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Schumacher’s start turns sour as Stoke continue to crater – Interview
Tuesday, 13th Feb 2024 15:34 by Clive Whittingham

QPR can move above Stoke City with a win in Staffordshire on Wednesday night, testament to just how badly awry a huge 23/24 overhaul has gone for the Potters - @potterlytics is our regular contributor from that part of the world.

How's the season gone for Stoke?

Errr, yeah. Bad. It’s a tale of two managers having positive starts followed by a depressing downfall. A few good wins for Alex Neil turned into a half-season of boring percentage football and bad results to boot. Stephen Schumacher started so positively, but a lack of finishing skill in a couple of games and a complete implosion in the last three matches in particular has us hanging far too close to the relegation zone for comfort. A leaky defence, a midfield being held together by one summer signing, and a forward line that’s putting up the second worst finishing stats in the league this season isn’t boding well for the next few months. Add into that the explosion of fan anger in the last two games, and there’s a fairly reasonable possibility of League 1 next season.

Stoke in the league so far…
Stoke 4-1 Rotherham Hoever 5, Vidigal 45, 45, Brown 90 – Peltier 46
Ipswich 2-0 Stoke Woolfenden 23, Jackson 81
Stoke 1-0 Watford Vidigal 53
Millwall 1-0 Stoke Nisbet 31
Stoke 0-2 Preston Keane pen 51, 57
Norwich 1-0 Stoke Stacey 44
Huddersfield 2-2 Stoke Pearson 31, Rudoni 68 – Johnson 33, Wilmot 62
Stoke 1-3 Hull Vidigal 77 – Connolly 30, Traore 32, Slater 73
Bristol City 2-3 Stoke Bell 5, Wells 15 – Leris 20, Haksabanovic 47, Lowe 89
Stoke 0-1 Southampton Armstrong 41
Leicester 2-0 Stoke Iheanacho 24, Vardy 79
Stoke 2-1 Sunderland Mmaee 7, McNally 47 – Clarke 10
Stoke 1-0 Leeds Struijk og 80
Boro 0-2 Stoke Rose 8, Leris 37
Stoke 0-0 Cardiff
Coventry 0-0 Stoke
Stoke 0-3 Blackburn Wharton 4, Moran 86, Szmodics 90
QPR 4-2 Stoke Dykes pen 11, Dykes 82, Pearson og 90, Willock 90 – Mmaee 45, Burger 56
Plymouth 2-1 Stoke Bundu 43, Randell 90 – Campbell 23
Stoke 0-1 Sheff Wed Musaba 90
Stoke 1-1 Swansea Johnson pen 70 – Darling 90
West Brom 1-1 Stoke Thomas-Asante 35 – Gooch 12
Stoke 0-0 Millwall
Birmingham 1-3 Stoke Stansfield 69 – Thompson 12, Gooch 31, Vidigal 53
Watford 1-1 Stoke Livermore 15 – Mmaee 34
Stoke 0-0 Ipswich
Rotherham 0-1 Stoke Baker 45
Stoke 1-2 Birmingham Thompson 70 – Stansfield 10, Bacuna 49
Sunderland 3-1 Stoke Burstow 43, Ba 49, Ekwah 70 – Seelt og 74
Stoke 0-5 Leicester Daka 26, pen 66, McAteer 30, Vardy 73, pen 90
Blackburn 3-1 Stoke Dolan 7, 37, Szmodics 19 – Ennis 39

Why didn't it work out for Alex Neil?

There was never a great vibe about the appointment from my point of view. He was hired at the second attempt (after a failed 2019 bid) just five games into the season, to turn a possession-based squad created by his predecessor into a winning version of his high-energy, high-pressing direct style of play. Aside from a fantastic run of form in February to May of 2023, he hasn’t got close to making it work for more than a week or two at a time. Even after a run of good results, with very questionable performances, a really bad run of losses proved enough for the board to get rid. There were some unlucky results, for sure, but the lack of excitement in games seemed to be down to Neil’s distrust of his players and the tactics he implemented seemed to be planned to cover weaknesses rather than to emphasise strengths. He couldn’t manage either in the end.

