Stoke City’s 4-1 defeat away to Crystal Palace at the weekend left them bottom of the Premier League with just one point from their opening five games, their worst return in nine seasons since promotion to the top flight in 2008.
The match was also the third time this season that Stoke have conceded four goals in a game, having also lost 4-1 against Manchester City and 4-0 against Tottenham Hotspur – defeats that both occurred at Stoke’s Brittania Stadium.
Manager Mark Hughes is now under increasing pressure to get a reaction from his squad. But what has happened to the side that finished ninth in the league last season, sandwiched between English football giants Liverpool and Chelsea?
Their squad is arguably the best in their history. It is made up of some of their long-serving and reliable players such as defender Ryan Shawcross and forward Jon Walters, along with some technically gifted players that the club could have only dreamed of attracting a decade ago. The likes of Marko Arnautovic, former Barcelona forward Bojan, Wales international Joe Allen and Manchester City loanee Wilfried Bony should – on paper – be leading the club to comfortable wins against the likes of newly promoted Middlesbrough. Boro are the only side Stoke have played this season not to pick up maximum points against the Potters.
Hughes has lambasted his side’s poor starts in games this season, whilst the rule changes designed to clamp down on grappling in the penalty area at set pieces haven’t helped the club or its defenders, who are notoriously physical.
Stoke’s ambitions could well be to try and claim a European spot this season. Premier League champions Leicester are expected to struggle with the tricky balancing act between domestic and European football, whilst Tottenham and Southampton may find it difficult to repeat last season’s brilliant performances. West Ham United are another club that have started poorly and look unlikely to emulate last season’s heroics at their new home, The London Stadium.
However, the likes of Everton – who are unbeaten and recorded a 1-0 victory against Stoke earlier in the season – along with Chelsea and Liverpool have great squads of their own, top class managers and no European football to distract them. Add to that the fact that Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City have the experience as well as the personnel to excel in the league and the quest for European qualification has never been tougher.
That’s why Stoke City’s start has been disastrous. It is almost the worst it could have possibly been. But are we blowing this all out of proportion? It is worth noting that they have played Everton at Goodison Park, last season’s third-placed side in Spurs and this season’s overwhelming title favourites in a Man City side led by arguably the world’s best coach, Pep Guardiola.
There is no excusing Sunday afternoon’s defeat against Palace, a side that hadn’t won back to back games in the Premier League since December 2015. However, their defeats to Everton, Tottenham and City may not be worth panicking about. All three are sides that would realistically hope to finish above Hughes’ side, and would have been disappointed not to come away with victory in the games between the sides.
The real worry is how well they were beaten. Stoke need to show serious character and determination to get out of their current rut, but with 33 games still to go in the league, their fans shouldn’t worry yet. They have the quality needed within the squad – something they proved by earning 51 points last term – and have made some great additions over the summer.
Hughes has also proven to be a very capable manager and the club could be just one good result away from a complete turnaround in fortunes. It will need to come quickly though, or the pressure on their Welsh gaffer may turn into something more concrete in the unforgiving world of the modern English game.