Analyzing Stoke City's struggles this season
Stoke City have been a consistent Top 10 side in the Premier League with three straight 9th place finishes starting from 2014 up until last season. They were dropped from the top half last season but only by a couple of points. This season, the Potters are already three points adrift of a top half place, sitting 14th. Things have gone wrong after a summer full of hope.
Hughes didn't spend much in the summer, but he still managed to add some exciting talent to the team. Jese Rodriguez arrived on loan from PSG and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting was added via a free transfer. The loan deal of Bruno Martins-Indi was made permanent and Kurt Zouma was loaned from Chelsea to add even more defensive quality.
Even the signing of Darren Fletcher can be seen as a great piece of business. He's got loads of experience in the league and a winning pedigree.
Jack Butland also felt like a new signing after missing most of the last season through injury and playing only five league games in 2016/17. The 24-year-old had two clean sheets in his few outings last year and with him fit, the side looked set to challenge for a TOP 10 place again, and maybe even progress further.
The season started well enough with five points from the opening four fixtures, including a win against Arsenal and a 2-2 draw with Manchester United but it's been a real struggle since then with only seven points added.
The defence has surprisingly kept Stoke back so far. They have 13 goals in 11 games, which is good enough to hold the 9th best attacking record in the league but only West Ham United (23) has conceded more goals than Stoke's 22. Butland has struggled with his form at the start of the season.
Butland saved 68% of the shots he faced last season. Among goalkeepers that played at least five games, only five had a save percentage below 60. He's seen as England's future #1 in goal but his current performances are far from the level that would warrant a starting spot for the Three Lions.
With 11 rounds played, Butland has saved just 54.2% of shots this season. It's the second-lowest mark in the league, only Liverpool's Simon Mignolet is worse with 51.3%. He's got jus two clean sheets to his name, which is also the second-worst record in the league. Ironically, he and Jordan Pickford have combined only three clean sheets so far and both are giving up an average of two goals per game. England's future in goal suddenly doesn't seem bright at all.
At the back, Erik Pieters has been a big disappointment. Think we can safely say that the Dutchman has been one of the league's most underrated defenders since arriving from PSV in 2013. He's a tackling machine who has had the most successful tackles among defenders for two seasons straight. Among all players, he's been in the TOP 4 three times during his four seasons in England. But for some reason, he's struggled this year.
Pieters has won only 24 tackles so far, 22 less than league leader Wilfried Ndidi, and over ten less than the best defenders on the list. Pablo Zabaleta leads the pack with 37, Christopher Schindler is right behind him with 35. And it's not a case of injuries or lack of playing time holding Pieters back.
He's so far missed only one minute of action. His poor form was evident last Saturday in a 2-2 draw against Leicester City. The Erik Pieters of old would've easily taken care of Ryad Mahrez in the situation that preceded Leicester's 2-1 goal. A successful tackle there could've helped Stoke to three points in the end, and things would be a lot calmer at the usually windy bet365 Stadium.
As noted above, Stoke has done alright offensively, but they are far from perfect up front as well. Only six players have scored so far and if you have a wing-back among your top scorers then something's clearly wrong. Mame Biram Diouf has played as a forward, but he's spent a good chunk of time as a right wing-back this season.
He's found the net three times in ten matches to share the top scorer honours at the club with Peter Crouch. Jese hasn't basically done anything after his debut and Sadio Berahino is on a massive 35-game drought. Choupo-Moting has been a bright spot with two goals and assists, but he clearly needs more support.
Crouch had an immediate impact when he came on as a sub against Leicester, scoring the 2-2 equalizer. All of his seven league appearances have come as a sub this season, even though he's repeatedly made it known, in public as well, that he would like to start more games. Hughes must be the only person in the world thinking that the former England international doesn't deserve a place in the starting XI.
So far, Crouch has played just 153 minutes this season. He's scored a goal for every 51 minutes. It's by far the best goals/minutes ratio in the league. Among players with at least three goals scored, Sergio Agüero (76 minutes), Anthony Martial (74) and Oumar Niasse (72) are the closest to the big man and the difference is still over 20 minutes.
With Crouch on the pitch, Stoke can be a consistently dangerous side from set pieces and crosses. It doesn't fit the philosophy Hughes is trying to implement at the club but it's the results business and frankly, it a bit unclear what Hughes wants to achieve.
The former Man City and Blackburn boss was hired in 2013 as a successor to Tony Pulis to mould Stoke into a side that plays so-called "proper football", keeping the ball on the ground and not relying heavily on set pieces to get goals. The numbers show that there isn't much progress in that regard.
Stoke had 47.2% of possession against Leicester, but their season average is just 42.8. It's the second-worst mark in the league, ahead of only Pulis' West Bromwich side (40.3%). Five of their 13 goals (38.4%) have come from set plays. Even West Brom has scored a fewer amount of their goals from set pieces (37.5%). Leicester leads the league with 45.4%.
Hughes has some very good passers of the ball at his disposal with the likes of Fletcher, Joe Allen and Xherdan Shaqiri, but he's using them in strict style of play that doesn't have much room for creativity. It's almost like he has abandoned his original vision he had for the side. Stoke averaged 274 passes per game during Pulis' last year at the club and that number rose to 356 during Hughes' debut season. It peaked at 371 in 2015/16. Last season, it was down to 320 and currently, Stoke is averaging only 270 short passes per game. More than only...you guessed it, WBA (246).
If Hughes is going to play the old Stoke style of football, then he needs Crouch on the pitch. He's the perfect man for finishing off dead ball situations and leading the line for a side that doesn't have the ball much during the 90 minutes of action.
The 36-year-old doesn't need to start every game - he probably doesn't even have the capability to do so anymore - but he's done more than enough to get a chance. The sooner Hughes realizes it the better. For the team as a whole and for him personally as well. Stoke is currently only a few points ahead of the drop zone and the Welshman might not keep his job if the team is dragged into the relegation battle before the turn of the year.