Stoke, Mark Hughes may regret barely putting up a fight at Chelsea
LONDON -- Stoke City were ripped open in under three minutes by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, en route to a 5-0 home win. It took even less time for manager Mark Hughes to concede that his priorities lay elsewhere as he dissected arguably the most hapless Premier League performance of the season in his postmatch press conference.
"I made decisions I feel will help us with the game we have on Monday," he said, pointing to Stoke's vital home match against fellow strugglers Newcastle United. "We rested players carrying knocks who will be fresh and ready to go."
Hughes made six changes to the Stoke team that drew 1-1 with Huddersfield Town on Boxing Day, opting to rest Xherdan Shaqiri, Joe Allen, Maxim Choupo-Moting and Peter Crouch. In his defence were two 18-year-olds, Tom Edwards and Josh Tymon, while the attack was spearheaded by Saido Berahino, a man without a goal in a competitive football match since February 2016.
Chelsea sensed that visiting Stoke had given up before kickoff and were proved right almost immediately as three Stoke defenders stood and watched Antonio Rudiger rise, unchallenged, to meet Willian's free kick and head home in the third minute. Danny Drinkwater and Pedro Rodriguez also encountered negligible resistance before hitting shots from just outside the penalty area that stretched the lead to 3-0 by the 23rd minute. Travelling fans could already be seen leaving their seats and heading back down into the bowels of Stamford Bridge, perhaps to seek out a stiff drink, perhaps to begin the journey home early. "How s--- must you be, it's only 3-0," sang many of the rest.
Chelsea eventually got five goals at a canter despite the fact that Alvaro Morata was in spectacularly wasteful mood and Eden Hazard, sitting on the substitutes' bench, never had to lace up his boots.
Admirably, there were no loud boos or chants against Hughes, who pointedly instructed his players to applaud those fans who stuck it out until the final whistle. Such gestures are unlikely to spare him the full force of supporter fury, however, if his calculated gamble does not pay off at the Bet365 Stadium on Monday.
This is the least forgiving point for Premier League teams amid a relentless festive fixture schedule. Stoke are one of 13 teams required to play two matches in about 48 hours, making injuries much more likely and squad rotation a necessity. Hughes' course of action is therefore understandable, but an increased workload will never be an excuse for the manner of defeat witnessed at Stamford Bridge.
Every manager has shuffled the pack at some stage in December, but the only performances in the past month that rivalled this for ineptitude were Stoke's 5-1 mauling away to Tottenham and the 5-0 capitulation to Liverpool at Anfield that convinced Swansea City they needed to appoint Carlos Carvalhal.
Heading into Saturday's game, Chelsea had been struggling to score; 86 shots had yielded just five goals across four matches against Southampton, Bournemouth, Everton and Brighton. On Saturday they hit the net with five of their 21 attempts, scoring twice with their first three shots on Jack Butland's goal. The final insult for Stoke came in the form of a 20-yard bullet from substitute Davide Zappacosta, struck with the left foot he has been reluctant to use for more than walking or running since his arrival at Stamford Bridge.
"The back four pairing hadn't played together from memory, so it was always going to be difficult for us," Hughes said after the match. Club captain Ryan Shawcross (calf), Erik Pieters (hip), Glen Johnson (knee) and Bruno Martins Indi (groin) are all currently unavailable due to injury, while Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma was ineligible to face his parent club.
It has been a torrid season overall for the Stoke defence; they had already conceded more goals than any other Premier League side this season before shipping five at Stamford Bridge. Eight goals given up from set pieces is also the fifth-worst tally in the division, while only Watford and West Ham have conceded more penalties than Stoke's three.
Hughes can justifiably point to the experienced personnel he's currently without, but his team's continuing vulnerability brings to mind former Stoke defender Marc Wilson's explosive response when asked totally innocuously by a supporter for his preferred position during a Twitter Q&A in August 2016. "Centre-back mate," he replied, before adding: "But it would actually help if we ever did any defensive training, which we don't."
It is in attack where Hughes has sought to truly transform Stoke. Marko Arnautovic, Bojan, Ibrahim Afellay, Shaqiri and Jese were all appealing signings and a spectacular, definitive break from the agricultural style of the Tony Pulis era, but all have fallen short of expectations to greater or lesser degrees. Ultimately, the only transformation in recent years has been from a team that had a clear identity to one that appears stuck between several very different paths.
The spiralling trajectory of recent results has brought Hughes to the point where he is no longer guaranteed to be the man leading the way. His only two victories since October have come at home to Swansea and West Brom, clubs in disarray who are already on their second managers of the season.
Beating Newcastle on Monday may provide similar respite, but Hughes' decision to surrender without a fight against Chelsea, especially on a day that saw Swansea and Bournemouth both win, has turned the pressure up another notch. Stoke chairman Peter Coates is as calm and sensible as Premier League employers come but patience has its limits.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.