How Stoke can fix their broken transfer strategy

The word “recruitment” has become something of a dirty word among Stoke fans in recent years. Following myriad catastrophes, it’s not really a surprise the transfer strategy employed by Stoke has come in for immense criticism from fans, media outlets and by far the saddest indictment, the playing squad. However, apportioning this blame is difficult when Stoke’s system isn’t the clearest, with accountability being shared by beleaguered CEO Tony Scholes, mystery man Mark Cartwright, Mark Hughes and the much loved Gary Rowett.

The club has sent mixed messages several times on how the ‘transfer process’ works, so it’s difficult to unravel who was purely responsible for Kevin Wimmer or Saido Berahino, nor who should be individually pilloried for recommending Cuco Martina. Instead, it’s more beneficial to look at Stoke’s strategy as a whole and why compared to other Championship clubs employing more innovative approaches, it’s essential that Nathan Jones can find a way to operate within the setup.    

Stoke City’s Transfers 18/19: Absolutely no clue(cas)

The first rule of any good recruitment strategy should be that the managerial system informs and guides the transfer dealings. It’s no use signing a tremendously skilled technical playmaker if your system relies on long ball percentages and low blocks, or, to be more topical, signing wingers to play in a diamond system.  

During the glorious World Cup summer of 2018, Gary Rowett was destined to lead Stoke to an instant promotion and the mood among Stoke fans was high going into the season. This was further enhanced when Peter Etebo, Tom Ince, Benik Afobe all signed on the dotted line. A World Cup midfielder and two well-rated Championship/Premier League threshold players. James McClean looked like he would add a workmanlike element to the side whilst adding more Premier League experience, certainly he fitted the model of how Rowett was expected to play. Further cause for optimism was the retention of a substantial chunk of the relegated squad of 17/18, with hopes pinned on the at that point impressive Moritz Bauer and the solid Erik Pieters being able to easily handle the less technical wingers of the Championship.

Captain Shawcross and Martins Indi would laugh in the face of Billy Sharp, Kemar Roofe and Teemu Pukki after seasons of handling Kane and Aguero. A loan acquisition of Ashley Williams from Everton would surely consolidate this even further.

Then Leeds United away happened. A thoroughly miserable afternoon as Stoke’s defences were ripped to shreds. The new look attack smashed itself inanely against Leeds’ meticulously organised defences and Benik Afobe cut an isolated figure. McClean, positioned in a far more attacking role had his technical frailties exposed and the midfield trio of Allen, Etebo and N’diaye looked like 3 of the same player, all doing the same job appallingly. Stoke were undercooked and tactically out of shape. In hindsight, Rowett didn‘t know how to employ his system with these players and the recruitment tail was clearly leading the tactical dog.

Within four games, Bauer was on the scrapheap and replaced by Cuco Martina. A player who was so successful his loan was instantly cancelled by Nathan Jones. He was joined before the end of the window by Ryan Woods and the injured Sam Clucas. Woods excelled early with his ability to recycle the ball, but quickly got lost as Rowett tinkered with the system, in a similar fashion to Etebo he seemed to have no idea as to his best position or role. However, Sam Clucas best represents Stoke’s short-sighted approach to recruitment in 18/19. The former Hull man signed with a hefty price tag and a severe injury which kept him out until November, Rowett described his signing as a “risk” and Swansea supporters didn’t seem too unhappy to see him depart. When he finally did get into the team, he struggled for sharpness and was rotated from left to centre and back again with alarming regularity.

As much as versatility is an asset, it can only work in players who are match sharp and conditioned to do so and having missed all of pre-season it was clear Clucas was another lost soul in Stoke’s midfield.

There are further examples of how Rowett couldn’t get what he wanted out of the players, but the scattergun approach of Stoke’s recruitment is made even more embarrassing in comparison to the transfer tactics of their league rivals. Stoke’s recruitment strategy largely amounted to “he’s got experience and we can afford him” rather than knowing exactly what a player was expected to achieve when in the squad – surely the golden rule of recruitment.  

