Lambert and Stoke: Cometh the man, cometh the dour

Date published: Tuesday 16th January 2018 12:25

The Premier League has been riddled with predictable or underwhelming appointments, but Stoke’s decision to employ Paul Lambert is one of the most anticlimactic conclusions to a managerial hunt in a long while. When even Stoke City supporters were resorting to dark humour…

Lambert will be presented by the Potters today after his first training session with a squad that is sure to be assessing Lambert every bit as much as he is assessing them. Ask those players what they thought of Lambert before he was appointed and the answer would have been the same as anyone else’s: “Meh.”

The Stoke board laid it on thickly when insisting how knowledgeable Lambert was about their squad during his interview, which highlights one of two things. Either Stoke’s hierarchy are too easily impressed – a demonstration of some research is the absolute minimum any recruiter should expect – or they realised they had driven themselves down a dead end. Probably both apply.

Sacking Mark Hughes was a last resort Stoke tried very hard to avoid, but ultimately they had no choice. The plan with Hughes seemed to be to struggle on until the end of the season at which point they could part ways amicably. But Stoke had been wretched over a number of months and Hughes appeared utterly incapable of rousing his tuned-out players in time to reverse a slump that was taking them into the Championship.

Hughes put Peter Coates and Tony Scholes in a tough spot, but their approach to recruiting his replacement only served to back themselves further into a corner. Initially it was briefed that they wanted to appoint a new manager in time for the trip to Manchester United, nine days after Hughes’ sacking. Then they limited themselves only to British or Irish managers to tie their hands together even tighter, especially when the two obvious available candidates with Premier League experience were Hughes and his predecessor, Tony Pulis.

Their initial target, Gary Rowett, showed a smidgen of imagination on the Stoke board’s behalf and offered the perception that they were thinking beyond the next five months. In the end, Rowett opted instead to sign the new deal Derby had put on the table, choosing to wait for the more appealing opportunity in the top flight that might well come at Pride Park. At which point, Stoke widened the criteria simply to a manager with Premier League experience. Martin O’Neill didn’t fancy it, nor did Quique Sanchez Flores. By the time Lambert was being considered, as long as he didn’t soil himself in the interview the job was probably his.

Aside from Lambert doing his homework, it is hard to imagine what else might have impressed the Stoke board. Despite having managed two clubs over the course of 137 matches – just over three and a half seasons – in the Premier League, few people really know what kind of coach Lambert is.

His peak came five-and-a-half years ago, when he left Norwich City safely in the Premier League after back-to-back promotions to get them there form League One. Aston Villa tempted Lambert away, and while he had his hands tied by Randy Lerner for much of his time at Villa Park, Lambert never decisively put his stamp on the club.

Initially, it seemed Lambert was willing to blood youth, but with Villa in and out of the bottom three on a weekly basis after the first half of his maiden season in charge, his approach changed almost as regularly as their league position. From young English talent, Lambert and Villa switched their recruitment focus to the foreign market, and their tactics fluctuated from a counter-attacking style to a possession-based approach. Neither proved effective.

Given Lerner was very much an absent owner, Lambert copped much of the flak, but his dour manner endeared him to very few among Villa’s playing staff or support. An alarming slump towards the end of his second season was a sign of what was to come in his third, during which he was eventually given the bullet when they dropped into the bottom three in February.

That was three years ago. Since then, Lambert roles have seen him milling around the nether regions of the Championship, in firefighting roles with Blackburn and Wolves. He went into Ewood Park with Rovers 16th before walking away at the end of the season having taken them up one place in six months. Wolves asked him to do perform the same job the following November and once he obliged, again finishing 15th. They too dispensed with his services.

Stoke need from Lambert exactly what he gave to Rovers and Wolves, albeit in a rather more demanding environment. His first priority must be to organise a defence that is comfortably the leakiest in the Premier League. Romelu Lukaku’s goal on Monday night was the 50th they have conceded this season. West Brom and Swansea below them have conceded 15 and 20 fewer respectively.

There is little evidence, however, that Lambert is strictly a defensively-minded coach. During his two full seasons at Villa, his sides conceded more goals than any other team who didn’t finish the season in the bottom three, and still nine more than the wretched QPR side that finished bottom in 2013/14. When Lambert plugged the gaps at the back, it came at the expense of Villa’s attack. When he was sacked in February after a 2-0 defeat at Hull, their 25th game of the season, 18th-placed Villa hand conceded 34 goals, the same as Tottenham in sixth. But even with Christian Benteke leading the line, Villa had scored a pathetic total of 12. Burnley below them had scored twice that total and Leicester at the bottom managed ten more. Benteke notched twice for Lambert before he was axed. In the remaining 13 games under Tim Sherwood, he scored 11.

Stoke would gladly take 15th now, just as Lambert was delighted to accept their offer of employment. Given the £1million bonus reportedly on offer for achieving safety, he is highly unlikely to have walked away if only a six-month contract was on the table, with the promise of reassessing things in the summer. So why, given Lambert’s record and his circumstances, did they offer a two-and-a-half-year deal? It must really have been a job interview for the ages.

And now the graft starts. If Lambert can drag the new manager bounce out for four months then he may well keep Stoke in the Premier League, and the supporters seem to have accepted it is very much a marriage of convenience.

In such couplings there is rarely longevity, so the Potters would be smart to begin planning for the inevitable separation. Cometh the man, cometh the dour. And cross your fingers that it works.

Ian Watson

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