Stoke City’s start the season went from bad to worse in a 4-0 routing by Tottenham last weekend.
The Potters had a bright start to the game, but after Son’s opening goal for the away side, The Potters self-destructed, and it could have been a much more embarrassing scoreline for Mark Hughes, who was sent to the stands in the first-half after leaving his technical area.
Stoke are really struggling. One point from their opening four games, with ten goals conceded and only two scored. Despite positive moves in the transfer market with the additions of Joe Allen, Bruno Martins Indi and Wilfried Bony, Stoke are yet to put a team performance together.
Injuries haven’t helped, Jack Butland in particular is a huge miss, and there is increasing frustration among the Potters faithful about the consistently injury-prone Xherdan Shaqiri.
What has been evident in the past few games is that the midfield is clearly unbalanced. The central trio of Glenn Whelan, Allen and Giannelli Imbula have not clicked, and this has had negative consequences both going forward and in defence.
Imbula, the club’s record signing, ran the show against Middlesbrough on the opening day, but looked sluggish against Manchester City and Everton in particular. Whelan has been out of form for some time and is simply not providing adequate cover for an already rocky back four, meaning Allen often struggles to have an impact on the game, covering for his midfield partners.
Arguably the most frustrating thing about this midfield problem is that Hughes has had a potential solution on his bench for the past two games. Bojan may not have recreated the form of his debut season following a long lay-off with an injury, but he was still Stoke’s second-top goalscorer last term and provides a crucial link between a midfield two and the front man.
Boss Hughes tried three central midfield players in pre-season to limited success and now the three-man midfield is coming unstuck in Premier League games. He needs to rediscover the formula that saw The Potters play so well in certain games last season, and ditch the 4-3-3 formation in favour of a 4-2-3-1, with Bojan supporting the obvious attacking talents of Bony.
The Spaniard can not only link up the play up front better, but a move back to 4-2-3-1 will surely make the central midfield more sure of their roles. With Allen already proving popular in The Potteries despite the team’s overall poor performances, one of either Whelan or Imbula must be dropped.
Imbula is still relatively new to the Premier League, but it may do him good to sit out the side for a few games. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but not quite the level of consistency expected of a record purchase. With Imbula’s strengths lying in charging runs forward, Hughes may find that a midfield pairing of Allen and Whelan offers more solidity, allowing the attacking players like Bojan and Marko Arnautovic more room to create.
However, Sparky may worry that dropping Imbula may send out the wrong signals about his business in the transfer market.
Dropping a desperately out of form Whelan is a move many Stoke fans have been calling for, and there may well be potential in an Imbula-Allen midfield duo. The question is whether Allen can do enough defensive muck and nettles work to cover for the more forward-thinking Imbula.
In terms of passing ability and raw talent, this option could be the way to go.
It is a tough choice for Mark Hughes, but one that needs to be made if Stoke are to arrest their current slide. The three central midfielders approach has led to a disjointed midfield, where none of the trio seem particularly sure of themselves. It is easily overrun and offers little support to Bony, Arnautovic or Shaqiri, when he is fit.
There are other problem areas of the pitch too. Erik Pieters and Geoff Cameron, Stoke’s full-backs in the Spurs defeat, were repeatedly dragged out of position by Tottenham’s flair players. The worry is that there is little backup in these positions and more and more it seems that Marc Wilson’s complaints about a lack of defensive training during his spell under Hughes are well-founded.
Additionally, with Shaqiri out, the right side of attack is looking weak. Jon Walters deputised poorly last week, and while Stoke have Ramadan Sobhi waiting for his first start, the Egyptian is more suited to the left hand side currently occupied by Arnautovic.
A deployment of Under-23 player Julien N’Goy would be a dramatic turn, but he could offer an unknown quantity and surely can’t be worse than the rudderless Walters.
Hughes has had a lot to ponder ahead of Stoke’s trip to Selhurst Park on Sunday, but he needs to make changes swiftly and perhaps upset one or two under-performing players if he is to lift Stoke out of the relegation zone.