Stoke City's fall to bottom half is not a new development after steady decline
A 4-1 defeat against Arsenal in their last game was a result that guaranteed a finish outside of the top 10 for the first time in Mark Hughes' tenure at Stoke. In fact, aside from his spell with Queens Park Rangers, when given a full season anywhere, he has never finished in the bottom half of the Premier League.
In that respect, on paper it would suggest that his latest campaign was somewhat of a blip. But with all things considered, the league table does not tell the whole story. For example, take last season's ninth-place finish, the third such in succession for the Potters but one that belies the final stages of that period.
In January 2016, Stoke were tellingly dumped out of the League Cup at the semifinal stage -- losing 6-5 to Liverpool on penalties -- a result that visibly knocked the stuffing out of the players and one they struggled to overcome for what was left of the season. That loss was immediately followed by three successive 3-0 defeats in February before the ship was steadied ahead of an even worse April, when the side conceded four goals for three games in a row, which was the point at which a number of fans started to question the man in charge.
At that stage, an argument could have been made for such a disappointing period being little more than a blot on the copybook of a manager who had otherwise done brilliantly since his arrival at the club. But that form continued into 2016-17, a campaign in which they conceded four goals in a single game on seven separate occasions to extend what is fast approaching 18 months of misery.
The fans' protestations are not as a result of a bottom-half finish -- far from it, in fact. They are as a result of the fact that their side's fortunes have been in decline for so long despite numerous transfer windows and opportunities to turn things around. The club's chairman and goalkeeper Jack Butland this week called for some perspective from the fans in light of a disappointing campaign, but it's a message that has not gone down well at all.
To put things in perspective, this poor run of form has accounted for around a third of the manager's time at the club. Players acquired throughout Hughes' tenure have fallen by the wayside, four of whom are out on loan, and his £18 million record signing, Giannelli Imbula, has been frozen out altogether. The very fact that a goalkeeper who had never played a minute of Premier League football (Lee Grant) won the player-of-the-season award is more than telling. That's not to mention the embarrassment of a 36-year-old striker (Peter Crouch) winning the gong for the side's joint-top league scorer -- with a mammoth six goals -- which serves only to add insult to injury.
The manager has bemoaned the lack of a 20-goals-a-season striker to close the gap on those above, but fails to recognise the fact that every other team in the league has a top scorer with more than the paltry total that Crouch has managed.
Despite that, the big man is all set to feature again up front Sunday against old club Southampton now that Mame Diouf has seemingly found his way back to the bench, having only scored once in one-and-a-half games. He is likely to be joined up there by the still-goalless Saido Berahino in what is expected to be yet another shift in formation.
The only other change anticipated is the introduction of 20-year-old Ramadan Sobhi for Marko Arnautovic, who on Wednesday posted a picture of his arm in a plaster cast following a coming together with Rob Holding in the Arsenal defeat.
Hughes has said that it won't be long until he starts to use more youngsters, but with the mid-table being so congested and each place worth £1.9m, the difference between finishing 17th or 11th is a staggering £11m for the club. That suggests that a full youth movement won't be happening Sunday.
Thankfully, there are just 90 more minutes of this misery to endure for Stoke fans, who are more likely to celebrate the end of another disappointing campaign than any (unlikely) result.
Indeed, with the side on the cusp of securing a whole heap of unwanted records for their time in the Premier League, there is little to get excited about -- highest goals conceded, lowest points total, lowest league placing and longest run without an away goal, the list goes on.
How's that for perspective?
James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie