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Hughes’ decline shows clubs ignore warning signs

Mark Hughes has been on the verge of losing his job for weeks now. There are Stoke fans who will tell you he should have been replaced months ago.

Stoke sit in the relegation zone with far and away the worst defensive record in the league. They are relying on Peter Crouch, 36, Darren Fletcher, 33, and Charlie Adam, 32, in the most intensive period of fixtures in elite football.

That alone shows errors in squad management. Fletcher and Adam are two of the three players in the squad who are primarily recognised as central midfielders. The other is Joe Allen, who has occasionally been used as a second striker.

Giannelli Imbula was signed for a club-record fee and quickly discarded. It has been suggested he was a player Hughes did not want in the first place.

Marko Arnautovic – who saved Stoke from a relegation battle last season – was sold to Premier League rivals in the summer. The money was spent on two central defenders, Bruno Martins-Indi and Kevin Wimmer. Kurt Zouma had already been signed by that point, leaving Hughes with four supposed first-choice centre-backs.

The replacements for Arnautovic was Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting on a free transfer. He has not even come close to replicating the performances of the Austrian, or even his role in the side.

This is just from last summer, when there were already indications of a downturn. And not just because they finished 13th rather than ninth.

Sirens Begin

For a period, Stoke were playing some of the best football in the league. That football vanished in 2016/17. Their eventual tally of 44 points was their worst since 2012/13, which was Tony Pulis’ last season in charge. Stoke had regularly caused upsets against the top six, but they took just three points from the best of the Premier League in 2016/17. On seven occasions they conceded four goals in a match, something that had happened only three times the season before. Those three matches were right at the end of the 2015/16 campaign.

The signals that the plateau of being an upper-mid- table Premier League side was breaking were clear. It perhaps even started before last season, but was undeniable by the time summer 2017 arrived.

Hughes was appointed at a time when the Potters were not in crisis. It was a proactive decision to improve the football played at the club and avert potential decline. Working by that same logic, Hughes could – perhaps should – have been replaced last summer.

Passive Board Cost Precious Time

Staying with him through the summer is possibly understandable given the progress they made in his first couple of seasons. Alarm bells, though, should have been ringing long before the halfway point of this season. Hughes was under severe pressure in October, but saved his job with a backs-to- the- wall win at Watford. He was under severe pressure in November, but notched a 2-1 win over struggling Swansea to perhaps save his job. He was under severe pressure in December, but scraped past West Bromwich Albion.

In the midst of the Christmas chaos, the Stoke board decided to give Hughes until after the Newcastle match. There was then uncertainty after a poor performance and defeat. Hughes has been given at least the FA Cup duel with Coventry, which should be irrelevant to his job security.

The delay in any decision after the Newcastle defeat was puzzling. There was clearly a failure to organise an alternative should they want to replace their manager.

The need to spend this January means it’s safe to assume the Potters’ decision-makers intend to stand by their man throughout this campaign. Their policy of never sacking managers mid-season, and overlooking warnings has backed the owners into a corner. The Coates’ want the club to make money. Frugality, though, could cost Stoke their Premier League status.

Hughes has been far from faultless in Stoke’s demise, but the squad management has been woeful. That might be down to Hughes, it might be a result of the club trying to minimise transfer spending, it could even be because of disagreements within the club.

Relegation becomes real worry

Indecision has put Stoke in a treacherous situation in 2018. The Potters were outside the top flight for 31 years, and have consolidated themselves as a Premier League club in the decade since their promotion. The beginning of Hughes’ reign saw Stoke threaten European qualification, but their loyalty could put them back where they were 41 years ago.

Despite the earlier ramble of the squad-building catastrophes, this team should still be performing better than it is. Hughes naturally deserves criticism for that. The people above the manager are as worthy of blame for their role.

Stoke are, unfortunately, indicative of a lot of football decision-making. Too often clubs wait for a crisis to provoke action. The Potters were a rare exception when they appointed Hughes, but have slumped into a scramble for safety as a result of misguided transfer business and blinkered view of the team’s performance.

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