Stoke City are searching for consistency as they towards the end of their third season back in the Championship, with a load of players out injured and a load of players out on loan.
And there were three main questions which kept popping up when we held our weekly Q&A on our Facebook account.
Why are Stoke showing two sides to their character?
Michael O’Neill has tried to put his finger on the reason why Stoke can do it for one match and not always stretch it to two… and we’re still waiting for them to make it three. It’s been a long five years since Stoke won three league games in a row.
He has called it hunger or desire to take the team on to the next level but perhaps it boils down to having the right quality.
Stoke can’t quite be backed to deliver the killer blow for three games in a row in the final third, they can’t quite be backed not to make a goal-gifting mistake at the other end for three games in a row, even when the defence has previously looked so solid.
The process of sifting players who are not part of the plans has not been helped over the last few months by a terrible run of injuries.
If the manager wanted to change things on Monday, you can’t have that many cards up your sleeve when 10 players are in the treatment room and £74m in failed signings are out playing for other clubs or warming other clubs’ benches.
There were three senior players on the bench but, in the end, the substitutions did not make Stoke a more potent force.
What is the James McClean situation after ‘cryptic’ Instagram post?
James McClean earned a lot of credit for the drive he delivered as he was named player of the season last year.
He chipped in with important goals and assists and his aggression, enthusiasm and energy was well channelled and infectious. Those final couple of minutes against Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day when he played a vital part on one leg will go down in folklore.
This season has been more stop than start for various reasons, from a degenerative foot injury to testing positive for Covid, breaching lockdown rules and playing for his country when Stoke didn’t think he was fit.
He must have known what conclusion people would jump to when he then posted a famous quote from a film character questioning his team’s leadership.
The McClean camp insists that is just looking for trouble when there is none.
He is 31 and, coming off such an influential season as an experienced and popular member of the squad, should have been a candidate to take on the captaincy. Instead this season has been littered by apologies and yellow cards.
Stoke would still be a better side if he was firing at full tilt. When he isn’t it all seems exhausting without a reward.
What does it mean for Stoke to be placed under a transfer embargo?
Surreally, not much.
It seems odd that the Government gave businesses a three-month extension to file accounts due to the pandemic and the EFL didn’t. But a new registration embargo outside the transfer window does not mean anything.
All embargoes – there were 10 in the Championship – will be lifted as the accounts are filed so it won’t have any impact when it matters. Stoke’s accounts will drop into Companies House shortly.
We have already had a preview as part of bet365’s figures for 2019/20.
The £87.2m loss posted by Stoke for last season is an eye-popping figure for all-but one family of our readers. Luckily, they are the ones in charge.
The big question, knowing that joint-chairman John Coates has reiterated the Coates’s commitment to the club within the limits of Financial Fair Play, is what it actually means for Stoke in terms of Financial Fair Play.
Clubs in the Championship are only permitted to make a £39m loss over three seasons, although it gets complicated because the third and fourth season will be merged for an average during the pandemic.
But it gets more complicated because losses that can be directly attributed to the pandemic can be added back to the balance sheet for the purposes of the EFL’s profit and sustainability measure.
The key figure in a footballing sense is how much of that £87.2m can be directly attributed to the pandemic?
It will be a significant number. The transfer market has fallen through the floor, hence why Stoke currently have 10 senior players out on loan who they would rather have sold.
Clubs just in the Championship have spent a combined £70.5m on transfer fees this season – an average of £2.9m per club – compared to £215m last season (£8.9m average), £212m in 2018/29 (£8.8m), £262m in 2017/18 (£10.9m).
The number of transactions have been pretty similar – 497 this term compared with 507 last – but there is barely a third of the amount of money changing hands.
Stoke have written down the value of their squad accordingly as assets on the balance sheet, following guidance from the EFL. The players were unfortunately worth a lot less in April 2020 than they were at the start of 2019. It is an accounting adjustment, rather than actually splashing cash over that 12 months.
It seems like an odd thing that amortisation – the automatic devaluation of a player over the length of his contract – and impairment – adjusting values down further – are included in the EFL’s assessment.
At the same time, the player assets on the balance sheet are not the same as market value.
Kevin Wimmer, three years into a five-year deal for example, would be worth £9m before impairment while Tyrese Campbell, who joined for less than £1m, has a book value of next to nothing.
It isn’t particularly kind to relegated teams either.
Signings are expensive in the Premier League and if teams go down it’s probably because those signings haven’t worked. A £15m failure weighs heavily in the Championship, even if parachute payments are designed to soften the blow.
Clubs can be conservative, like Norwich, and not risk spending much money in the top flight – and get walloped every week and go back down. That isn’t much of a fun existence for the 30-odd clubs about the size of Stoke.
The tightrope has been highlighted in Michael O’Neill’s transfer dealings. Only three players have cost a fee and they were 23, 22 and 21 when they joined. Genuine investments, in the real world, if all goes well and they increase value as expected – but that won’t show for Financial Fair Play until or if they’re sold.
Stoke have been transparent with the EFL and made it no secret that they believe, like many of their rivals, that changing the Financial Fair Play rules would be better for the game.
Time will tell if that happens – and we will know soon enough how close Stoke are to the boundaries until then.