly Arsenalled it. The lows are slightly harder to pick out, for there have been many: defeats against Newcastle, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace were all rotten, while failing to beat the likes of West Brom and Brighton isn’t a good look for an established Premier League team aiming to become something more, and getting thwacked by Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool has underlined just how far Stoke are behind the big boys.
The performances of Xherdan Shaqiri, while inconsistent, have 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 if Shaqiri produces the goods more often then he will soon find himself back at that level again. Also worth noting have been Kurt Zouma, quietly impressing on loan from Chelsea, Joe Allen, resurgent in a more dynamic midfield role, and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who has added another much-needed string to Stoke’s bow going forward.
The Season Ahead
First things first, Stoke need to make sure they avoid relegation and the best way to do that is to start beating the teams they should be beating. A record of seven wins from their last 31 games is hardly the most eye-catching, and if Hughes does indeed get sacked it will be because he never found a way to ensure Stoke won more of the games they should win.
After four-and-a-half years at the Britannia, we’re still no clearer to understanding Hughes’ grand plan for Stoke, if there is one at all. That may not sound like it matters that much given the simplicity of his remit – keep us mid-table, give the fans reasons to come to the ground – but in an age in which joined-up thinking on a tactical and technical level and the existence and successful implementation of a philosophy see clubs quickly jumping up the table, Hughes looks a little old hat by comparison.
There is no shortage of potential replacements, with the likes of Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche have achieved more than Hughes in the last few years and have done so with less in the way of resources. Marco Silva would probably listen to what Stoke have to offer in May. Outside the Premier League is a wealth of more modern, more progressive, more ambitious managers capable of doing what Hughes cannot, and no-one would blame Stoke for making an obvious upgrade when the right time comes.
Hughes has never been one to make things complicated, and Stoke’s current system against top six sides is a simple, reactive 3-4-2-1 in which the Potters absorb pressure, defend their box and spring forward on the counter. Their primary threat is the pace and ingenuity of Shaqiri and Choupo-Moting, and they’re also handy from set plays. Their defensive system is sound enough on paper, with three giant centre-backs protecting their box and clearing away everything that comes into it, but their lack of dynamism and their vulnerability at transitions is very notable.
Hughes has routinely exposed himself as a manager who can come up with the basics of a good idea but whose lack of thoroughness gets his teams exposed on match-day, with his needlessly gung-ho Manchester City side the epitome of this arrogance, and it looks like his Stoke side is going the same way. There are weaknesses in key areas, as we’ll see later, but a better manager would have this team producing more than he does.
The obvious strength is Xherdan Shaqiri: he has taken 2.3 shots per game, created 2.4 chances per game, made 1.1 dribbles per game and contributed four goals and five assists so far this season, and his creativity in open play is matched by his delivery from dead balls. If Stoke threaten at all here, it will almost certainly be through him.
As previously mentioned, their Plan B is to attack via set plays: only one Premier League side has created more chances from corners this season, and only four have created more chances from free-kicks. This is partly because of their aerial dominance, long a trademark of Stoke City: 24.3 aerials won per game is the second highest average in division.
At the back their defence largely does its job: only four sides have blocked more crosses this season and only six sides have made more interceptions. On paper, a back three of Kurt Zouma, Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi is startlingly complete and wouldn’t look out of place at several bigger clubs.
Their biggest weakness in this game will be a lack of available players in defence: Kurt Zouma is unavailable to play against his parent club; Bruno Martins Indi is a long-term absentee; Ryan Shawcross and Erik Pieters could feature but both are major doubts. It’s entirely possible that their defence will be made up of training cones and free-kick practice walls. Getting a result at Stamford Bridge with that handicap is damn near impossible.
Even with everyone available, their lack of dynamism and their inability to react well enough to fluid situations are startling. Ask any Stoke fan how they feel about Eden Hazard roaming around in pockets of space, with Willian and Pedro and Álvaro Morata ahead of him (if only), and they’ll probably break down in tears without saying a word.
Stoke may be an unashamedly counter-attacking side which doesn’t aim to have a great deal of the ball, but their carelessness in possession does cost them. They have one of the lowest averages in the division and an alarmingly bad 73.3% pass accuracy, which means their defence is overworked and their midfield incapable of relieving them by holding on to the ball for any length of time. Only six sides have been pickpocketed on the ball more than Stoke so far this season, and this means they’re often caught out of position when they appear to be comfortable and unthreatened.
The overriding feeling is this Stoke team is just too average: not really good enough at anything to go beyond their obvious limits, and bad enough at plenty of things to be sucked into trouble — by say, losing against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth.
Stoke have almost no defenders available and may be forced into a major reshuffle in order to build a makeshift backline.
Chelsea have no such worries and should field as strong a line-up as possible. We can hope for Willian or Pedro to play instead of Cesc Fàbregas so that Chelsea can give Hazard more options to wreak havoc in a 3-4-2-1, but Antonio Conte seems content to win with the handbrake on at the moment.
There’s just no way Chelsea aren’t going to win this against such a depleted Stoke side. 3-0.