You have to hand it to Nathan Jones. Tony Pulis was in charge of Stoke City for 464 competitive matches, earning a reputation for rampant pragmatism that included deliberately dour defending and employing ball boys to carry towels to help Rory Delap with his long throws. Yet even Pulis never managed to record four consecutive 0-0 draws. Jones should not expect warm applause for his consistency.
This has been a rotten season for Stoke. They were the clear favourites to win the Championship title in August after a period of significant investment following relegation, but currently sit six points off the top half. As one season preview put it: “You can’t look past Stoke and their financial firepower in the race for the title.” But lose at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, and Stoke will be 16th in the second tier. They are likely to record their lowest league finish since 2003.
The appointment of Gary Rowett was a disaster. A manager tasked with transforming the Stoke mood became swallowed whole by it. Rowett’s self-confidence, which seemed logical in pre-season when players desperately needed a change of atmosphere, became the rope used to hang him. If Jones was the answer, he has only won two of his first 13 league matches in charge.
Part of Stoke’s problem is a high turnover of players that left everyone feeling a little unfamiliar and confused. Lee Grant, Glen Johnson, Kevin Wimmer, Xherdan Shaqiri, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Ramadan Sobhi, Marc Muniesa, Geoff Cameron and Giannelli Imbula all left last summer, while Peter Crouch, Ibrahim Afellay and Erik Pieters departed in January. Not all were first-team regulars in the Premier League, but that still accounts for almost half of their 2017/18 squad.
In their place, Rowett signed players on big money and for high fees. Stoke have recruited seven different players this season for transfer fees higher than £5 million. Clubs who follow that pattern are normally banking on automatic promotion bids. More than £35 million was spent on Benik Afobe, Tom Ince, Ryan Woods and Sam Vokes alone, and none have yet given value for that money.
Even so, there’s some serious underperformance right across Stoke’s squad. Jones is able to pick a defence that includes an England international goalkeeper and central defender, Wales captain and Netherlands international. In midfield, Joe Allen, James McClean and Peter Etebo are all established internationals. Add Sam Clucas, Bojan, Mame Biram Diouf, Woods, Saido Berahino, Darren Fletcher and Danny Batth, and Stoke have one of the strongest squads in the division. New signings, Championship experience, older heads and younger talent; Stoke should have the lot.
...but can they do it on a rainy night in Stoke?
The frustration among supporters is that their team have proved their quality in individual matches. Stoke are likely to finish in the bottom half and yet have beaten Leeds United, Norwich City, Derby County, Bristol City and Nottingham Forest, and are unbeaten against Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Aston Villa; that’s eight of the current nine in the division covered. Compare that to dropping 21 points against the bottom seven clubs. The inconsistency in performance is maddening.
There is no great secret to Stoke’s struggles. Goalscoring has been a season-long issue that the current run of draws emphasises has not been solved by Jones. Only Bolton and Ipswich – both of whom will surely be relegated to League One – have scored fewer times. If Berahino finally ended his barren run without scoring, the goals have not flowed. Afobe has proven himself incapable of helping out. Allen is the club’s top league scorer, with six.
The suspicion is that Stoke’s players – and perhaps even the club’s hierarchy too – underestimated the Championship. With parachute payments, a wealthy owner and solid structure, Stoke may have assumed that they could swan through the division following relegation as Newcastle had two years before. But relegated clubs are prized targets. Stoke have paid the price for forgetting the principles that had made them successful in the first place.
Next year’s promises
Jones might well turn things around, and will certainly be given more time unless any disaster strikes. With a more settled summer and full pre-season, they can mount a promotion bid in 2019/20. Cardiff and Huddersfield are likely to find immediate promotion hard, opening the door for Stoke and others.
But as parachute payments reduce and the absence of Premier League broadcasting revenues bite into big budgets, the pressure is on Stoke to get it right. The pre-season title favourites being ensconced in the bottom half should be a big story. That Stoke’s underperformance has drifted so easily under the radar highlights just how forgettable their season has been.
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