A few months ago scientists in America revealed new findings equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Among people suffering cardiac arrests, experts announced, even after your body has given up the fight and your heart has pumped out its last desperate beat, there’s enough residual blood sloshing around your brain to briefly keep it functioning as though your entire existence hasn’t just been abruptly sucked into a cold, black eternal void. The upshot of this cheery piece of news is that those of us unlucky enough to suffer the torture of a sudden heart-attack face the added delight of hearing our own deaths being announced to our loved ones before body and mind are finally unified in shuffling off the mortal coil.
It’s an unnerving prospect to get your head around, yet alone prepare yourself for, but perceiving one’s own expiration is a concept of which Mark Hughes will have gained invaluable personal experience as the final seconds ticked down at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday. 2-1 down to a team in English football’s fourth tier, the culmination of a run which has effectively seen his Stoke side win an average of one game per month since the beginning of the season, Hughes was already standing cross-armed under a cloud so thick it threatened to fall out of the sky. Another defeat, even having named a fairly strong starting eleven for the FA Cup, left the owners of the Bet365 Stadium no choice but to send Ray Winstone round to take the spark out of Sparky. Even the name of Coventry’s winning goalscorer was Grimmer.
The necessity of Hughes’ departure seems all the clearer when you consider the fact that Stoke are not a club you can simply lump into expanding class of excessively near-sighted reactionaries. This was not another episode of toys-out-of-pram and unrealistic expectations that the Premier League has become so intimately acquainted with in recent seasons. In fact, in the time since Hughes replaced Tony Pulis at what was then still called the Britannia, Swansea and Crystal Palace have had 10 different permanent managers between them. West Brom and Watford, since the latter’s return to the top flight, have had eight. In short, Hughes has had long enough and, by any measure, longer than any man can expect in the current climate.
However, just as too little time can deny a manager the opportunity to fully implement his systems, convey his ideas and build a team in his own image through successive transfer windows, so too can a team’s existing identity be slowly eroded via overexposure.
The truth is that, when Hughes first arrived at the club, he inherited a team very much in the mould most closely resembled by Burnley today. No big names, no star individuals but a collective greater than the sum of its parts. Glenn Whelan was elbowing you in the ribs while the ref had his back turned. Charlie Adam was raking his studs down the back of your continental playmaker’s calf, whispering menacingly in his ear and then getting even angrier when he realised his victim couldn’t understand what particular combination of personal and familial insults he was employing. Your goalkeeper was being pulled and pushed, harried and harassed, penned in and buffeted from all sides as Rory Delap hurled another long throw into the mixer. Peter Crouch nodded in the winner and went off doing the robot while Dean Whitehead rubbed your drooping head into the mud. When you played Stoke you didn’t expose their limitations, they exposed your soul. The question of whether a rising star was capable of delivering the goods on ‘a cold Wednesday night in Stoke’ perfectly distilled this idea. A trip to the Potteries became the ultimate interrogation of your resolve. A resolve that would dissolve over the course of 90 minutes.
Having established themselves as solidly lower-mid table belligerents, Hughes took the job with the mission statement of evolving this eleven-headed monster into a more refined footballing outfit. New signings began to increasingly resemble the kind of players the existing squad had previously licked their lips at seeing lined up on the opposing side. Bojan, Marko Arnautovic, Ibrahim Afellay, Xherdan Shaqiri and, most recently, Jese came in over successive seasons to mix a bit of beauty in with the beast. And for a while it worked. Having finished in the top half of the top division once since 1975, Hughes delivered three ninth place finishes on the spin by balancing a newfound potential to create with the well-honed capacity to destroy.
Yet, while last season’s regression back to the 13th might have appeared a blip or understandable backward step after such a sustained run of relative success, it hinted at a deeper existential crisis which this campaign has only amplified. The balance between attack and defence has tipped excessively towards the former without you necessarily considering Stoke, philosophically, to be a particularly attacking team. This is a side left rudderless by the lack of a clear identity or consistent strategy of how to pick up points.
Stoke have scored more goals than six of the seven teams ahead of them this season yet have conceded 13 more than bottom placed Swansea. Whereas the likes of Newcastle, Huddersfield and Brighton don‘t have the same attacking weapons, the defensive platforms they’ve built have enabled them to plot and scheme their ways to narrow 1-0 wins and to cling on for those vital, momentum-sustaining points that you don’t really deserve. Stoke, by contrast, have been blown away too often and too easily. When Marc Wilson, part of that original Stoke outfit, hit out at the manager for a complete absence of defence-focused training sessions on Twitter, it hinted at the inherent tension between the old Stoke and the Hughes Stoke.
As the floodgates opened at one end, the goals dried up at the other. For all the confidence placed in Saido Berahino, Mame Diouf and Eric Choupo-Moting, Stoke still look at their most dangerous when Peter Crouch is sent on, more often than not with the task of finding a late equaliser. In between these two poles, Giannelli Imbula failed to live up to the fanfare that greeted his arrival in midfield.
The problem for Stoke now is not a lack of talent but rather the lack of talent suited to their present predicament. This is a squad of players assembled to march the club onwards to even higher ground but who now instead find themselves tasked with digging themselves out of a rather sizeable hole. Whoever takes over, the new manager may find himself looking around the trenches wishing he had the old band of brothers back together. For all their limitations, they’d be better suited for the kind of scrap that lies ahead.