Stoke City are drifting into trouble under Mark Hughes' stewardship and the Potters look like being the next club to replace their manager...
"At present, the only direction Stoke are headed is down to the Championship and it remains to be seen how they haul themselves off this dreaded dirt track without a change in manager or by throwing money at the problem."
A third successive Premier League defeat and just one win in the last eight, that at home to table footers Swansea City, leaves Stoke City just one point above the relegation zone. Saturday's 3-0 loss to West Ham was delayed due to a power cut at the Bet365 Stadium and it felt like a timely metaphor for Mark Hughes' downward spiral of a reign in charge of the Potters. A lacklustre start to the campaign means Hughes is the 3/10 favourite to be the next Premier League manager to leave his post and rightly so.
Considering the level of investment since his appointment in 2013 - Stoke's five club-record arrivals have come since Hughes succeeded Tony Pulis - and you can understand the club demanding a better return on the money spent. Pulis' departure brought about calls for a change in tact in Stoke and, initially, Hughes enjoyed some level of success at the club. The Welshman worked tirelessly to move away from the direct approach to a more aesthetically pleasing style of play, with the former working well as a plan B option.
The initial new manager bounce gave way to a period of consistency and following three successive 9th-placed finishes, the onus was then on to make the next step and establish themselves as European contenders. However, having laboured to a 13th-placed finish last season, Stoke are 17th and show no signs of shaking themselves out of their current rut. Calls for Hughes to be shown the Bet365 Stadium exit aren't without foundation.
Stoke often prided themselves on a solid home record, but only a handful of teams have earned fewer home points than the Potters (11) this term. What's more, Mark Hughes' side have conceded more goals (39) than any other Premier League team this season - they've shipped three or more goals in a match on five occasions. On top of that, they've kept fewer clean sheets (2) than any other top-flight team this term. For a team that spent just shy of £20m on a new centre-back in Kevin Wimmer last summer, not to mention the loan capture of Kurt Zouma and permanent arrival of Bruno Martins Indi, and boast one of the league's best goalkeepers in Jack Butland, you'd expect a better defensive record.
The decision to revert to a three-man defence should have helped improve the backline, but using players unfamiliar with such a setup and expecting them to work together with consummate ease is a recipe for disaster. What's more, using striker Mame Biram Diouf at wing-back and winger Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting as a lone forward on occasion suggests a lack of direction at both ends of the pitch. While 19 goals scored isn't the worst return, a goal difference of -20 is far and away the worst in the Premier League. With issues at both ends of the pitch, Stoke are now 4.1 to be relegated and it's important the Potters begin to consider potential Hughes replacements before they slide into the Championship.
The main issue here, however, is who do they get in to provide the new manager bounce to haul them away from the drop zone. Desperate times call for desperate measures and it's seen Sam Allardyce, David Moyes and Alan Pardew make returns to management with Everton, West Ham and West Brom, respectively. If Stoke were to follow suit, then Tony Pulis would be the logical replacement, though how that would sit with supporters remains to be seen. He'd at least bolster the defence, but would signal the end of the 'Stokelona' experiment that chairman Peter Coates had hoped to oversee.
Options, though, are thin on the ground. Aitor Karanka is out of work and while his Middlesbrough side was tough to break down, they were still relegated under the Spaniard. Martin O'Neill boasts top-flight experience, but hasn't worked in club management since his 2013 sacking at the hands of Sunderland, while a left-field appointment would indeed present a risk at this stage of the season with Stoke in their current predicament. Change is required at the Bet365 Stadium if Stoke are to stay up, yet it feels as though the Potters are late to an appointment party.
Hughes has been handed the tools to right his wrongs, yet has done little but force square pegs into round holes and hope the decision pays off. At present, the only direction Stoke are headed is down to the Championship and it remains to be seen how they haul themselves off this dreaded dirt track without a change in manager or by throwing money at the problem. The latter has been tried, tested and failed under Hughes, though the former presents its own issues.
In the build up to Christmas, t'is the season to be jolly. The only joy some may get as far as Stoke are concerned, however, is for Sparky's light at the Bet365 Stadium to go out once and for all.