At the start of 2016, Mark Hughes seemed to have found his formula. Stoke City had beaten Manchester United and Everton in its previous two matches, and each of the six goals scored involved at least one member of the thrilling attacking triumvirate Hughes had assembled.
“They look like a wonderfully bold and charismatic trio, with (Bojan) Krkic providing the subtlety, (Marko) Arnautovic the swagger and (Xherdan) Shaqiri his own high-grade attacking gunpowder,” the Guardian’s Barney Ronay gushed at the time.
Today, the only member of that trio still in the squad is Shaqiri, and beyond the Swiss international is a contingent starved of creativity and confidence. Stoke, now handled by Paul Lambert, is 19th in the Premier League table, has taken four points from the past 15 on offer, and welcomes Pep Guardiola’s irrepressible Manchester City to the Bet365 Stadium on Monday.
The aspects that have triggered Stoke’s decline aren’t solely down to Bojan’s deterioration and Arnautovic’s £25-million sale to West Ham United last summer, but those players serve as examples of Hughes’ arrogance in the type of players he recruited.
“There is clearly a profound chemistry here, a function not so much of displaced ethnicity, more of some obvious shared footballing traits,” Ronay marvelled of the former Yugoslavia-flavoured frontline in that January 2016 feature. “All three were junior stars. All three have drifted a little and found a home again in the Premier League’s prosperous middle classes.”
Hughes prided himself on being able to rebuild players who had lost their way. During an ill-fated pursuit of Manchester United’s then-out-of-favour defender Phil Jones in the summer of 2016, Hughes claimed, “we have a bit of reputation for bringing players like that into this set up and then seeing them thrive.” At the time, he could cite his three-pronged strike force as what could be achieved with his tutelage.
But Hughes went too far. Peculiarly for a manager who couldn’t sufficiently control Robinho at Manchester City – the Brazilian wouldn’t follow dress code on team trips, and left a training camp in Tenerife without permission – he deemed himself a master of fixing damaged goods. Bojan, Arnautovic, and Shaqiri were followed to Staffordshire by Giannelli Imbula, Saido Berahino, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Jese Rodriguez, and Kevin Wimmer, all of whom who had suffered personal, disciplinary, or fitness issues in their careers. Out of those players, it is perhaps only supporters’ discussions of Shaqiri that wouldn’t be accompanied by a caveat or a thought about what might have been.
Peter Coates, the chairman who made his riches in the family-owned Bet365, isn’t absolved from criticism. Acquiring freebie Choupo-Moting and loanee Jese was a wretched response to losing Arnautovic and replacing Bojan, who was destined for another loan away. However, Coates may have been reluctant to hand over cash again when two of the more expensive reclamation projects, Berahino and Imbula, were Hughes’ biggest flops. Berahino, a £12-million striker, is reportedly receiving £70,000 per week until June 2022, and hasn’t scored since February 2016.
When Lambert was chosen to replace Hughes in mid-January, he inherited a mess. Hughes had been playing with a back-three despite having no wing-backs to call upon – Mame Biram Diouf and Erik Pieters played there, with the former clearly out of position and the latter having his confidence sapped away each week. The midfield, until the late-January window arrival of Badou Ndiaye, look aged, and creaky veteran Peter Crouch was the first-choice striker during December.
Lambert’s immediate target is to extend Stoke’s top-flight residency to 11 years, but under Hughes, could Stoke aim for anything more than survival given the transfer market gambles and depleted budget? While rivals harbour ambitions of smashing the glass ceiling into the big-six bourgeoisie, Stoke was simply hoping to stagnate in the Premier League. The way Hughes’ Potters threw in the towel – or, indeed, laid it out for a read and a snooze – after getting 40 points last season was emblematic of Stoke’s narrow-minded pursuit of TV money rather than silverware and entertainment.
Arnautovic’s switch to West Ham was understandable. One of his main reasons for departing was to join a more ambitious outfit, and despite the London Stadium chaos, his reservations about Stoke were entirely valid. Coates bit back, questioning Arnautovic’s loyalty to a club that resurrected his career, but the following rebuke from Danijel Arnautovic, the Hammers hitman’s brother and agent, was stinging. Unfortunately for Stoke fans, it also rang true.
“I can only say that Mr. Coates should clean up his own garbage within the club walls before pointing finger at anyone outside of it,” said the forward’s representative last August.
He added: “I pointed out very clearly that it looked to us the club showed no ambitions in climbing in the table and that we thought that the club was happy just to stay in the league. This was and still is my opinion.”
Lambert can keep Stoke up this season, but unless there’s a huge change of mentality at the club it will only be papering over the cracks. Signing an unproven or underperforming player for a low fee can pay off, but repeated gambling in the transfer market has rendered Stoke a slipshod and vulnerable team.
For a club constructed with funds from a betting empire, it’s quite fitting that it’s taking a punt on long shots to prolong its top-flight status.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)