As the curtain slowly comes down on the 2016-17 season, so too does it mark the end of Mark Hughes’ fourth season in charge of Stoke. This one has in many ways been identical to the three that proceeded it. Despite that, however, it has presented some genuinely interesting questions about what the club does next. But before we get all existential lets set out the stall on how Stoke have looked under Hughes.
The greatest consternation about Stoke has been centred around their attack. Hughes inherited a club that had just spent seven years with Tony Pulis, the sultan of functional and effective, as its manager. Therefore the assumption, fair or not, was that Hughes would push them on beyond that and into something more stimulating. The reality is though that they’ve been about as ho-hum as it gets.
The idea most supporters have of Stoke being the same every season is borne out in the numbers. With the exception of an aberrational 2014-15 season their production has never been anything more than serviceable. That 14-15 shots tally was good for the 9th best in the league but otherwise they’ve always floated around 14th. There does seem to have been an increased focus on better quality shots this season as shown in their % of shots outside the box and xG per shot. Without an improvement in their overall output though it hasn’t been enough to be meaningful.
One of the stranger aspects of Stoke under Hughes has been their record against the top 6. You’ve no doubt at some point heard a pundit or commentator claim that Stoke ‘make it tough’ for the big teams. There is some truth in the cliche but as ever it’s more complicated than that. No one should be expected to have a good record against the big sides. They’re too dominating for that. But as a midtable team one way you can keep your supporters’ interest is by at least making those matches interesting. Stoke do that… sometimes.
In Hughes’ first three seasons they had a habit of picking up good wins; who could forget that last match of the season 6-1 drubbing of Liverpool in Steven Gerrard’s final appearance? But when Stoke get beat they often get beat hard. 14 of their 28 losses against the top 6 have been by three or more goals. This season the bottom has completely dropped out to an embarrassing extent and Tottenham beating them 4-0 has now become routine. Even Arsenal, who hadn’t beaten Stoke away since the 2009-10 season, managed to put that particular ghost to rest.
And what of the much vaunted recruitment? Players have been brought in from far and wide seemingly with the intention of aiding the transition from Pulisball to something more attractive. Well that hasn’t really panned out either.
The striker role has been in particular disarray. Bojan was brought in from Barcelona but he has never been a shots monster, producing 2.4/1.9/1.9 shots p90 since joining in 14-15 and now has been shifted out on loan to Mainz. Wilfried Bony was brought in on loan from the wilderness of Manchester and has posted their best shot tally this season (2.7 p90) but has only played 690 minutes. Saido Berahino has been a non-factor, playing similarly few minutes and only putting up 1.6 shots p90. Mame Biram Diouf is even worse at 0.9 shots.
Xherdan Shaqiri hasn’t been as effective a creator as a he was pre-Stoke (3.5 key passes p90 at Inter) but he doesn’t have much around him to work with and has produced a respectable 2.1/2.2 KP p90 in the last two seasons (although he still takes too many shots from outside the box). Joe Allen chipped in with a few goals early but now has scored just two since October, has two assists all season (both in one game) and is producing an iffy 1.2 shots/0.9KP p90. Then you have all these players like Ibrahim Afellay, Ramadan Sobhi, Julien Ngoy and Giannelli Imbula who have played fewer minutes combined than 33-year-old Glen Whelan has on his own.
In fact, this season Mark Hughes has just turned back to all the old boys. Outside of the Allen/Arnautovic/Shaqiri triumvirate their most featured non-defenders have been Whelan, Charlie Adam, Diouf, Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch. The whole ‘Stokealona’ idea died before it even got off the ground.
So now Stoke sit, heading into the summer with a squad full of players that either don’t contribute or the manager doesn’t seem to like, along with a bunch of older ones that he does seem to like but aren’t very good and, again, are old. They’ll likely break their three season streak of finishing 9th but without ever having actually flirted with relegation. Mark Hughes has created the quintessential midtable team.
Whether he is still manager at the start of next season all depends on one question: What do the club’s owners want? Are they content to float from season to season, soaking in the Premier League money? Or will they gamble on of the newer names currently without a job, with the chance of pushing them out of the malaise? Or perhaps they’ll just bring in John Terry and run it all back again.