Mon | Feb 19, 2018

Hughes in danger as Stoke lose identity

Published:Saturday | December 23, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Stoke City manager Mark Hughes gestures during the English Premier League match between Arsenal and Stoke City at the Emirates stadium in London on Saturday December 10.

LONDON,England (AP):

Wherever Mark Hughes turns, it's hard for the Stoke manager to escape the rebellion growing among fans. When the floundering squad was spotted at the city's rail station disembarking from another recent miserable away trip, gesticulating supporters struck up a chorus of "you're not fit to wear the shirt".

The chants are even more brutal and personal inside a home stadium once seen as a stronghold in helping the team established itself in the English Premier League.

After a decade, that status among the elite is in peril as is the manager's job.

"Hughes out," supporters bellowed last weekend during a 3-0 loss to West Ham that left Stoke a point above the relegation zone.

"You have to ride the storm and turn things around," Hughes said on Thursday. "It is no good feeling sorry for yourself."

The team is in a sorry state, and didn't even manage a single shot on target against West Ham.

Five of the last six games have been lost, and the only victory in the last eight fixtures came against a Swansea side now stranded at the bottom of the standings. Swansea showed Stoke what might be necessary when relegation is feared by firing manager Paul Clement on Wednesday. Today's visitors, West Bromwich Albion, are already under new management after dismissing Tony Pulis a month ago and hiring Alan Pardew.

It was Pulis who led Stoke into the Premier League for the first time in 2008 and honed a pragmatic, often abrasive style that offered a bulwark against the threat of relegation. The long-ball tactics often relied on tall, powerful players imposing themselves aerially and launching tough tackles on opponents.

 

Different direction

 

While rarely easy on the eye, Stoke never finished lower than 14th under Pulis and remained out of the bottom six in the top-flight for five consecutive seasons for the first time in the club's history.

Stoke, though, wanted to go in a different direction from 2013 in the standings by finishing higher, and on the pitch with more aesthetically pleasing displays.

That's why the Potters named after the city's pottery industry turned to Hughes to remould the team. Hughes would not just settle with surviving in the Premier League.

"There comes a risk with that approach because you are raising expectations," Hughes said this year, reflecting on the 13th-place finish that followed three seasons in ninth.

But a team dubbed the "jolly green giants" by then-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson during Pulis' reign has lost its identity under Hughes without gaining a new one.

Once renowned for its sturdy defence, Stoke have conceded a league-high 39 goals in the opening 18 games. The three teams below Stoke have not even conceded 30 each.If anything, the club is becoming better known as the destination for one-time wonderkids whose early promise was unfulfilled as part of Champions League-winning squads, including Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay, Bojan Krkic, and Jese Rodriguez.

Being a destination to reboot careers in less exalted surroundings might need rethinking.Just look at former Real Madrid forward Jese, who left the glamour of Paris Saint-Germain after failing to settle for a season on loan in the modest Staffordshire surroundings.

There was early promise: A debut goal to clinch a 1-0 victory over Arsenal in August. But Jese has failed to score since then. He lost a place in the starting line-up in October, and has made only two substitute appearances since then. He has not played since being disciplined for leaving the substitutes' bench early and returning to the dressing room during a game.