All of Stoke’s signings in 18/19 barring Danny Batth and Ryan Woods had Premier League experience and for the recruitment team that appeared to be enough to justify exorbitant fees and ludicrous contracts both of which would precipitate acute disappointment when it became clear they didn’t represent value for money. A look at the teams around Stoke would have pointed to this being both an outdated and completely unsuitable approach in the modern game.

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The Loan Market: The Kids are alright

Stoke’s forays into the loan market in 18/19 were lacklustre. Rowett signed two very average and aged players who fitted the mould of the problem, not solution. The loan market, however, is a flexible and extremely useful tool when used properly. Looking at this year’s top six, every single club with the exception of Norwich had at least one young player on loan who made a positive impact on their season. Most of these players had no top-flight experience at all, yet they were able to produce the goods time and time again. Leading the way, were Aston Villa who acquired Tammy Abraham and Anwar El Ghazi. Abraham fired them into the playoffs, and though the chances of keeping him are ultimately slim, he executed the role Villa required of him to perfection. Curiously, Yannick Bolasie who fits the Cuco Martina/Ashley Williams model of loan signing had his loan cancelled early by Dean Smith, furthering the argument that if you are going to loan from above, it’s better to aim for youth than experience.

Frank Lampard’s Derby County FC excelled this year following acquisitions of Harry Wilson and Mason Mount. The latter even receiving an England call up for his form in the second tier. Fiyako Tomori, on loan from Chelsea clinched the Rams’ Player of the Season award. Sheffield United used Kieron Dowell to superb effect, not always as a regular but a great set of fresh legs to bring on late in the game. The Blades’ loan of Manchester United goalkeeper Dean Henderson was one of the signings of the season, and they will be pressing hard to secure the loan again as they pursue top-flight survival. Finally West Brom’s reliance on Harvey Barnes for creativity and how it was stifled by his return to Leicester probably cost Darren Moore his job and WBA a serious automatic promotion charge.

The lesson from all of this is clear. There is a glut of talent in the U-23 bowels of the Premier League that is just waiting to be tapped up for a seasons use. Instead of looking at these options, Stoke’s recruitment was instantly attracted to the Premier League professional model. What Stoke failed to realise is there will be a reason an experienced player isn’t playing at a top-flight club, largely the fact that those players are past their best. Whereas an under-23 player, brimming with optimism and tenacity is the antithesis of everything Ashley Williams and Cuco Martina provided us with this season. Nathan Jones shouldn’t be avoiding the loan market, he should be looking for young, malleable fullbacks that he can coach into the attacking outlets he needs. Even if they only stay for a year, a good season is better than being trapped to a 3-year contract of mediocrity. One of the very best centre-backs Stoke have had in the past 50 years, Ryan Shawcross, came to club exactly via this method. It’s a strategy that pays off time and time again and you ignore it or think you are too good for it at your peril.

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Norwich City and the Wonderful Work of Webber

As mentioned, the exception to the system presented above is that of the champions, Norwich City. Rather than tinker with their recruitment, they completely overhauled their approach in a tremendously bold move in the summer of 2017. The crucial appointment was not that of Daniel Farke, but Stuart Webber as Director of Football. As he did at Huddersfield, Webber worked with a manager well versed in 2nd tier German Football on identifying promising young players from top-flight ‘B’ teams, or some bargains from slightly obscurer nations. This system takes time to implement. The vast majority of Norwich’s squad were present for the disappointing 17/18 season in which they had a starkly similar season to Stoke, finishing 14th. Norwich kept faith with Farke’s philosophy and Webber’s vision and received a massive pay off this year when Teemu Pukki, a player who had bounced around some big clubs before finally settling at Brondby was picked up on a free transfer.

Pukki proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle, as players like Onel Hernandez, Marco Stiepermann and Emiliano Buendia all came to the fore, despite many of the squad playing regularly in the disappointing 17/18 campaign. Norwich’s system is transparent, Webber and Farke regularly meet to discuss options and strategy and it is well documented that ultimately Webber is the man most accountable, a system most clubs now operate under in Germany. No one looking into Stoke’s system can quite figure out who goes where, and this is costing the club as it’s all too easy for Peter Coates to come forward and suggest “no one is to blame” because on the outside, it’s hard to pinpoint without intimate knowledge of how the club works. Stoke needn’t necessarily follow this model to the letter, but unless a model is clear it’s hard to tell if it’s working. Some dedicated senior scouting abroad would hardly set the club back in the long run either and for a club with a reasonable history of picking up some obscure gems from abroad in the 2nd tier (Carl Hoefkens, Peter Hoekstra, Brynjar Gunnarsson, Sergei Shtaniuk et al.) it’s yet another neglected area of recruitment.

