Having taken West Ham from 18th to 11th place in the space of twelve games, it’s easy to forget the hostile response David Gold and David Sullivan received when they announced the appointment of David Moyes back in November. And having taken Crystal Palace five points clear of the relegation zone after the Eagles failed to earn any during their first seven games of the season, it’s equally easy to forget he pejorative connotations that surrounded Roy Hodgson when he was brought in as the south London club’s unassuming saviour.
Now, as Paul Lambert takes charge of Stoke City in the wake of a social media backlash, after the Potters failed to attract their three preferred candidates to succeed Mark Hughes, the Scot must find his own way of casting amnesia over an unconvinced majority at the Bet365 Stadium and the wider Premier League audience by guiding a side in the relegation zone back to safety.
And yet, Moyes’ success at West Ham makes that challenge far less almighty than it might seem. There is no guarantee of history repeating itself in the Premier League, or the factors behind one club’s ascendancy being applied to neatly to another, but the similarities between the clubs and the managers are difficult to ignore.
After all, just one point and two places separated Stoke and West Ham at the end of last season, and both belong to the category of regular mid-tablers who have found themselves suddenly overtaken in the current campaign by more pragmatic, better organised teams of lesser quality. The Premier League’s usual pecking order, barring the top six, has fallen apart this season and it’s the sides who’ve attempted to play more ambitious football in recent years – Stoke, West Ham, Swansea, Everton, Palace and Southampton – who have endured the greatest suffering.
In terms of quality, there isn’t a chasm between Stoke and West Ham, and both have paid the price for poor organisation amid a season in which those with the greatest solidity at the back have reigned supreme. That is what Moyes has brought to the London Stadium; he’s still working with the same players Bilic left behind, but has found the right balance between the industrious rigidity to match that of teams like Brighton and Huddersfield, and the quality to eventually overcome them.
Clearly, Stoke City face the same problem; Xherdan Shaqiri and Joe Allen are amongst the most talented midfielders you’ll see in the bottom half of the table, but any quality they’ve offered this season has been counteracted by the Potters conceding the third-most goals after 23 games of any side in Premier League history.
No doubt, that is where Stoke’s biggest problems lay, but arresting them certainly isn’t beyond Lambert. West Ham once again provide inspiration; they conceded more than two per game under Bilic, but have gone on keep three clean sheets from the twelve Premier League games Moyes has managed – including two, incredibly, against Arsenal and Chelsea. Likewise, while Stoke’s defensive record this season has been gravely concerning, it’s as much a consequence of Hughes’ failure to provide consistency at the back as the actual quality of the Potters’ personnel.
Stoke have fluctuated between three and four at the back throughout the season and neither system has proved particularly effective, while injuries and the balance of a squad have been major problems as well. Tellingly, Erik Pieters and Kurt Zouma are the only Stoke defenders to make more than 15 starts in the Premier League this season and Mame Biram Diouf has made more starts as a right wing-back, 13, as he has a centre-forward. Stoke have already addressed one of those issues by signing an actual right-back in Mortiz Bauer, who showed glimpses of promise in his debut against Manchester United despite the 3-0 scoreline. It’s now a matter of keeping other key defenders fit, particularly Zouma and Ryan Shawcross at the heart of defence.
And much like Moyes, Lambert is a strong candidate to provide the basic defensive organisation Stoke have lacked this season. It would be wrong to label the Scot a defensive manager – his greatest managerial triumph to date, Norwich City’s back-to-back promotions, was achieved with an aggressive side that centred around the technical qualities of Wes Hoolahan – but he showed with Aston Villa that he’s capable of grinding out results in that fashion should circumstances dictate.
Much has been made of the goal-shy, direct football of Lambert’s final few years at Villa Park, but he left with an average of just 1.3 goals conceded per game and managed to keep them on the right side of the drop line. If Stoke averaged the same this season, their goal difference would be -7 – better than Everton in ninth – rather than -27.
Likewise, it’s worth remembering what Lambert actually had to work with at Villa excepting Christian Benteke; a team of young players mostly from the lower tiers of English football and lesser foreign leagues, only a small handful of which – Fabian Delph, Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark, Matthew Lowton and Ashley Westwood – are still plying their trade at Premier League level. Stoke’s current squad contains far greater experience, far greater quality and far more players with proven Premier League pedigree. We’re talking about former Champions League winners like Shaqiri and former Premier League winners like Zouma and Darren Fletcher.
That is not to say sharpening up at the back will instantly push Stoke clear of relegation bother. There are other intrinsic flaws as well; the whole team lacks dynamic pace and energy, but particularly at the heart of midfield, and Hughes’ overreliance on Peter Crouch towards the end of his tenure was as much a problem as a solution in terms of style of play. Clearly, Stoke need to bring a few more signings through the door before the January window slams shut and another source of goals is vitally needed.
But the conclusive analysis is a simple one; the challenge of taking Stoke clear of danger is by no means beyond Lambert, despite his immediate unpopularity. In another similarity with Moyes, his negative reputation is a consequence of taking the wrong jobs and the wrong time and being typecast as a defensive manager of dour demeanour.
But just as the Scot has proved at West Ham, those reputations can change very quickly in football – with the right tools in place, Lambert is more than capable of transforming his, and Stoke’s season.