Stoke City are moving quickly to make up for a woe-laden first half to the January transfer window, but still have a glaring issue to solve if they are to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
The signing of two new full-backs, Moritz Bauer on the right and Kostas Stafylidis on the left, has buoyed hopes of shoring up the league’s leakiest defence – yet the goals conceded in Monday’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester United demonstrated that defensive reinforcements alone will not be sufficient.
Although new-boy Bauer and the fit-again Bruno Martins Indi were welcome back-line additions for the trip to Old Trafford, neither had the power to save Stoke once Man Utd had carved clean through midfield.
Too much space
Prevention is better than cure; one tenacious midfielder could have smothered the attacking endeavours of both Antonio Valencia and Anthony Martial, before the whole City backline had to watch two beautifully struck shots sail past them into the net.
Stoke’s many other drubbings this season (7-2 at Manchester City; 5-1 at Tottenham; 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, home and away, against Chelsea) have witnessed a similar story. Defensive mistakes certainly haven’t helped, but the completeness of those defeats had much more to do with Stoke’s meek surrender of space in the middle of the park.
Thus the departure last summer of the long-serving Glenn Whelan – or, more specifically, the lack of any replacement – must be considered among the chief factors in Stoke’s slide down the table this year. With the unspectacular 34-year-old’s effectiveness on the wane, after serving in nine Premier League campaigns with the Potters, the time to part ways was probably if sadly correct. But 2017-18 has proven how vital the Ireland international had been to the team’s overall solidity, even in spite of his own fading form.
Each of Stoke’s regular starting midfield pair, Joe Allen and Darren Fletcher, bring useful qualities to the side, but nothing that can compensate for the profound loss of the team’s chief water-carrier.
Allen a yard short
The energetic Allen covers more ground than most of his teammates, but off the ball he is frequently still a yard short of making the blocks and interceptions that are key to frustrating teams’ most direct routes to goal. Fletcher’s main contribution, rooted in a good range of passing with which to stretch opposition, has been far outweighed by his painfully prominent role this season in the more unbelievable feats of Stoke’s defensive circus.
No midfield options
On the bench, there are few suitable alternatives. Charlie Adam is a threat in the opposition half, but a hospital-pass-in-waiting in his own; Stephen Ireland offers similar, but with a two-year injury absence thrown in; Ibrahim Afellay – himself beset by countless injuries – is strongest when shielding possession, not trying to win it back.
Geoff Cameron, by contrast, has featured promisingly as a defensive midfielder for parts of the season – but he has been injured, inconsistent and, most often, seconded to a desperately understaffed back-line. All the while, £18million record signing Giannelli Imbula – a drive-from-deep midfielder signed two years ago as a natural successor to the Sevilla-bound Steven Nzonzi – is currently on loan at Toulouse, who languish second-bottom of France’s Ligue 1, having not featured for his parent club for more than 10 months.
Stoke’s new manager Paul Lambert will doubtless have his own plans for how Stoke will change their approach in the second half of this season. Prospective transfers, restricted as they will be for a club appointing a new boss mid-way through the window, would be welcome all over the pitch.
There are few natural options on the wings – a problem all the more acute for a team whose most reliable striker has been the six-foot, seven-inch Peter Crouch. Endearing and indefatigable as the former England man has been in his seven years with Stoke, his own spot in the team is there for the taking.
Few fans would contest the case for going all-out to sign a centre-forward of proven quality. Crouch, who turns 37 this month, has already earned another one-year contract extension beyond the coming summer – a circumstance that illustrates the dire failure of signings Wilfried Bony, Saido Berahino and Jesé Rodríguez in the last two campaigns.
Lambert will certainly be looking to build in these areas further forward; Stoke have far from the worst goals-scored record in the league, but still average only a goal per game (23 in 23). Such efforts, though, will yield much lesser results if the new manager cannot find a replacement fulcrum for his team.
Glenn Whelan never set the Premier League alight with his touch, his technique or his flair. That said, it is difficult to picture him in a team being cut to ribbons week in and week out, by clubs big and small alike.
With Whelan’s departure, the mask has fallen from the face of Stoke’s vulnerable defence. Priority number one for the new manager must be buying and fitting a new one.