The Insight: Stoke City paying the price for years of poor recruitment

 | February 15 | 

9 mins read

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On the face of it, victory in a six-pointer against Queens Park Rangers to move them six points clear of the relegation zone looks huge for Stoke City. In reality, a monumental fight to stay in the Championship still lies before them, and the stats and form guide are not good reading for their supporters.

That 1-0 success on Wednesday - courtesy of a Wouter Burger goal on the stroke of half-time - was a much-needed win for the Potters, particularly after they were well-beaten by another struggling team in Blackburn Rovers last weekend.

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  • Stoke to get relegated - 10/1
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“You’re not fit to wear the shirt!” That’s what was bellowed from the travelling contingent at Ewood Park as the Staffordshire outfit slipped to what was a fourth straight defeat.

The game against QPR was exactly what you might expect from two teams struggling to stay in the second tier. It was devoid of quality, there was one goal in the game caused by poor defending - which has been problematic for both clubs this term. And even despite Stoke coming out as the victors, they cannot afford to get complacent over the perceived breathing space they have given themselves.

The win over the Rs was only their third win in their last 18 matches, and with 14 games to go, they still need a massive upturn in form to outlast Marti Cifuentes’ side if they are to stave off the drop to the third tier.

Time is scary and easily passes by. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Potters were a stable Premier League club who were well-planted in the top flight.

They posted three consecutive ninth-place finishes between 2013-14 and 2015-16 as they enjoyed a 10-season stay in the promised land before returning to the second tier, where things have continued to go from bad to worse.

While it was the Peter Coates regime that oversaw Stoke’s proud period in the Premier League, it is the same one that has the Potters in real danger of returning to the third tier of English football for the first time in over 30 years.

The signs have been there from the off. Usually, the sides with three-year parachute payments received by clubs relegated from the Premier League give them an advantage over their rivals in the Championship.

Stoke’s were squandered with nothing to show for it. In their first campaign back in the Championship, they made the mistake of just throwing money into signings with no clear plan.

The likes of Benik Afobe, Tom Ince, Sam Vokes and Ryan Woods were brought in for around £33m. A sign of things to come regarding board decisions.

The first three were attacking acquisitions. Afobe and Vokes were forwards and Ince was a winger. Collectively, they scored 34 goals in 240 appearances for the club and Stoke have never finished higher than 14th in the last five years - says it all really.

Stoke to get relegated at 10/1

Recruitment was a problem then but it is an even bigger problem now as Stoke have been dragged into a relegation scrap, with no signs of putting on the brakes.

Due to bad investments in 2018-19, the club have had to be careful with their spending so that they do not breach the EFL’s Profitability & Sustainability regulations, so they have had to be reliant on loans and free transfers at times.

A lot of the finger-pointing at their current predicament is being aimed at the technical director, Ricky Martin (not that one), who joined the club from West Ham United’s academy in November 2022. He has overseen three transfer windows so far, as well as two managers in Alex Neil and current boss Steven Schumacher.

Even compared to Stoke’s awful transfer business in their first season back in the Championship, most of the fan base is united in labelling Martin’s recruitment as even worse.

It’s hard to argue with that given the team’s form and league position (19th). Only nine teams have conceded more goals than their total of 45 this term, and more worryingly, the only three teams to have scored fewer than their 30 are the league’s bottom three, QPR,  Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham United.

In terms of their xG, Stoke are underperforming. They have amassed a total of 35.3 [fbref] so far, so they are five goals shy of the number they should have, hammering home the fact that there is a clear lack of quality in the final third.

Summer acquisition Andre Vidigal is Stoke’s leading marksman in the league with five goals but they have largely been scattered over many months, with the last coming on Boxing Day. He is just edging his own individual xG of 4.6 [fbref] but it doesn’t take away from the fact the squad have been wasteful with the chances they have created.

This is supported by their goals-per-shot rating, which is 0.07 [fbref]. It is the joint-worst in the division alongside Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers, who are both below the Potters as things stand.

