A little advice for up-and-coming football managers: Should you ever be lucky enough to find yourself in the Premier League, and ever be unlucky enough to be going through a rough patch of form, try your best to ensure that something's going on at Manchester United at the same time. Because José Mourinho's stumbling superstars may be the noisiest mess in the Premier League, but Stoke City are absolutely the worst.
The Premier League table isn't yet a fully formed thing but it's hard to argue with Stoke's position down at the bottom, with just one point from five games. They've had a tricky start: Three of those games have come against the current top three, Manchester City, Tottenham and Everton, while the other two have been away from home. But the truly damning number can be found a couple of columns to the left. Stoke have so far conceded 14 goals this season. That's as many as Cardiff City, bottom of the Championship, and more than Coventry City and Cambridge United, bottom of Leagues One and Two. And they've all played eight games.
Manchester City scoring four goals is a thing that can happen. So too Tottenham. But this weekend just gone, there was something deeply troubling about the ease with which Crystal Palace picked up their opening two goals, effectively ending the contest after just 11 minutes. Both came from crosses into the box, and both highlighted just how welcoming a place the Stoke City penalty area has become.
The obvious place to start is with the goalkeeper. Stoke haven't kept a clean sheet in the league since Jack Butland did his ankle in March — seven games at the end of last season, plus the opening five of this — and have recorded just one win in that time. That Butland exacerbated the injury coming into this season was deeply unfortunate; that he did so with two weeks of the transfer window remaining, yet Stoke failed to pick up another keeper and decided to stick with Shay Given, is looking borderline negligent.
This is not to pick on Given particularly, who was an excellent goalkeeper back in his day and is, one imagines, an outstanding reserve to have around the place, covering the odd League Cup game here and there and passing on accumulated wisdom to any passing youngsters. (Not that Stoke have many of those.) But his preference for his goal line has always been pronounced and Crystal Palace took full advantage. Whether a younger, taller, more interventionist goalkeeper would have managed to prevent James Tomkins' first goal is a matter of conjecture; Jonathan Walters didn't come out of it looking too clever. But Stoke's defence looks like a collection of men desperate to hear a confident shout of "BUTLAND!" and watch admiringly as a large man dressed in neon comes to their rescue.
There may be bigger problems than Given at work. A few weeks before this season began, Marc Wilson, who'd been at Stoke six seasons and played for both Mark Hughes and Tony Pulis, was asked on Twitter to pick his best position. He responded "Centre-back," then added "But it would actually help if we ever did any defensive training, which we don't." Though his comments looked at the time to be born of frustration at having lost his place in the team — he joined Bournemouth a few days later — his case has been getting stronger with each subsequent game.
Hughes, perhaps not surprisingly, has so far declined to call out his own training methods. Though he has taken the blame in other respects. After the defeat to Palace, he pointed to everybody's favourite early-season explanation: "We have made changes to the back four and made changes today, so we have not had a settled back four. I have to nail that down and stick with it. That will help us. We need that platform to enable us to build."
He may be right. The ever-present Ryan Shawcross has had six different defensive colleagues so far this season, as Hughes has tried Phil Bardsley, Geoff Cameron, and Glen Johnson at right back, Philipp Wollscheid, Cameron, and Bruno Martins Indi in the middle, and Erik Pieters and Martins Indi at left back. Perhaps this is nothing more than the natural consequence of starting the season before the transfer window is closed: Wollscheid started the first two games, then joined Wolfsburg on loan, while Martins Indi only joined on Aug. 31. And Hughes is lucky that the fixture list gets a little calmer from this point on: Eight of their next nine games come against teams outside the top eight, and the odd one out there is Manchester United, who are having their own crisis. Wayne Rooney must be a cool drink of water to a struggling defence.
Or maybe there's something more to this. Because Stoke don't just look like a team in need of a proper goalkeeper, though they do. And they don't just look like a team in need of a well-drilled and settled defence, though they do that, too. Against Palace they looked like the very worst thing for a football team to be, which is: broken. Unbothered. Disengaged. We're not actually suggesting that they've given up on their manager, because that would be (a) grossly speculative and (b) probably actionable. But from the listless movement in attack, through the muddled passing in the middle and back into that demoralised mess of a defence, it certainly looks that way.
Hughes has been in charge at the Britannia Stadium for 3 years and 112 days: only Arsène Wenger, Eddie Howe, and Sean Dyche have been at their clubs longer, and both Howe and Dyche have crossed divisions in that time. We don't often get to see managers reach the end of their natural shelf life at a club, since football tends to chuck its managers in the bin at the slightest hint of staleness. But Hughes has already had longer than most Premier League bosses get, so if there is such a thing as a managerial expiration date, then chances are he's coming up on it fast.
Even if everything sorts itself out over the next few games, and the defence coheres as the games get a little easier, then Hughes has already managed to pick up one unwelcome distinction. Five games in, and he's already been given a vote of confidence by chairman Peter Coates, who believes that "He is a very experienced manager and knows what it takes to get results in the Premier League." And he's spot on: Hughes, calling on all that experience, has correctly identified that "We have to stop shipping goals."
Then he ruined it: "We are not a team that allows opposition four-goal head starts." But they are. And teams like that, they don't do very well, and their managers don't last very long.