Stoke City are no small-time club, they arrived back into the Premier League big time a few years ago, having worked extremely hard to revive the club and bring it out of the wilderness. Tony Pulis is understandably extremely popular around the Potteries for his achievements with the side and the resilience he had helped to build into the club, which the supporters backed with the great hostile atmosphere that won them so many points at the Brittania.
There is no doubt in the achievements Pulis made whilst in the Potteries, but towards the end of his reign in charge more and more had right to question his style – even his results. When you see that the highest pass percentage of a Stoke player last season was only just breaking into the 80’s it gives and indication of the displeasure at the way his side were playing, having made sizeable investments into players that were meant to be changing this (Crouch, Palacios, N’Zonzi amongst others). This is coupled with being the second lowest scoring team in the division (only second to the easily relegated QPR) which was probably one of the triggering factors to Pulis’ departure as well as a closer shave with relegation than the table suggests – only a last few weeks good run of form kept them out of the fight and a falsely safe 13th position come the last weekend.
The choice of Mark Hughes was met with protests in some sections of the fans after the disaster he was involved in with QPR and the high wages he was spending on players and then he could not brandish a win – until losing his job to Harry Redknapp. Their concerns are understandable, although ‘Sparky’ Hughes is considered a safe pair of hands by many and had impressive spells at Fulham and Blackburn, the events at Loftus Road have tarnished his reputation in some quarters. However, the long-term image of Hughes at Stoke has potential for a change in style to a slicker type of play that his team at Fulham exhibited brilliantly, less ball in the air and more pass-and-move around the box, which may see Stoke’s excellent defensive record dip but give a new lease of life to talented forwards who were consistently misused by Pulis.
Perhaps Pulis’ biggest downfall was that he did possess the players to change the style. Pulis begun to do this in the 2012/13 season but once the results were not as consistent and a few high scoring games beckoned he reverted to type and a more negative approach after a 3-3 draw with Southampton and a goal fest’ with Liverpool at the Brittania – despite these results the Potters still conceded less league goals than Europa League qualifiers Tottenham.
When you add to this the mistakes made with the signings of some players and the consistent use of Ryan Shotton in various positions that were often of negative effect to the team to have a right back on the wing, including the mysterious Michael Owen acquisition who barely even appeared in the side it is little surprise there were portions of Stoke fans wanting Pulis’ head months ago.
When you compare this to Hughes, one of his first actions as Manager was to sign Marc Muniesa a Barcelona youngster who had been released following a development stunting knee injury, it’s quite different to playing Ryan Shotton as your supporting man to the forwards. It isn’t entirely like Hughes is short of options to change the style, Peter Crouch has not been used to his full potentially at Stoke as his link-up play has been more covered with long balls and Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones have never filled the potentially they promised at Birmingham and Sunderland respectively.
Couple that with Adam and N’Zonzi in midfield and the makings are there of a tidy unit that could play good football whilst keeping some of the Pulis built resilience and physicality, showing that the issues were more with Pulis’ outlook than the players he had on offer once again. Whether Muniesa can flourish in the Premier League is going to be very interesting to see develop into the player he promised to be when making his debut for the La Liga Champions 4 years ago, but it shows a statement of intent from Hughes to change style and shape of the team. This is where Stoke’s ambitions will change, Pulis consistently targeting to avoid relegation all season long and this was arguably one of the biggest irritants to Stoke fans than encouraged his own negativity, whereas Hughes will be looking bigger and to at least entertain.
Holding on to their talismanic goalkeeper Asmir Begovic will be extremely influential, as I would have had him as keeper of the season last year, but further strengthening at full back to support Geoff Cameron and clear out some of the players than defined the Pulis era to enable to full backs to support the attack more, unless Hughes plans to continue Pulis’ brief flirting with 3 at the back. The change from being the joint most drawing side in the league will also hinge on the chances created from the midfield, with their lead striker – Peter Crouch – only averaging 1.3 shots a game would partly explain their lack of goals. If Hughes could rejuvenate a once midfield-dominating Palacios he would greatly increase his options in the middle, to partner N’Zonzi and Adam, with Whelan providing suitable cover and an efficient break up player.
Jonathan Walters is one player that you can consistently rely on, but Pulis managed to use him in such a variety of positions that he became so versatile that you had a feeling he wasn’t sure where he was playing half the time. His stamina was almost abused by Pulis, rather than using him as an incredibly efficient bench player or a great option away from home he was made to do the donkey work in every game and it left other members of the team slacking on occasion as he covered enough work for more than one man, but one clear indication of Pulis’ mindset is when he picks Walters over Etherington or Crouch.
The wide men were incredibly valuable for Stoke in the 2011/12 season, but injuries hampered many of them and conflict with Pulis saw Jermaine Pennant’s Stoke career cut short, Kightly struggled to exert himself on the team but a couple of additions in this department and a quality attacking midfield player may see Stoke have more ball on the ground in their attacking moves, one player linked with a reunion with Hughes is Junior Hoilett – who would be a great addition.
Verdict: 2013/14 will be a season to rebuild and make sure there are no long-term repercussions of the Pulis era for the Potters, they will need to spend to secure themselves in mid-table next season but Hughes’ most important role is to win the sector of fans onto his side and make sure he can continue to boast the remarkable home record and keep the Brittania the fortress it has shown to be. A change of system would be popular, to use a more attacking 4-2-3-1 with a proper number 10 type player to work off the striker or utilise their resources by functioning with two men up front and give space and freedom for Steven N’Zonzi in midfield who carried the side at times last season.
We can be sure that with Hughes at the helm, Stoke will continue to be a nuisance for the big sides and no one will ever look forward to a trip to their ground as Delilah spurs on the side but hopefully to a more attractive and exciting brand of football.
‘Nervous yet exciting times for the Potters, hopefully looking for a comfortable season away from relegation’