Hughes on the spot after latest Stoke collapse

Published: 19th September 2016 08:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th September 2016 09:03 AM   |  A+A-

LONDON: Mark Hughes stood in silence, hands on hips, sucking and grimacing like a man struggling to digest a particularly large breakfast. On the other side of the pitch, Stoke City's travelling fans were also standing, also silent.

Between them stood Stoke's silent players, wearing painfully neutral expressions. The score was 4-0 to Crystal Palace and really, there was very little left to be said.

Palace supporters might argue that they were the real story here: a handsome victory that nudged them into the top half of the table, two consecutive wins for the first time since Christmas. But as brutal as it sounds, this was nothing special from them. They simply played with the pinned-on bravado of a boxer who knows that however many punches he throws, he is never going to receive one in return.

There may still be pleasure in beating Stoke these days, but precious little pride. This was a fourth consecutive league defeat, and even at this early stage of the season they look so fundamentally broken that Hughes's position must surely be vulnerable. Palace required no devastating trickery to get around them: a simple cross was sufficient to throw a once-proud defence into a state of utter pandemonium.

It was almost enough to make you nostalgic for the Stoke of old: a salty band of brothers that, you felt, would rather elbow their own mothers than cede a second ball. The Stoke of Tony Pulis vintage were unloved and unrepentant, rogues and ruffians, brawlers and bullies, but all the more effective for that.

And yet the current side's biggest problem is not a lack of brawn, but an absence of heart. All teams, whatever style of football they pursue, need to be able to deal with set pieces. All teams need to play with intensity, a certain verve, a sense of purpose. This is not a matter of sharp elbows, but simple resolve.

Before the start of the season, Marc Wilson, a stalwart of the Pulis years, was scathing about Stoke's defensive issues. "We have gotten away from being a tight compact unit when we lose the ball," he said. "It would actually help if we ever did any defensive training, which we don't."

Wilson was sold to Bournemouth shortly afterwards, but his diagnosis looked prescient as Palace were easing into an early lead. Andros Townsend's free-kick was allowed to fly unimpeded to the back post, where James Tomkins got the decisive touch.

You look for a reaction after something like that, but with the exception of Geoff Cameron, pumping his arms up and down as if

trying to inflate his team-mates manually, Stoke's body language was abject. It was little surprise, then, when 134 seconds later, Scott Dann was allowed to run all the way from the edge of the penalty area to head in Jason Puncheon's corner. "Those two early goals played into Crystal Palace's hands," Hughes admitted afterwards, with all the sparkling perspicacity one would expect from a former Barclays Manager of the Month.

Though Stoke avoided subsiding completely, and even managed the odd attack, ultimately they failed to convince anyone they were capable of a comeback, least of all themselves. Bafflingly, Hughes used just one of his three substitutions, and towards the end, flagging and floundering, they were deservedly hit by another one-two combination.

Another Palace free-kick was only partially cleared, and James McArthur gathered the ball at the corner of the penalty area. With one flick of his hips he sent two Stoke defenders for a pie; with single swing of his right boot he curled a shot that deflected off Cameron and in. The fourth goal from Townsend, a low finish to polish off a swift counter-attack, was just reward for a bright performance.

"Everyone's given a responsibility and a man to mark," Hughes insisted afterwards. "We need to get back to basics. Do the fundamentals well. We've got a good dressing room, good talent in there. But they need to show it now."

Eventually Stoke's hammer-headed persistence was rewarded, Marko Arnautovic pouncing on a loose ball and slamming it in from 25 yards. But there were no celebrations on the pitch and precious few off it, either. On the touchline, Hughes was still standing. But for how much longer?

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