Stoke must sort Hughes' successor with Premier League status at stake
It's often said that the league table doesn't lie but for the last couple of years it has perhaps been less than truthful about the declining fortunes of Stoke City, who on Saturday decided it was time to bring an end to Mark Hughes' tenure at the club.
It was far from a knee-jerk reaction from chairman Peter Coates and his board who have done their best to stay loyal to a man who delivered ninth place finishes in each of his first three seasons. Unfortunately, that feat was one he was unable to replicate in 2016-17 but in truth the team's form had long since been on the wane and the last of those ninth-place finishes came amid an entirely underwhelming campaign.
The team affectionately referred to as "Stokelona" after an influx of players from the Catalan giants, was gone. Spanish poster boy Bojan Krkic was shipped out on loan twice and the old guard who Hughes had worked so hard to replace were enjoying a renaissance, along with tactics more suited to the man who first signed them; Tony Pulis. There was no identity, no style and perhaps more worryingly, no sign that the manager had any clue of how to get things back on track.
Finishing 13th was not of much concern but the manner of that slide down the table is what worried fans the most. They had seen their team concede four goals or more on seven occasions during that campaign and when the summer arrived there was much work to do in respect of both tactics and recruitment.
Sadly, neither of those were particularly well thought through as Hughes opted to implement his own version of Antonio Conte's three at the back formation that has proved to be so en vogue. It was out with the old and in with the new as a number of the aging stalwarts departed and over £30 million spent on central defenders Kurt Zouma, Bruno Martins Indi and Kevin Wimmer.
On paper, it seemed a good start but with the defence seemingly sorted there were no signings for the role so crucial to that system; wing-backs. Instead, the inconsistent Erik Pieters was joined by striker Mame Diouf who was relieved of his goal-scoring duties to try his best as a defensive wide man. It went about as well as can be expected.
The mind-boggling decisions did not end there, and it soon became clear that a change in shape did not equate to a change in fortune and Hughes was forced to abandon his new formation to return to an old one; his tried-and-trusted 4-2-3-1.
He was a man lurching from one mistake to the next in the frantic hope that something would stick. There was a recall for 36-year-old Peter Crouch, who would soon be joined in the starting XI by the lesser-spotted Charlie Adam such was the desperation to find a basis to build on. None was forthcoming, though, and Hughes' decision to chastise the fans for having the temerity to voice their displeasure was one that saw any remaining goodwill he had among the fanbase all but disappear. His time was up.
Disappointingly, he was joined in part by the chairman who stated just three weeks ago that he didn't know what all the fuss was about. This, despite watching his team win just seven games away from home in two years; a roll-call that includes relegated Hull and Sunderland as well as the giants of Stevenage and Doncaster. Not to mention witnessing how poor his latest £18 million signing -- Wimmer -- has been; the latest in a long line of expensive flops alongside Saido Berahino and Giannelli Imbula.
Had the club taken heed just a couple of months ago they would have seemingly had their pick of well-suited options but by failing to act they have since gone elsewhere. The key question would now appear to be whether they can get their long-term choice at this stage of the season or they feel the need to make a short-term appointment to ensure survival ahead of a more considered search in the summer.
The overwhelming reaction to Hughes' departure from the fans has been one of relief but not even the harshest of critics would deny that he leaves having presided over some of the best football played for a generation.
Comfortable victories over both the Manchester clubs, seven goal thrillers against Chelsea and Everton and arguably the best of all, a 6-1 defeat of Liverpool, will live long in the memory. Unfortunately, those highs have long since gone with games more recently against the top six sides ending amid complete surrenders.
Not that those in the stands even expect results against the so-called big clubs, they're far more concerned right now with competing against those around them to preserve their Premier League status which, for the first time in a decade, is under serious threat.
Over to you, Mr. Chairman.
James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie