Moving in the right direction at Stoke City?

Mark Hughes

At the end of last season, Stoke City were facing a bit of a personality crisis. Tony Pulis’ side had become famous for their long-ball, defensive style, but the former manager’s seven-year tenure with the Potters was ended in May after a poor second half to the season had resulted in just 13 points from their last 18 Premier League games.

Hardly inspiring form, and it only added to the argument that the Britannia outfit had become lost under Pulis – granted, the former gaffer can claim the impressive feat of never being relegated throughout his Potters career, but during his five years in the top flight, Stoke had finished up in 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 13th places respectively, and dreams of establishing the club as a top half institution seemed impossible under a regime where defensive stability and high work-rate came before quality on the ball.

At the time of Pulis’s sacking, the board were heavily criticised from every direction for axing a manager who had excelled at the Britannia excluding his final six months in charge, and when it was announced that Mark Hughes would become his successor, many instantly speculated a tough season for the Potters, considering how the Welshman had struggled at QPR before leaving half-way through last season without a single win and just four points from 13 matches.

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But we are now four games into the new Premier League season, and Mark Hughes is proving that there is life after Pulis at the Britannia stadium. Seven points, generated by wins against Crystal Palace and West Ham and a draw against Manchester City, puts the Potters in seventh place in the table in what has been a strong start to the new campaign. But most importantly, the new Stoke boss has illustrated his ambition to take the club in a new direction without infringing upon the solid foundations his predecessor had built over the last five years.

Revolution rather than evolution would have been disastrous – Stoke have a small contingent of technically astute footballers, such as Glen Whelan and Charlie Adam, but overall the squad is designed to play in one way, the Pulis way, and a significant change in style would only have caused more problems than it solved.

Rather, Hughes is adapting and modifying, tinkering and tailoring, in a means to provide the balance between the strengths the Potters already possess defensively and the forward-thinking ambition they need to find to firstly appease the fans and secondly begin moving up the league table. More than anything, it was the narrow-mindedness of Pulis’ vision that caused the greatest frustration for supporters.

On the surface, it’s still the same old Stoke – two of their three goals this season have come from set pieces, and they’ve claimed two clean sheets from four games, including a scoreless draw against Manchester City. But their 12% long-ball bias this season is significantly lower than the Premier League’s other traditionally direct sides, such as West Ham and Aston Villa, and there’s been a greater fluidity on the ball going forward.

Charlie Adam is being rewarded for his risk-taking optimism in the middle of the park, rather than been persecuted and dropped for it as he was under Pulis, and the Scot is already repaying Hughes’ faith with a goal against Crystal Palace and an action-packed display against City last weekend.

Likewise, winger Jermaine Pennant, who was exiled to Wolves last season and made just a single Premier League appearance all year for his parent club, has already produced one goal and looked impressive in his three substitute appearances.

At the same time, the new Stoke manager added significantly to his attacking cast this summer by bringing in flamboyant wideman Oussama Assaidi on loan from Liverpool, Austrian international Marko Arnautovic, who arrives from Werder Bremen with a preceding reputation for his creative individuality, and old ally Stephen Ireland on loan from Aston Villa, who netted nine times and won the Player of the Season award for the 2008-2009 campaign under Hughes at Manchester City.

Perhaps more important than the quality of Stoke’s new signings is their personalities. In the past, it seemed every Potters acquisition had to pass the Pulis test of being physically dominant, defensively resilient and a work-horse. Arnautovic, Ireland and Assaidi however, are much more your ‘free spirit’ kind of footballers; Will they always track back? Probably not. Are they useful at set pieces? No. But do they possess that special individual invention and quality on the ball? Yes, in abundance.

Of course, as previously mentioned, Hughes will have to make sure he doesn’t tip the balance too far the other way. The Britannia stadium must remain a fortress at all costs – the Potters lost at home just five times last season, and it’s been a vital characteristic of their Premier League survival over the past five years. Hughes has maintained the high standard so far this season with four points from home clashes with Palace and City, but he needs to continue in the same vein for the rest of the season.

Similarly, Stoke are a side who have always kept it simple in terms of philosophy and formation, and changing up to exotic 4-2-3-1’s or 4-1-2-1-2’s will be doing nobody any favours. Likewise, defensive stability remains the Potters greatest strength, and there’s little point in not using it to full advantage, even if it limits the scope for Stoke’s new signings to venture forward at times.

But style is one thing, and results is another, and the new Hughes project will only be deemed as a successful venture if the ends justify the means. Under Pulis, relegation was rarely a serious threat, although the chances of Europa League qualification always remained a long way off.

The ultimate test for the current boss at the Britannia will be to get into the top half of the table, either this season or the next, to prove in terms of league standing that the new way is better than the old.

Are Stoke moving in the right direction?

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