On the surface, dismissing Mark Hughes was little more than the inevitable reaction to Stoke City winning just eight Premier League games since March, dropping into the relegation zone and suffering a shock defeat to League Two’s Coventry City in the Third Round of the FA Cup.
But scratch a little deeper and the end of the Welshman’s bid to transform the Potters into a fine-football institution of aesthetic ideals is a telling moment for the English game. With the gap between the best and the rest in the Premier League ever-increasing, and the gap between the rest and the relegated ever-decreasing, it may well be the last vanity project we see in the Premier League for some time.
That may come across as a pejorative description, but let’s not forget Hughes’ working brief after replacing Tony Pulis in summer 2013. The now-Middlesbrough boss had overseen five consecutive campaigns of Premier League survival, never finishing lower than 14th, but after freefall form during his final six months, the Coates family decided to pull the plug. They not only wanted to take Stoke City to a higher level in terms of league standing, but also style of football.
Hughes was allowed to bring in mercurial but exciting technical talents like Marko Arnuatovic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and Ibrahim Afellay as he gradually moved the Potters away from the organised, defensive football that once made ‘a cold rainy night in Stoke’ a running Premier League cliché.
And on the most part, the ambitious experiment worked; Stoke indeed improved their final standings, Hughes overseeing three consecutive campaigns of finishing in ninth place, while employing a more eye-catching and offensive style of play.
But eventually, the vanity project ran out of steam and Hughes found himself reverting back to the tactics of his predecessor – 2016/17 saw Stoke average the least possession, produce the most long balls and score the fewest goals from open play of his four full seasons in charge, while the stylistic tribulations of the current campaign have been embodied by a 36-year-old Peter Crouch desperately flinging himself at long, aimless punts into the box.
Perhaps that’s the biggest criticism of Hughes; somewhere along the line, the mission objective was forgotten amid the need for results. But that’s not necessarily a consequence of Hughes betraying the ideals he was working towards – rather, the changing dynamics of a polarising Premier League.
The statistics are impossible to ignore and barring Leicester City’s anomalous, miraculous 2015/16 season which shook up the entire division like 20 pieces in a kaleidoscope, average possession, shots per game and goals per game for clubs finishing outside the top seven steadily decreased over the last five seasons, while the current term has seen six-year lows on all three fronts.
Likewise, the gap between seventh and eighth – 15 points – and between eighth and 17th was the highest and lowest respectively of the last five years during 2016/17.
Accordingly, the survival chances of every mid-table side have drastically changed over the last 18 months, partly because there’s more finance available to the clubs below them, and partly because the gap between the top seven and the rest has become so staggeringly severe.
The consequence has been an inevitable shift towards defensive, counter-attacking football and while more technical-minded teams like Stoke, Southampton, Swansea and Bournemouth have duly suffered, those at the opposite end of the spectrum have thrived.
Just take a look at the Premier League table; it’s no coincidence all four of those are in the bottom five, while Burnley, Leicester, Huddersfield and Brighton fill the gap between 12th and 7th. Even Everton have risen to a comfortable ninth place under the clean-sheet-comes-first leadership of Sam Allardyce.
That’s down to, quite simply, footballing nature; if you’re a possession-based team but don’t have the best players in the division, you’re destined to struggle in a counter-attacking league purely by design. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what the Premier League has become outside the top clubs – a transformation that recently obliged Jamie Carragher to dub it a ‘joke league’.
“It’s not just Newcastle but the Premier League in general, when they come up against the top six, certainly at home, it’s becoming embarrassing. The Premier League now is becoming a bit of a joke league, with the top teams being so far ahead of the ones at the bottom.
“For those clubs, its almost like they are accepting they are going to lose the game, as long as it is only one or two-nil. The Premier League has been built on every team having a go, that’s why everyone around the world wants to watch it.
“Will they keep watching if they keep seeing football like that?”
Inevitably, while clubs like Stoke and Southampton could focus on their own objectives like style of football a few years ago, they can’t afford that luxury anymore as they become engulfed in the perennial scrap for survival.
Stoke’s isn’t the only vanity project that’s failed either; Crystal Palace’s flirtation with Total Football under Frank de Boer lasted just eight games before being deemed too much of a gamble by Steve Parish, Southampton are now paying the price – at Leicester’s privilege – for seeking something more than Claude Puel’s cautious football and West Ham’s attempts to bring expansive play to their new London Stadium ended with the appointment of David Moyes – a manager who immediately switched to five in defence and one up front.
Indeed, while results made Hughes’ position at Stoke untenable, the changing dynamics of the Premier League made his demise inevitable. Now, we’ve reached a point where no Premier League side is capable of achieving what Stoke envisaged five years ago; top-half security accompanied by technical, possession-based football. The closest any side have come this season is Watford, who now find themselves just five points clear of the drop zone after a booming start under Marco Silva.
As things stand, with the big clubs even clearer of the rest of the pack in terms of finance and quality of football and the gap between the rest of the division becoming smaller, it’s hard to imagine any club even thinking about replicating the evolution Hughes attempted at Stoke, let alone it succeeding.
Hughes’ Stoke tenure may seem like a mere footnote amid 25 years of Premier League history, but its derisory end tells much about how the English top flight is rapidly changing.