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Horses for Courses: Chris Wilder and domestic options

The signing of Danny Batth and Sam Vokes smacked of two things. Firstly, that Nathan Jones is looking for players with defined leadership attributes who have a history of punching above their weight.  In Batth he has a captain, well respected and much loved still at Wolves despite his fading role in their team of Football Manager regens. Vokes has shown himself to be a decent striker in a limited role with Burnley and Wales and capable of leading the line against the very best. The second thing these signings demonstrate is a willingness to stay domestic. While Norwich may appear to contradict this, there are several examples of domestic players being the driving force behind a promotion. None more so than Chris Wilder’s ragtag bunch of players at Sheffield United, who on paper look nothing more than the sum of their parts.

Wilder joined the Blades in 2016, with the Sheffield side languishing in the third tier. In his first year, he picked up Mark Duffy, Jack O’Connell and John Fleck for practically nothing. Not only did they help Sheff Utd break the 100 point barrier in 16/17, but they were also fundamental components of this season’s promotion charge. Enda Stevens joined in 2017 as Wilder started to impact his pretty unique brand of football on the Championship and onto his players. A respectable 10th place finish followed. No trees were pulled up ahead of the new season, David McGoldrick joined after an average season with Ipswich, John Egan a solid Championship player by reputation and finally, Oliver Norwood was picked up from Brighton on a loan to buy deal after never really breaking into the side in the Premier League. None of these transfers on paper look flash, or anything like a promotion side. But by imparting a tactical system and a level of commitment unmatched in the Championship, Wilder forged a winning side of everyday players. Typifying this, David McGoldrick picked up the player of the season award despite only scoring 15 goals. His contribution to the system and allowing Sheff United’s positional fluidity to flourish was his main asset.

A similar setup has worked for clubs like Bournemouth in 2014-15. It’s difficult to imagine what Stoke fans reaction would be like if this year all we signed were 2 free agents, made a loan permanent and acquired a League One Striker, but that’s exactly what the Cherries did in their promotion season. That’s because in a similar vein to Wilder, Howe had brought in players from when he took over in League 1 that bought into his system and he was able to coach effectively to excel way beyond their market value suggests. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of this philosophy that 5 members of Bournemouth’s squad this season who played at least 20 games, were at the club when they were in League 1. It’s a model that’s reliable, low risk and inspires the fanbase. 

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Learning from the past….and present:

According to the old cliché, the Championship is the “hardest league to get out of”. This statement is, for the most part, true, but there are wide ranging options for how you go about achieving promotion. Stoke fans won’t tolerate another year of recruitment misfires, Scholes and Cartwright bore the ire of the fans for the first time vocally in the FA Cup this year and another year of failure will only see this worsen. However, there may be some green shoots if the team are learning from their previous gaffes, whether driven by Jones or not. Apparent Stoke interest in Lee Gregory and Adam Davies certainly shows a change in tack compared to last year’s debacle. It also fits very nicely into the recruitment models employed by Chris Wilder this year and Eddie Howe before him. Though cynics will say it’s the club cutting costs, Nathan Jones wants to coach and improve his players, using their natural commitment (Gregory is noted for his hard work and team play) to ensure he can fashion a cohesive system. A Norwich like system requires too much of a fundamental change for Stoke to employ in one summer, but a move towards transparency would do wonders to reinstall a degree of confidence in the “process”.

As Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fiyako Tomori overcame Leeds United at Elland Road, they underline the fact loan market can bolster Championship squads with genuine quality and enthusiasm, rather than redistribute Premier League cast-offs. Jones may have his eyes on plenty of available loanees to supplement his permanent dealings but whatever happens, a crucial summer awaits and Stoke fans wait with bated breath for improvement……after all, it can get much worse than Cuco Martina…..can it?

Matt Swift

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