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This season the fight for survival this season is as about as closely fought as it ever has been.
Increasingly it is beginning to look as if West Brom will be the first side to make the dreaded slide, but as to who will follow, it is anyone’s guess. Just 10 points separate 19th and 8th, while just 6 points are the difference between 2nd bottom and the seemingly blissful security of 11th.
Realistically any 2 of 10 sides could go down, but one team particularly feeling the cold sweat run down the insides of their branded training tops will be Stoke City.
Since winning promotion to the Premier League on the final day of the 2007-8 season, Stoke have become a mainstay in England’s top flight, known for their long throws, old school, no nonsense approach and their very loud fans.
But this season the wheel that had been spinning so slickly, has been showing ever increasing signs of working itself loose and with just 10 games to go, shows every sign of running off completely.
After three consecutive 9th placed finishes, followed by a 13th placed finish, all under Mark Hughes, this season’s tribulations saw the club’s hierarchy remove the Welshman and bring in Paul Lambert.
But as yet, Stoke’s fortunes have shown little sign of improving and with each passing week it is becoming increasingly apparent that Stoke will be joining their Midlands counterparts in the second tier of English football next season.
Here are 4 reasons why.
Mark Hughes’ greatest success as Stoke manager was in revolutionising their style of play whilst improving his side’s results.
Sick and tired of Tony Pulis’ eighteenth century approach to football, fans rejoiced in being able to gaze upon the likes of Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay, not to mention the wonderkid that was Bojan Krkic.
At one point Stoke had more Champions League winners in their squad than any other side in England; a new dawn had arrived. It is no surprise therefore that the downturn in Stoke’s fortunes have been intimately linked with the departures of key players, most notably Marko Arnautovic.
To say that Stoke were spitting feathers at Arnautovic’s decision to up sticks and move to West Ham would be putting things lightly, evident in Mark Hughes’ berating of the player as he left the pitch in Stoke’s match against West Ham earlier this season.
And there is no doubt that Stoke have missed Arnautovic dearly.
The attacking verve with which he and Shaqiri played with last season, supported by Bojan who has also left, has disappeared and unsurprisingly, Stoke’s goals have dried up.
However, the loss of other, less glamorous players has been felt just as keenly, if not as obviously. Jonathan Walters, Glenn Whelan and Phil Bardsley all left the Bet365 in the summer, while Peter Crouch at the tender age of 37, is having less and less of say in matters of the pitch.
Despite not being the most technically talented of players, the loss of experienced professionals who provide leadership and Premier League know-how has hurt Stoke just as hard as the loss of the club’s more obvious stars.
The obvious antidote to the loss of key players is to bring in new ones who are just as good, or even a little bit better.
What you don’t want to do though is to bring in players who aren’t as good or who can’t make as much of an impact. This unfortunately, is exactly what Stoke have done.
Last January Giannelli Imbula arrived for a club record fee, but already he has been shipped off to France with Toulouse. Even more shocking though has been the signing of Saido Berahinho who has now not managed to score for 2 whole years, comprising 44 games and 3 missed penalties.
This season, the trend of underwhelming signings has continued with Kevin Wimmer arriving from Tottenham for just under £20m and based on current evidence, Spurs have absolutely fleeced their Premier League rivals.
Meanwhile the arrival of Jese, which was met with such salty fanfare by Stoke as a club and a fanbase (basically using it as an opportunity to stick it to Arnautovic), has been mildly disastrous. Jese has been largely out of contention for places, either due to form or injury and in December was disciplined for leaving the bench early.
The capture of veteran Darren Fletcher represents a savvy addition, but it has not even come close to papering over the cracks over a team that in recent years has traded reliability for mystical potential in far too great a quantity.
Too much pressure on Shaqiri
The end result of this process is simple enough to deduce: too much pressure is being placed on Shaqiri.
Reading through the Stoke team sheet, there is little cause for optimism or inspiration and as such the only logical thing remaining to do is to put all of your poker chips on Shaqiri pulling something out of the bag.
In fairness to the diminutive winger he has been putting in some performances of late, with goals in three consecutive games against Leicester, Brighton and Bournemouth, with Stoke taking 5 key points from those fixtures.
However, placing so much expectation on one player is not only a high-risk strategy, with an increased chance of fatigue and injury, but is an indication that the rest of the team is simply not good enough.
Eric Choupo Moting has put in some admirable performances, but on the whole Stoke have looked to one man and one man alone to deliver them from evil and when a team starts doing that, things begin to look quite dire, quite quickly.
A Championship manager
The final factor suggesting an imminent demise for Stoke is that they have traded an experienced Premier League manager in for a Championship one.
Mark Hughes has over 10-years of experience in England’s top flight and has proven time and time again that he is a solid mid-table manager. Paul Lambert is a Championship manager through and through.
An impressive spell with Norwich City, securing promotion and subsequent safety in the Premier League, precipitated a move to Aston Villa where over three seasons the club flirted with relegation before Lambert was removed with Villa 18th in the table. From there jobs with Blackburn and Wolverhampton have followed as Lambert has steadily found his level.
There was widespread surprise when Lambert was announced as Stoke’s new manager and despite some decent results, there has been no grand turn around in his new sides performances.
As such, The Potters sit second from bottom, managed by a Championship manager seemingly guiding them right toward the Championship.
Stoke’s participation in the Premier League over the past decade has brought many memories that will live on for a long time, from bullying Arsenal to Rory Delap’s long throw.
But everything must come to an end and having lost too many key players, without adequately replacing them, and effectively doing the same with their manager, too many poor decisions have been made for Stoke to remain in the Premier League.
They’re going down, but hopefully they won’t be gone for too long.
Written by Scott Pope
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