“If you look at Fulham last year. Around this time people were calling for Slavisa Jokanovic’s head, and what an unbelievable turnaround they had.”
“It can happen quickly when you’ve got the type of quality we know we’ve got in our group. But what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to give ourselves a chance by having a solid base.”
Those were the words of Gary Rowett this week when, inevitably, the pressures of the poor opening performances of his new Stoke City side saw his job called into question.
At the time of his press conference, Stoke were 18th in the Championship standings with two wins, three draws and four defeats to their name – and some pretty concerning, awkward performances along the way.
It comes as no surprise that so much pressure has built up in such a short space of time; Stoke were the pre-season favourites for promotion, after all, and Rowett himself entered the Bet365 Stadium with an exciting reputation. His work at Burton Albion and Birmingham City in particular highlight the tremendous impact Rowett’s methods can have on a team willing to buy in to them.
His work at Derby County was perhaps a little shakier and inconsistent than it had been at his previous clubs, but the Rams had still challenged for promotion via the play-offs before Rowett’s departure. When Stoke secured his signature in the summer, it seemed they were on to a winner. However, the boos that now ring out at full-time suggest different.
It’s only to be expected that Rowett would defend his position this week with his Jokavonic comparison, and to be fair, on paper, it’s a great example to point to. Last year, Fulham were floundering down at the back-end of the Championship table, just as Stoke are now. Six months on, and not only were Fulham widely regarded as on the of the most attractive and exciting Championship sides in the league, but they were heading to the Premier League as well.
That said, the circumstances surrounding Jokavonic’s Fulham and Rowett’s Stoke are almost polar opposite. Slavisa Jokavonic had already been Fulham manager for a year and a half by the time the Cottagers were sinking toward League One. His methods were well known and embedded within the group, and perhaps most importantly, his signings were effective.
Look now to Rowett’s Stoke – a side unfamiliar with success over the last few years. A side adjusting to the demands of a new manager. On the face of it, this psychological malaise was the perfect environment for Rowett to cultivate, since that’s what won him the dedication and loyalty of his players at Birmingham and Burton. That said, Rowett’s style – the counter-attacking, fast-paced, passionate and explosive play – requires two things: solidity in defence, and pace in attack.
Up front, Stoke face a quandary. Berahino is a shadow of the player he was, or at least was touted to be, four years ago, now playing out wide in a front three. Tom Ince is an excellent attacker but one who often tries to do too much alone. Benik Afobe leads the line, but fails to hold up the ball as well as Rowett’s previous target men. Bojan has been riddled with injury and fitness concerns for many years now, and much like Berahino, will have to adjust to life on the wing if he hopes to play consistently.
At the back, Stoke are almost comical at times. Ashley Williams, on loan from Everton, seems to be a player quickly on the decline and exposed by the pace and fire of the Championship. Cuco Martina has never been considered particularly exceptional, either – a steady enough hand that became a favourite of Ronald Koeman at Southampton and Everton without ever really impressing the fans. It’s clear from the 18 goals they’ve conceded so far – joint second-worst at the time of writing – that the back line isn’t capable of absorbing pressure.
That, ultimately, is what Rowett’s style hinges on. Think of it like firing a bow; you pull back and pull back, turning up the tension on the string, and when the moment is right, you unleash the momentum and fire the bow across the field. It made Rowett’s Birmingham a fiery, fearsome counter-attacking force. Those attacks led by the likes of Demarai Gray, Jon Toral and Che Adams. Stoke’s front line, albeit adjusting to new positions in some cases, is every bit as good as the names just listed, but what good are the arrows when the bowstring splits?
What Jokanovic had at Fulham was an excellent group of players familiar with his style and a collection of signings that settled straight into his philosophy. Rowett, however, does not. His defence is comprised of players incapable of providing the stability that Stoke’s attackers require. Beyond that, Rowett is fighting a tide of fan frustration, brought on by years of under-achieving and the scars of their recent relegation.
Rowett was their salvation. The Championship was their playground. But, the reality of life in the second-tier has been far harsher than they – and perhaps, more importantly, the board and scouting department – could’ve imagined.
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