What have you made of Schumacher so far? What's he changed?

A very strange couple of months. There was a lot of excitement at first, and his positivity and freedom for players to be more fluid in games was such a breath of fresh air in those first six or so games. An unbeaten run was finished by an incredibly unlucky loss at home to Birmingham, where poor finishing and composure threw away what would’ve been a well-earned three points. But since then, wow, has it been horrible to watch. Three really poor performances with a wide open midfield has led to more than a bit of unrest in the stands, and the 3-1 loss to Blackburn saw the first ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ chants for quite a long time. The positivity and freedom has given way to ball watching and a lack of understanding in roles that has put us 3-0 down in all of the last three matches. Despite small signs of fight in the second halves, there’s been very little for Stoke fans to shout about, and rumours of some annoyance in the squad around deadline day mean Schumacher seems to have a bit of a job on his hands to drag back the trust of the fanbase.

There actually seemed to be a bit of optimism about Stoke this season after a grim five years, 17 new arrivals in the summer including some pretty big names and eye catching signings, and yet it's all gone to shit again... why, specifically this season? And why, in general, is the club just so stagnant in the bottom half of this league?

There are some big questions in that. This season we’ve given the squad to a manager who couldn’t back up his press conferences with performances on the pitch. Neil’s distrust of his defence just exacerbated the lack of confidence among the players and we started to free fall. Now we have an attacking manager who managed to get some results in his first few games, but that frailty in mentality is still so pervasive through the club that he’s got a lot of work to do to stay up.

In the longer term, we keep making the same mistakes. As a club there is no real plan for what we want to be, either on or off the pitch. The introduction of Ricky Martin as technical director last season promised more of a shift towards a head coach role with an underpinning ‘Stoke Way’ of playing that helped keep stability. However, the search after Alex Neil’s sacking led to yet another wild swing in playing style across essentially all areas of the pitch in Steven Schumacher, and again we’re scrambling to get a squad of players used to a completely different way of playing.

Summer Ins >>> Wouter Burger, 22, DM, Basel, £4m >>> Ryan Mmaee, 25, CF, Ferencvaros, £3.5m >>> Mehdi Leris, 25, RW, Sampdoria, £2m >>> Joon-Ho Bae, 20, AM, Daejeon Hana (South Korea), £1.5m >>> Ben Pearson The Goblin Boy, 28, DM, Bournemouth, £1.2m >>> Nicola Jojic, 19, RW, Mladost (Serbia), £1m >>> Andre Vidigal, 24, LW, Maritimo, £450k >>> Wesley Moraes, 26, CF, Villa, Undisclosed >>> Lyndon Gooch, 27, RW, Sunderland, Undisclosed >>> Junior Tchamadeu, 19, RB, Colchester, Undisclosed >>> Daniel Johnson, 30, CM, PNE, Free >>> Enda Stevens, 32, LB, Sheff Utd, Free >>> Michael Rose, 27, CB, Coventry, Free >>> Ki-Jana Hoever, 21, RB, Wolves, Loan >>> Mark Travers, 24, GK, Bournemouth, Loan >>> Chiquinho, 23, LW, Wolves, Loan >>> Sead Haksabanovic, 24, LW, Celtic, Loan >>> Luke McNally, 23, CB, Burnley, Loan >>> Ciaran Clark, 34, CB, Unattached, Free

