Could Stoke City’s time in the Premier League be coming to an end?

Since gaining promotion to the top flight in 2008, Stoke City have proved themselves to be tough customers.

A team built with defensive stability firmly in mind, the Potters have consistently remained a thorn in the side of the top Premier League clubs, and, heading into this season, their no-nonsense, back-to-basics style of football may not have won them many plaudits, but it certainly kept them comfortably safe from the prospect of relegation.

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Tony Pulis, ever the pragmatist, knew exactly what was required to keep his side in the top tier after guiding them there with an impressive second-place finish.

The football played under the Welshman wasn’t particularly pretty (the 2009-10 season, in which Matthew Etherington was the club’s top scorer in the league with just five goals, was particularly painful to watch) but rarely failed to get results.

On just one occasion, in 2012-13, have Stoke finished within six points of the relegation zone, and that season would prove to be Pulis’s last.

With his effects wearing off and fans becoming increasingly frustrated with the style of football on offer, it was no surprise to see his tenure come to an end.

In came Mark Hughes, and with him a more expansive, possession-based game.

Whilst still boasting plenty of defensive muscle, in recent years Stoke have been more of a joy to watch.

The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and, in particular, Marko Arnautovic added flair and finesse to a side once content with bullying their way to victory, whilst former Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen provided intelligence and vision to a midfield previously occupied by hard-tackling destroyers.

However, despite boasting several promising players, it didn’t quite click for Stoke last season, and the current campaign is proving to be an absolute disaster, to say the least.

A woeful run of just five victories from 22 games has left them languishing inside the relegation zone with the worst defensive record of any Premier League side this season.

The football on show at the bet365 Stadium has been turgid up front and recklessly porous at the back.

That famed Stoke grit and determination seems a thing of the past, with the Potters only managing to come from behind and win on one occasion – against bottom side Swansea City – this season.

An excellent 1-0 victory at home to Arsenal at the start of the campaign gave fans plenty to cheer about, but a string of dreadful performances soon after resulted in an understandable backlash from the fans, leaving the club’s hierarchy with no choice but to sack Hughes after four and a half years in charge.

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But where did it all go wrong?

It’s certainly true that Hughes has failed to get the best out of an, at best, average side this season, but the seeds of disappointment were arguably planted before the campaign had even started.

Arnautovic, quite clearly the club’s best player since his arrival from Werder Bremen in 2013, left for West Ham United, leaving the left flank bare and in desperate need of filling.

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, formerly of Schalke, was tasked with taking the Austrian’s place, but, despite a few promising performances earlier in the season, has yet to consistently impress.

Arnautovic’s 18 league goals over the last two campaigns proved invaluable for the Potters.
Despite only scoring six times last season, he was a reliable figure that, more often than not, could get his side out of a tight squeeze.

Top goalscorer Peter Crouch’s tally of just seven goals was Stoke’s lowest since Etherington seven years ago, and the fact that their most prolific striker started more games on the substitutes’ bench than the pitch indicates just how worryingly underwhelming their front line currently is.

That has continued to be the case this year, and it’s here that Stoke’s main problems lie.

Bar Crouch (who, with three league goals, is his side’s second-highest goalscorer this season), options to fill the number nine role look bleak.

Saido Berahino, brought in from West Bromwich Albion to spearhead what was planned to be an exciting, attack-minded Stoke side, looks a shadow of the player that dazzled so often before falling out with the Baggies hierarchy.

It’s now almost two years since he last scored a Premier League goal, and the fact that he has made the starting line-up only three times this campaign indicates just how poorly he’s thought of at the club.

Despite mainly featuring as either a right-winger or right-wing-back in each of the previous two seasons, Mame Biram Diouf remains Stoke’s most prolific forward over the past three years and, at this stage, represents their only other striking choice alongside Crouch and Berahino.

But playing largely out of position has resulted in him finding the back of the net just four times, and despite the undoubted effort he puts in with each performance, the Senegalese isn’t a good enough striker to lead a front line desperate for goals.

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Hughes’ record in the transfer market is mixed at best, and Stoke’s muddled recruitment policy has left them in the precarious position they currently find themselves.

At the back, Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma has arguably been one of their better performers, but Kevin Wimmer and the now injured Bruno Martins Indi, signed for a combined total of almost £24 million, are yet to have the impact the club were hoping for.

This lack of suitable investment, coupled with Hughes’ tendency to chop and change tactically from one game to another, has had disastrous consequences at the back.

Stoke’s record of 47 goals conceded is not only the worst in the league this season but the joint-worst of any side at this stage of the campaign since Fulham, who conceded 48 times in 22 games four seasons ago and went on to be duly relegated.

It’s also already higher than the total number of goals (45) that the Potters conceded in Pulis’s final year in charge.

Stoke have never been a free-flowing, attack-minded team, but their ability to rely on defensive stability meant they were never seriously in danger of being dragged into a relegation scrap.

Hughes’ attempt to try and transform the club into a more attractive attacking force was initially an admirable one, but poor recruitment and muddled tactical thinking has left them in real danger of losing their Premier League status.

What is now needed is a return to basics. As has been the case with the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Aston Villa and, most recently, Sunderland, there is no guarantee that Stoke could quickly bounce back up to the Premier League if they do end up suffering relegation.

They need to swiftly regroup and recruit wisely this transfer window, as a failure to immediately rediscover their famed defensive pragmatism could have disastrous, and long-lasting, effects.

The Author

Ben Cullimore

Freelance journalist and long-suffering non-league fan.

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