Stoke City were meant to have changed. Mark Hughes had changed the club’s approach on the field and it was, in large part, due to a significant altering in their transfer targets. The flagship signing was Bojan Krkic. Signed for a bargain fee in summer 2014, the former La Masia starlet was a shock addition and a signal that Hughes was changing the way that the Potters operated.
The long balls, rigid formations and defence-first teams of Tony Pulis were being banished into the Stoke history books. Pulis had his time in the Potteries, he remains a club legend for his role in consolidating them as a Premier League club, but Hughes was set to take them to the next level, rebuild the squad and change their image.
For a while, it all looked so good. While they remained streaky – as Hughes’ teams often seem to be – the Potters were an exciting side, capable of the appalling and the magnificent in equal measure, with a squad gradually swelling with technically gifted, high potential players.
Three consecutive ninth-placed Premier League finishes have seen Stoke become a part of the Premier League furniture. No longer just a cliché as the ultimate, windy, physically-bullying Premier League midweek test, the Bet365 Stadium is home to some of the league’s most gifted footballers.
Though, after a woeful start to the season, Hughes reverted to ‘old Stoke’ a little. Optimistic long balls have returned, Charlie Adam is a regular starter and he is seldom using Bojan and Giannelli Imbula. Bojan looks set to leave the club this January window, for a measly fee, as the Spaniard has grown sick of a lack of starting minutes. The Potters are in no threat of relegation, nor are they playing the route one, aggressive football of the Pulis days, but they are hovering between identities.
Hughes and the Stoke board have failed in several transfer windows to address glaring issues within the squad. Instead, they have stockpiled a group of well paid, exceptionally talented players who cannot fit into the team together. The need for a top quality defensive midfielder to guard the defence while controlling the tempo has never been addressed. The brilliance of former midfielder Steven N’Zonzi for Sevilla only makes that inadequacy hurt more. N’Zonzi did not want to remain at the club, but the Frenchman would be the perfect deep-lying midfielder to balance the side right now.
Bojan is set to follow N’Zonzi out of the club in a transfer that has split the Stoke fan base. Adored by so many as the symbol of the ‘New Stoke’ and seen as a sulking, superfluous attacking midfielder by others, the former Barcelona forward is a sign of Stoke’s failings in the transfer market.
Hughes, too, cannot be absolved of blame. The Potters played their best football since arriving in the Premier League with Bojan in the side. During last season, Bojan operated as a false nine with Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic on the wings. Stoke looked every bit a top six side throughout that period, that saw them shoot up the table before a second half of the season collapse.
Such a tactic has rarely been seen since, despite its overwhelming success. It brought some of the best football out of Shaqiri and Arnautovic, but Hughes has favoured Jonathan Walters to Bojan on numerous occasions this season. The Spaniard has started just five Premier League matches. Hughes has what many would consider a luxurious dilemma, but he is swaying away from the footballers that looked set to redefine Stoke as a team and favouring members of the older guard.
Peter Crouch’s selection tends to see the Potters favour long diagonal balls, for instance, despite his excellent touch and ability to link play. Crouch can impact matches in the air, but his best play often comes with smart touches, good close control and bringing midfield runners into the game, as was seen for Arnautovic’s second goal last weekend. His place in the team does not rule out playing Bojan behind him, or even playing Imbula as well, yet Hughes continues to persevere with a Glenn Whelan, Charlie Adam and Joe Allen midfield trio.
The sale of Bojan can be seen as a rejection of the ‘New Stoke’. He was the player who led the revolution, his arrival changed the public perception of Stoke as a team and a club. His performances and his reputation were significant in attracting many of the other stars that have been brought to the club under Hughes’ guidance. Whatever the fee, Stoke selling Bojan at this juncture would be a loss to the club and lead to an inevitable regret at how they have wasted his talents.