At the other end of the pitch, Stoke have conceded more goals than their xGa, which is 41.2 [fbref]. This reiterates that the defence is extremely vulnerable and is of course concerning for everyone involved.

Tony Pulis Stoke City

The highs in the Premier League under Tony Pulis are long forgotten in Stoke

Supporters are also furious with the squad that has been assembled, questioning the character of the players every bit as much as their quality. There have been concerns raised regarding the lack of stomach for a relegation dogfight.

Following the defeat to Blackburn, Schumacher said: “I understand fans' frustration. We've said to the players at the end that they will accept us making a mistake by passing the ball or a bad touch but they won't accept not doing the basics right, that's competing for first and second balls and not being easy to play against. It's just not right.

“I do understand it and we are going to need the fans, but the players are going to have to give the fans a performance to get behind.”

Eighteen of the Potters’ current crop were acquired over the summer, but there remains a clear lack of quality at both ends of the pitch. A mediocre Championship team has further deteriorated, and supporters are struggling to piece together where key wins might come from.

Most of the summer additions have been flops. One in particular is attacker/midfielder Nikola Jojic. Martin sanctioned a deal worth over £1m for his services from Serbian outfit Mladost Lucani, and the 20-year-old Serb has made just one Championship appearance. He is even struggling to get into Stoke’s Premier League 2 (under-21) starting XI.

What is also damning is that Stoke are on course to record their highest number of defeats in their current six-year spell in the second tier. They have already lost 21, with 14 games remaining - starting with Coventry City on Saturday, and their record currently stands at 22 (2019-20).

A lot of outsiders were perplexed when 39-year-old Schumacher opted to leave Plymouth Argyle for the bet365 Stadium in December to succeed Neil. The Liverpudlian had been building a solid reputation at Home Park having gained promotion from League One last year.

Coventry to win at 7/5

Given that more experienced second-tier coaches have tried and failed with Stoke, such as Gary Rowett, Nathan Jones and Neil, the role has become known as one of English football’s most poisoned chalices and Schumacher was perhaps naive to think that he could break the chain.

After picking up nine points from his first five matches, the former Pilgrims boss started to experience the sort of results that were prevalent before his arrival. And things have been boiling over behind the scenes as he has started to see issues with the players at his disposal.

He recently banished Ryan Mmae, one of the raft of underwhelming summer recruits, to the under-21s for not reaching the levels expected in training. The episode provides another black mark against Martin’s recruitment drive.

Despite Wednesday’s win, the Potters are barely keeping their heads above water right now. Goals are at a premium and, on current form, even their QPR look a better bet for survival. The likes of Huddersfield Town and Blackburn, meanwhile, are feeling the benefit of a change of manager.

Schumacher has a huge scrap ahead of him and he is in unfamiliar territory as his previous experience as a head coach with Plymouth involved him fighting at the top end of League One, before leaving them six points above the drop zone early in the season as he made the switch to the Potteries. And the Pilgrims have not once looked in any real danger of going down.

The form guide for the last five matches has Stoke 21st, with only Millwall, Watford and Rotherham performing worse than them. The Hornets aren’t in any danger, but the other two most certainly are, and it doesn’t bode well for Stoke to be in that bracket at this stage.

The Millers’ fight looks to be done as they are 14 points adrift of safety. Millwall have found themselves dragged into the scrap following their own change in the dugout, with long-term figure Rowett, who had them constantly pushing for the top six, leaving earlier in the campaign.

What’s more troubling for Schumacher and company right now is that Huddersfield and QPR rank 12th and 13th respectively in the form table, which shows that they are both currently on track to collect more points than the Potters between now and the end of term.

While the real ire among supporters might be directed at Martin and those in charge of recruitment, it is going to be down to Schumacher and an underwhelming first-team squad to ensure that they go into a much-needed summer window with Championship status still intact. Stoke City and their young manager have an enormous three months ahead of them.

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