For all the mitigating circumstances that contributed to our disappointments this season, and despite attaining a respectable position once again, Mark Hughes’ managerial reign at Stoke is under scrutiny for the first time. And with good reason.
What distinguished Sparky in his first two seasons was, for the most part, common sense. He ran a meritocracy, where fringe players were rewarded for good performances, yet ultimately knew his best side. He knew how he wanted to set up, but was flexible enough to deviate and look at other formations as and when required. He was a breath of fresh air.
This season, in an admittedly difficult situation and faced with a transitional campaign, he appears to have regularly second-guessed himself. His best XI has never been clear, it’s not always been apparent what the plan is, players in form have found themselves dropped for no apparent reason. In a season where the league’s most famous ‘tinkerman’ has won the league by generally sticking with the same XI, we have chopped and changed, particularly in attack, with a striking merry go round that hasn’t done anyone any favours.
Yet perversely, for all this uncertainty and change, he has also insisted on persevering with certain tactical aspects that clearly didn’t work. At home, the slow, ponderous build-up play against well-organised teams who sit deep got worse. Passing from side to side and back, our forward players static, before eventually either losing possession or crossing into one heavily marked striker, has been maddening, but we’re no closer to finding a solution than we were in Hughes’ debut season. At times it was like that Simpsons parody of football.
We seem determined to embrace a half-speed tiki-taka at precisely the moment everyone else jettisons it, Flintstones in a world of Jetsons. When the crowd turned mutinous at this failure to learn on the final day, Hughes’ response, worryingly, was to aim an inaccurate jibe in their direction about liking long ball football that at best missed the point and at worst was knowingly disingenuous.
Equally, we persist with a high defensive line that doesn’t suit any of our central defenders apart, perhaps, from Geoff Cameron. We just don’t have the pace in our back line to cope with it and it allows teams to get in behind us all too easily. It’s hardly helping us at the other end either, so why is it still a thing?
Factor in a scattergun approach to recruitment and substitutions that continue to be the weakest part of his matchday management, and it’s easy to see why we’ve been so poor at home. Stoke have become depressingly predictable at the Brit. The win over West Ham marked the only time all season that we won after conceding the first goal.
When the assertion was made at the start of the season that this team was a soft touch, lacking in fight and heart, I railed against it, largely because it was a drum banged by one-note ex-centre backs keen to aggrandise their own achievements, and lapped up by people who’d accidentally call Tony Pulis “daddy” if they met him in the street. There were times when we did show fight – coming from behind to take a point at Spurs, taking the semi-final to penalties at Anfield.
It really cannot now be denied however that the team does lack leaders. The fact that the concession of the first goal usually means we’re done for, the succession of three-goal defeats at the start of 2016 and four-goal drubbings at the end of the season, the speed with which we threw in the towel in those games, it all screams that the flinty core of old is, slowly, being eroded, and not many of the new signings have consistently shown that same mettle when the going gets tough. And, uncomfortable truth though it may be, that is what happened at QPR as well.
Happily, what happened at Blackburn and, eventually, at Fulham is that Hughes successfully built on strong foundations. I’ve sometimes wondered if the fact that Hughes arrived with a remit to get the team ‘playing football’ has made him at times lose sight of the need for a strong defence or the fact that it is ok to go direct sometimes. He certainly didn’t have a problem with either of those elements in his managerial past. Hopefully he’ll be able to identify what’s wrong over the summer and apply the common sense that has served him well here so far.
We are capable of being such a good side when everything clicks, and away from home, where our gameplan is a much more straightforward case of getting bodies behind the ball and then hitting teams on the break, we’ve looked very impressive. When you look at the calibre of players Hughes has attracted, and the potential of the spine we have – Butland-Shawcross-Imbula-Bojan-Diouf – it’s impossible not to be excited about just how far we might go with the right additions and approach. The credit for that all goes to Hughes. This is his team, nobody else’s.
By the same token though, it would only take the loss of a couple of key players now to put us in some real trouble, and the manager has a job on his hands. It’s up to him to inject some steel into the team, to better organise the defence, add pace to up the tempo and figure out how to break teams down at home. He also needs to address those gaps in the squad and enlist players who clearly fit whatever his blueprint is, irrespective of whether they’re coups or marquee names or not.
The manager has credit in the bank with supporters and almost everyone ones to see him continue and take this team to yet greater heights. Get it right this summer, and 2015-16 will be viewed as a minor misstep, an understandable sort-of blip in a transitional phase.
Get it wrong though, and it’ll be looked back on as the beginning of the end of his reign.