In some ways, Xherdan Shaqiri can rightly feel aggrieved. After all, the Swiss winger leads the scoring charts at the bet365 Stadium this term, having enjoyed his most successful season in front of goal since joining the club back in 2015. Add half a dozen assists to the seven goals he has notched so far, and it is easy to see why Shaqiri was driven to lament his surroundings last week.
That lament came in a peculiar form. Shaqiri, frustrated and bewildered by the fact his side find themselves nineteenth in the Premier League and look likely to be relegated, complained that the Potters were so lacking in quality that “even a Ronaldinho could do little” to improve Paul Lambert’s side’s fortunes.
If the example Shaqiri plucked out seemed odd - save for recently making a move into politics, Ronaldinho is hardly prominent in most minds nowadays - the Swiss’ implications were clear. He is pulling his weight, others are not. If he were accompanied by players of a similar ilk, then Stoke and Lambert would not be four points adrift of safety with just five games remaining.
Certainly, in an attacking sense, Shaqiri has led the way this term. A purple patch in February meant he was the only Stoke player to notch a Premier League goal that month, and while he is given plenty of freedom in his wide right role, it is still telling he has outscored main striker Mame Biram Diouf.
Diouf’s equaliser in last weekend’s narrow loss at home to Spurs was only his second goal in nearly four months, but the fact he is still favoured by Lambert speaks volumes of Stoke’s wider attacking woes. Saido Berahino, once viewed as one of England’s brightest striking prospects, has seen his career plunge off a cliff since he burnt his bridges at West Bromwich Albion.
Berahino has yet to score for Stoke, despite having signed for them over a year ago. So stark has been his decline, he hasn’t scored a goal in professional football for 26 months.
Jese, the former Real Madrid man, was loaned from PSG in the summer to further bolster attacking ranks, yet he too has failed miserably. After scoring the winner in a victory over Arsenal in just the second game of the season, his form has nosedived. He was denied the opportunity to add to his tally when Charlie Adam wrested the ball from him to take a last-minute penalty against Brighton two months ago. The Spaniard’s anger was only intensified when Adam missed his opportunity to grant his side a crucial three points.
Less an issue of quality, more one of resolve
Yet, while Shaqiri can fairly complain about his teammate's troubles going forward, their more potent troubles have been at the other end. Stoke have conceded 63 goals this season, the worst defensive record in the division. Sunderland, last year’s hapless bottom side, conceded just six more across their own relegation season; with five games to go, only a remarkable turnaround will stop Lambert’s side from surpassing that total.
Shaqiri is right in suggesting Ronaldinho would struggle to make an impact, but not because his attacking qualities would be wasted by profligate teammates. Rather, the Brazilian’s bearing on this Stoke side’s fortunes would be heavily hampered by their complete inability to keep the back door shut.
Given their sizeable summer outlay on the backline, it is galling that the Potters have been quite so shambolic defensively. Kevin Wimmer arrived from Spurs for around £17m, whilst the conversion of Bruno Martins Indi’s loan spell into a permanent deal cost a further £7m. Add to that the loan signing of Kurt Zouma from Chelsea and you would expect something resembling resolve from the men in red and white stripes.
It hasn’t transpired. Both Lambert and his predecessor Mark Hughes have struggled to identify their best defensive setup and personnel, and it is telling that so many goals have been shipped even with England’s Jack Butland between the sticks.
Hughes was sacked following a galling loss to League Two’s Coventry City in the FA Cup, but this simply resembled the final nail in a rather well-worn coffin. By the time of his dismissal his side had shipped three or more goals in the league on six occasions, hardly the return the club’s owners will have hoped for when dispensing with over £20m on defenders last summer.
Lambert has arrested the defensive slide somewhat, with 13 goals conceded in his ten games in charge, but his problems have been highlighted through an entirely uninspiring and unimaginative playing style. Far from inspiring the ‘new manager bounce’ that his superiors would have hoped for, Lambert has instead overseen a slow trudge towards relegation. A win against Huddersfield in his opening game remains the only one on his Stoke record. His side travel to West Ham this coming Monday on the back of four straight defeats.
Lambert has disciplined both Berahino and Jese this week; the former for repeatedly turning up late to training, the latter for not turning up at all after being granted compassionate leave to return home to Spain. That is pleasing to many fans and shows, at the very least, that the manager will not stand for the club being disrespected by its employees.
Yet that this constitutes one of the more positive aspects of his reign speaks volumes. Five games remain and the likelihood of survival looks slim.
Xherdan Shaqiri was right to say Ronaldinho would have little impact on this Stoke City side. But his belief that their struggles are solely due to a lack of attacking quality are significantly wide of the mark.