Summer Outs >>> Jacob Brown, 25, CF, Luton, £2.5m >>> Josh Tymon, 24, LB, Swansea, £2m >>> Connor Taylor, 21, CB, Bristol Rovers, £300k >>> Nick Powell, 29, AM, Stockport, Free >>> Morgan Fox, 29, LCB, QPR, Free >>> Demeaco Duhaney, 24, RB, Istanbulspor, Free >>> Tom Edwards, 24, RB, Huddersfield, Free >>> Sam Clucas, 32, CM, Rotherham, Free >>> Aden Flint, 33, CB, Mansfield, Free >>> Tashan Oakley-Boothe, 23, CM, Blackpool, Free >>> Phil Jagielka, 88, CB, Released >>> Peter Etebo, 27, DM, Released

Winter Ins >>> Million Manhoef, 22, RW, Vitesse, £3m >>> Niall Ennis, 24, CF, Blackburn, £500k >>> Scott Morris, 22, GK, Christchurch, Undisclosed >>> Daniel Iversen, 26, GK, Leicester, Loan >>> Luke Cundle, 21, AM, Wolves, Loan

Winter Outs >>> D’Margio Wright-Phillips, 22, RW, Beerschot (Belgium), Loan >>> Dwight Gayle, 34, CF, Glue Factory

What was done in January? What was left undone?

The most pressing need was addressed in the signing of keeper Daniel Iversen on loan, and the addition of winger Million Manhoef from Vitesse for a few million was an exciting way to end the window. Other than that we added two ex-Schumacher disciples in Luke Cundle and Niall Ennis, another sign of that managerial power that still pervades the club. It’s tough to say how they’ll pan out yet, but there are plenty of murmurs of discontent about the lack of defensive additions this window. Centre half has been a position filled with mistakes this season, even from the usually-solid Ben Wilmot, and with only injury-prone Enda Stevens as a natural left back, the squad certainly isn’t complete just yet.

Stand out players in this team?

Just the one at the minute. A few have shown some promise over the season but none are even close to Wouter Burger as it stands. He’s been an absolute revelation in midfield, and despite being asked to do far too much off the ball in the last few games, his quality in possession and the ease with which he breaks the line is one of few bright sparks in recent weeks. If the players around him can get back to doing their jobs as they were five or six games ago, he’s an absolute star. Bae Junho looks like a real star of the future too, so don’t be surprised if he plays a blinder. When he starts adding goals and assists to his game, he will light up this league.

Weak links?

How long have you got? Three weeks ago, I’d have mainly said that the midfield can be a bit slow out of possession, but the creativity going forward in the front line was our main issue. Now, however, the midfield appears to be entirely vacant in defensive transition aside from Burger, and the lack of creative prowess has remained. Add that to a side that’s low on confidence and you can see why we are where we are. I’d be shocked if the midfield is the same as last Saturday’s game, so it’s possible the weakness will show up more in the centre backs than the midfield. But as it was last season, there are two Stokes that can show up. One of them is relegation material, and the other is pretty damn good when it wants to be.

Revised expectations for the season? How much trouble are you guys really in here?

My expectations are that we aim as high as we can. I don’t think there’s any finish from now that wouldn’t disappoint me, barring a crazy run of wins. Had we lost these four games normally, I wouldn’t be so worried, but given the lack of desire and the amount of holes in our team when you watch us, I can’t help but feel we’re one mistake away from collapsing in every match. We just have to hope we can stick out a few games and those around us stay poor.

Links >>> Stoke City official website >>> Stoke Sentinel — Local press >>> The Oatcake — Message Board >>> The Wizards of Drivel — Podcast >>> Every Step Along The Way — Podcast

The Twitter @loftorwords @Potterlytics

Pictures — Ian Randall Photography

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TacticalR added 23:05 - Feb 13
Thanks to potterlytics.

The decline seems quite strange as Stoke have at least had some money to spend on players this season. The list of managers at Stoke over the last 5 years (before Schumacher) contains all the usual suspects, and none of them have been able to turn the ship around.

francisbowles added 09:58 - Feb 14
I make that 19 signed in the summer and 5 more in January. Only 13 +2 let go. So that's an increase of 9 players. How does that work? I know the gambling company sponsorship. Mmm.

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