The pressure is mounting on Mark Hughes after Stoke dropped into the bottom three with an home unexpected defeat by Bournemouth last weekend. A heavy setback for Everton the following day eased their position somewhat, nudging the Potters back out of the drop zone on goal difference, but by that stage the local media inquest had already begun.
And it hardly helped Hughes’ cause that the Merseysiders responded to their predicament by sacking Ronald Koeman. The Toffees might have had designs on breaking into the top six and spent a king’s ransom trying to achieve that aim, but that divergent context is barely acknowledged in the Potteries. Everton have acted. When are Stoke going to act?
Familiarity, it seems, is breeding contempt. After four seasons, the fans know exactly what they’re getting with Hughes and they don’t anticipate much improvement or anything new or exciting on the back of their worst season of his tenure. The call for action is mainly a result of the Welshman’s inaction. Supporters are in need of stimulation.
On the surface, Hughes doesn’t really do a lot. He might get all uppity about other manager’s adhering to his values on touchline etiquette but, beyond the handshake controversies, you’ll struggle to find a more passive manager anywhere in Europe’s top five leagues. And his default response to any crisis is to simply brush off the suggestion that there’s even a crisis.
Indeed, sometimes, it’s a disposition that can border on patronising. "The fans are a little bit anxious and I can understand that," said Hughes after the Bournemouth game. "They should have confidence in the group of players we have. They have a management team who have been in these situations before and been successful, so I don’t think they need to worry. It’s about letting good people get on with their jobs."
The trouble is, such passivity only lends itself to performances. Stoke were 2-0 down inside 18 minutes against the Cherries and it wasn’t like their improvement in the second period was the result of any marked hike in intensity. They simply threw on Peter Crouch in deteriorating weather conditions and lumped the ball towards him.
To a much greater degree than most, Hughes leaves the players to their own devices. In old-school parlance, he pampers them, catering for their every whim during the week, his entire managerial philosophy revolving around the simple notion that talented individuals will bond and come up with the goods once you have eliminated all of their excuses.
And footballers are nothing if not masters in the art of self-preservation, so you would expect a big performance to arrive at some stage when their chief servant needs it most. But that tipping point might be another week or two away just yet. Stoke’s current status lies somewhere in between the media position (big crisis) and Hughes' (no crisis).
Therefore, the value is with Watford to capitalise at odds against here. In Marco Silva, the Hornets have a leader who is the antithesis of Hughes, at least in terms of attitude on the training ground. The Portuguese is notoriously hands-on, literally grabbing his players by their jerseys and dragging them into position throughout a diet of stop-start drills.
It’s a contrast well-depicted by Opta’s non-possession stats. Both teams tackle at more or less the same rate but Watford rank second in the division for interceptions, cutting out roughly one pass more than Stoke every 30 minutes despite the fact the Potters spend, on average, an extra minute and a half of that segment without the ball.
They also foul more too, but not so much you'd notice in the number of cards they collect. True to form, Stoke have the best disciplinary record in the division (just eight yellows) but only five teams stay on the right side of officials more than the Hornets (12 yellows, one red). In short, Silva runs a tight ship and his players operate with greater purpose and direction.
Take away the humbling 6-0 home defeat by Manchester City and the August goalless draw with Brighton, when Miguel Britos was red-carded on 24 minutes, and you’ll find that Watford have scored at least two goals in every game with ten different players finding their way on to the scoresheet. At current odds of 11/10, they look a solid wager.
Watford to beat Stoke at 11/10