Is time running out on Stoke City's top flight status?
Ten years ago Stoke City finished second in the Championship behind West Bromwich Albion. The Potters returned to the English top flight for the first time since 1985. Since winning promotion Stoke have become the definitive mid-table club, finishing between ninth and 14th in each of their nine completed Premier League seasons.
As a Premier League team, Stoke has been through two distinct eras. When first promoted Tony Pulis managed them. The Welshman moulded them into an old-school outfit. Big, strong, solid, both in defence and attack. You knew what Stoke would do. Defend resolutely, win the ball, get it forward to a big man up front. Theirs was a tough style to defend. Centre-halves love to bully but not so much when the shoe is on the other foot.
In his five years in the top flight Pulis was never able to break into the top half of the league but did take the team to the 2011 FA Cup Final where they lost to Manchester City. Despite losing the final, Stoke qualified for Europe for the first time since 1974. They progressed to the last 32 in the Europa League where Valencia proved too much.
In 2013 Pulis departed following unproductive discussions with the board. Another Welshman, Mark Hughes replaced him. As managers, their national origin was all they shared.
During Pulis' time at Stoke the club had developed a bit of a fear factor. Opponents knew they were in for a battle. Hughes favoured a different approach. He wanted Stoke to remain strong and tough to beat but preferred to play a possession-based style as he had at Manchester City rather than counterattack. He shopped for pace and creativity to replace the Potters' size and strength.
Hughes took the club into the top half with three consecutive ninth-place finishes to begin his tenure. His side were a penalty shootout against Liverpool away from a League Cup final. In 2016-17 Hughes came under pressure after a poor start. He turned things around, raising the club to 13th but after an even poorer start to this campaign, he was sacked.
Paul Lambert replaced him. The Scot is more like Pulis than Hughes. That is evident in the results since his mid-January appointment. The Potters have won and lost one while drawing four on his watch. Lambert is fortifying the defence but in truth those six games were against sides from which Stoke might have hoped for more. Draws aren't going to keep them in the Premier League.
With nine games to go, including tonight's meeting with Manchester City, Stoke are on 27 points. To reach the magical 40-point mark that most observers say will keep you up, Lambert needs at least two wins, assuming the other seven matches are all draws. With City, Everton, Arsenal, and Tottenham in their next four games. Burnley and Liverpool at Anfield are also in the cards. It's difficult to see Stoke going unbeaten. Realistically, they must win the other three games against relegation rivals West Ham, Crystal Palace, and Swansea, then hope the congestion at the bottom means 40 points won't be necessary.
Regardless, the hard truth is that unless Stoke can start winning games, an 11th consecutive Premier League season might be a bridge too far.