There are few guarantees in the Premier League, but one of them is this; somehow Stoke manage to finish comfortably above relegation year in and year out. In some ways, it’s an impressive feat. Over the last 5 seasons, they’ve been on average 13 points above the relegation zone, and this was done while transitioning from a largely static attack focused on exploiting inefficiencies in set pieces to an attack that was more based on flow and aesthetics, at least in theory. Considering the absurd finances in the Premier League these days, there are many clubs who would kill to do what Stoke currently do, which is regularly achieve mid table security.
And this season, they have done it again, finishing lower midtable and comfortably above the relegation scrap. Yet the way they’ve done it brings into question just how smartly they’re using their resources. Look up and down the squad and there’s no clear vision of what’s being built. Because of the riches of the PL, Stoke have been able to transition into being a squad with more creative types and afforded formerly heralded prospects like Bojan or Xherdan Shaqiri. The latter part is fine in smaller doses, just because players don’t make it at the big clubs does not mean they aren’t capable of playing at a lower tier, but look at the whole squad and it’s just the most random assortment of talent you can find. They’re also quite old; in terms of the average age of the startling lineup in 2016-17, only West Brom (29.9) and Watford (29.6) had an older average age than Stoke (29.1).
Peter Crouch, Glen Johnson, Phil Bardsley and Geoff Cameron all have contract extensions for at least another year. Cameron, who is 31, has his deal now running until 2020. Somehow in the year of our lord 2017, Peter Crouch played 1336 minutes this season for Stoke City. It’s as if no one at the club has ever seen an age curve. The team is extremely low on players who are about to enter their 4-5 year prime period, and instead have a stack of players either about to exit their primes or are long past it.
In theory, Stoke could position themselves more in the opposite direction; more percentage of players entering their primes while having fewer players who are into the twilight stage of their careers. This isn’t to say that it’s bad to have players who are closer to 30. And even executing that type of scenario would leave yourself vulnerable to losing your young talents, but having the majority of your squad be structured like they do is the furthest thing from optimizing the resources at hand. For reference, here’s a look at the age and minutes distribution for Southampton.
It should be noted that generally, Stoke City were not good this season. The polarization of the PL this season puts things into perspective on some level since the top 6 beat the living shit out of everyone else in the league. Even conceding that point, we’re still talking sub 45% on basic shot ratios, which is below average and those kind of numbers typically get you around Stoke’s actual point total of 44. Adding in shot quality and the picture gets a bit rosier, particularly that they’re top 5 in both expected goals per shots for/against, but at least in attack it’s possible that thse use of Crouch has skewed this. What they lacked in volume on both ends, they tried to compensate with shot quality, but the volume was still far too lopsided to truly make up for it. They weren’t exactly 2015-16 Arsenal in this department. Add it all up and you’re still getting at best a below average statistical resume that landed around the points value they deserved.
One of the weirder quirks with Stoke in attack is that under Mark Hughes, they’ve done quite well in terms of the percentage of shots that are classified as Big Chances. In three of his four seasons, his teams have been above the league average and in the last two seasons, they’ve been in the top 5. In fact, the only teams to have been above the league average in at least three of the last four seasons are; Arsenal, Manchester City, and Manchester United. The fact that this is a repeated trend could very well be something that could be a positive attribute to Hughes as a manager, though it also should be said that in the last four seasons, only once has he generated more big chances than the overall league average. Some of the process seems solid, but the overall volume lags:
|Year||League Avg Big Chances For||Stoke City Big Chances For|
There’s just nothing that they do in attack that’s all that impressive. A lot like Southampton, some of the problems come from having several mediocre-poor passers both in the backline and midfield. Their build up is stifled because the fullbacks are either too slow to get into positions higher up the pitch, or they just stick closely to their corresponding center backs. There’s just no tempo at all to how they progress the ball up the pitch in a structured scenario.
The whole idea of the counterpress being the best playmaker could’ve been fascinating to see. Many thought (myself included) when Stoke signed Gianelli Imbula and Joe Allen over a six-month span, you could imagine them playing in a system that would prioritize ball recoveries and quick transitions. It would have been their easiest way of getting Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic the ball with space ahead of them. It might not have been the penicillin to Stoke’s issues in attack, but it could’ve been a start to something grander. Even in the half hazard system that’s currently constructed, they love to progress the ball when they gain possession of the ball
Judging the season only by the point total and their position in the league table, Stoke are fine. It doesn’t have the same happy vibes that the last three seasons had when they finished between 50-54 points, but it’s another season where they weren’t at any point dragged into the relegation scrap and this time despite a very slow start. Unlike last season, which had the whole narrative of Stokelona (and Mark Hughes being improbably linked to Chelsea), this season didn’t really have anything that fans could hold onto. By and large it’s been forgettable, which is quite amazing considering they had Jesus play 2936 minutes in the central midfield.
