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Stoke City still struggling under Nathan Jones: Where has it all gone wrong?
Stoke City are in the Championship relegation zone and still looking for their first win. Adam Bate examines the club's ongoing problems
Last Updated: 26/09/19 12:51pm
Away trips don't come much more pleasant than Brentford and not just because of the old line about there being a pub on every corner of the ground. The Bees are leaving Griffin Park soon, so there is a sentimental reason to make the trip. Not that sentiment was at the forefront of Stoke supporters' minds as their side struggled again on Saturday.
At least this grim goalless draw came with a point attached. It might have been three had Peter Etebo been more clinical in front of goal. In ordinary times, a stalemate at Brentford would offer little encouragement but these are not ordinary times. The result doubled Stoke's points tally for the season. These fans, who also saw their side lose to League Two Crawley on penalties in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night, have had to learn to take what they can get.
The players are obliged to trudge past the away support in the old terrace and many there are still backing Nathan Jones and his confidence-shot team. But it's tough. Eight games in and Stoke are winless, one off the bottom of a table they hoped to top. Jones' reign began with defeat in this same fixture in January but this isn't the progress that was promised.
Having arrived as the latest antidote to the malaise that has gripped the club, the up-and-coming young coach has instead presided over three wins in 28 Championship games. That the Luton team he left behind in League One to join Stoke are now above them in the table - and could well be a division above by May - only adds a tragicomic air to the situation.
They are hardy folk in the Potteries and many can find comfort in the black humour that comes with their predicament. Thick skins were developed during the Tony Pulis years, but there was pride too, and plenty of joy to be had in a trio of top 10 finishes under Mark Hughes. But pessimism had taken hold long before the Premier League adventure ended.
Paul Lambert brought platitudes but not points and the stories about Saido Berahino and others that have emerged since laid bare the issues that have engulfed the club. Still, few could have anticipated it would be quite this bad. Even Gary Rowett's time, beginning as pre-season favourites and ending in a January sacking, looks relatively successful now.
Jones has not only been unable to arrest the slide, the fear is that he has accelerated it and exacerbated it. It is the tale of a toxic combination of problems inherited and ongoing. The solutions have proved anything but. The errors inexplicable. On top of all that, there is a begrudging acceptance even among Jones' biggest critics that luck left town long ago.
Some of the underlying numbers are not as bad as results would suggest. Stoke sit mid-table for possession, shots, chances created and touches inside the box. The lack of a cutting edge has undermined them but given 31-year-old Lee Gregory's record of 29 goals in 134 games at Championship level, perhaps that is no surprise. He is without a goal in seven starts so far.
"The fans are not mugs," Jones had told reporters before the Brentford game. "Do we work hard? Yes. Do we create chances? Yes. Do we move the ball well, are we an attacking side? Yes. So they will have a certain amount of respect. But do we defend well enough? No. They'll be asking the same questions as I will because they are not stupid."
At Brentford, that defensive failing was addressed with a first clean sheet of the campaign - a throwback to the sequence of four consecutive goalless draws that Jones oversaw in the spring. After conceding at least twice in every one of their first seven matches, this was a welcome sign of some organisation. Stoke's defending has been woeful this season.
Frustratingly, they have rarely been carved open by clever movement or wonder strikes but by their own calamities. Stoke have made the second most errors leading to shots and the second most errors leading to goals. Jack Butland has been particularly poor. No Championship goalkeeper has conceded more goals from outside the box this season.
Jones' line that the team "need to be sharper in front of goal and need to defend better" has come to feel like a mantra but it does not amount to much of a disclaimer. Being bad in both boxes is the hallmark of a poor team. The horribly out-of-form Joe Allen's red card scuppered them against Bristol City recently but can any team be unlucky for nine months?
In a sense, Jones has been fortunate that following a period of upheaval at the club since Hughes' departure, there has been an appetite for stability once more. The board have been patient and - unlike his predecessor Rowett - he has been saying all the right things. There is some sympathy there and a realisation that the cleansing process takes time.
When Jones speaks of how his Luton "would have run over their granny for a win" and contrasts it with the attitude of the current crop it chimes with supporters. But, like him, they need something to cling to. Even if the journey is to be a long one, they need a sense that the man at the wheel is taking them in the right direction. That sense is still lacking.
The diamond formation that Jones used to such good effect at Luton has hardly been seen. Instead, there has been a tendency to lurch from one idea to the next in search of answers, causing some to lose belief. It has been all too easy to conclude that this is a coach - and a club - scrambling for answers and that every action makes it less likely they will find them.
Consistency of team selection has been absent. That is a symptom of a side losing games, of course, but could it also be a cause? "I've brought a lot of them in," Jones said of his squad after losing at Charlton in the second game of the season. "It's too early to lose patience with the players." But the changes have kept coming and so have the defeats.
For the most recent loss at home, Jones included three of his signings in the starting line-up but he has made a dozen of them. For all the talk of a new direction, Danny Batth, Sam Vokes and Mark Duffy were among the unused substitutes, Scott Hogan was a late introduction, while other recent additions were not even among the squad.
The concern is that the players he has brought in are not so different in profile to what came before. Batth, Vokes, Duffy and Hogan all joined from Premier League clubs. Tom Smith had just had a couple of seasons there with Huddersfield, while Stephen Ward had spent seven years in the top flight. The youngest among those is 27. This is an unusual type of rebuild.
Every attempt to correct course leaves Stoke more lost than before. They can dispense with Jones but they know it will not rid them of their problems. A bloated squad, neither young nor cheap, will still be there. The rebuild will still take time. But how much of that time is left for the latest man tasked with navigating Stoke through this remains to be seen.
"The board sees the work I do every day and they are good football people but I don't know how long they can be patient," said Jones recently. "I want to change things but nothing is going for us. There are teams with far more points than us, but are playing worse than us. But we cannot keep saying that because eventually people's patience runs out."
Stoke City vs Nottingham Forest is live on Sky Sports Football on Friday night; Kick-off is 8pm