As more of a sample size is being gathered, the argument gets stronger that Mark Hughes truly doesn’t move the needle as a manager. In his four seasons at the Britannia, only one of them has seen an attack that was something notable, and that’s been in addition to having mediocre-bad defenses. If you’re never going to fix the defense, you might as well turn into what West Ham were last year, and make all matches the most high event encounters in the league. I’m more than willing to give a pass on 2013-14 considering the sheer skeleton squad he had to work with, but even so, we’re still looking at a four-year resume that at best is uninspiring. It’s cool and admirable to have a blueprint of expansive football, but the actual moments of it happening with Stoke have been small. For large stretches of the past two years, Stoke City under Mark Hughes has been the living embodiment of the “Emperor has no clothes” idiom.
And that’s maybe my main issue with Stoke City as a club. In of itself, Stoke City are a success story over the years when it comes to sensible finances. Yet when you look at the club’s current financial situation, it’s very much clear that they’re in the bottom 10 when it comes to both wages and overall revenue. There are studies that have shown in the PL, how much you spend generally dictates your ability to move up the food chain. If you can’t spend like the big boys, you must find other areas to gain an advantage and one of those places would be finding a manager that can help you overperform. Why not just go to someone like Roger Schmidt and offer him a boatload of money considering his proven record of accomplishments in Austria and Germany. And if that route doesn’t work, maybe go for a young upstart with interesting tactical ideas. Just take a small gamble when it comes to moving the needle in a positive direction.
Considering the amount of reliance on the old boy’s club, Stoke could be more adventurous with their player recruitment. Part of why I would advocate this is because the bottom range of their potential outcomes is not too scary, so it affords them the opportunity to try some out of the box measures. This type of season is on the lower range of outcomes that can realistically happen for them. Teams like Burnley can’t do this because their bottom range of outcomes is relegation. Now, this isn’t to say that the whole idea of getting players from the top 6 in the PL who are clear talents, but for reasons can’t break into the squad, is a bad idea. Lyon managed to snag one of the most productive wingers in Europe because of that strategy. Stoke themselves have not had terrible ideas with this route; Joe Allen and Saido Berahino at their transfer fees were okay, and Wilfred Bony on a loan was fine at the time. Now the end results have not been good for Berahino or Bony, but the process going into those moves had some logic to it.
I just wished they were more willing to invest on younger players with potential. Signing Gianelli Imbula was a smart idea that didn’t work out for several reasons. Paying £3.5M for Ramadan Sobhi could very well be a coup in a couple of years. It’s not as if you can say they never try these sorts of deals. It’s just not to the volume that they should. And look, I’m not saying Stoke have this amazing ceiling as a club that they’re not tapping into. Their finances relative to others in the league are small. Within reason, the best-case scenario might be finishing top of the “Best of the Rest” league outside the proverbial top six, but there’s no harm in aiming for that.
One player that could be a nice coup for them would be Francois Kamano from Bordeaux. For one, he’s only 21 and Stoke need more players in that age group. Another thing is he takes a lot of shots, especially from open play. In fact, the only wide players to take more shots than him who played at least 900 minutes in Ligue 1 were Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria. The big sticking point is that his average shot quality is not great, clocking in below 10%. But Stoke have had shot generation problems for most of Hughes’ tenure, and it would just be fascinating to see someone with a shot happy approach like Kamano under Hughes. If it works, we’re talking a player who could average a 0.45-0.5 NPG + A rate in a season. For Stoke, those type of players don’t grow on trees.
Stoke could very well run the same group next season and finish 13-14th once again. Even with how mishmash the squad is, there’s just too much talent to find serious trouble. I just think that it’s doing themselves a disservice because they desperately need a new plan. I’ve always wanted a midsized PL squad to gamble on prospects at a high volume. Southampton have been the closest thing to it over the years, but even they haven’t gone as far. Especially considering the current construction of the squad and the contracts at hand, it would be very beneficial to blend in as much new blood as possible. The old timers can’t last forever and lord do Stoke need some excitement going into next season.