So, I am back, after more than six months without a single article about the English Premier League.
Today I will be discussing about, what could be, one of the most improbable revolutions in English football. I am pretty sure every football fans have heard of a football club called Stoke City Football Club. It is the only Premier League club based in Staffordshire, and one of the oldest club as well: the club was founded in 1863. It is actually the second oldest club in the Premier League and the Football League combined together, the oldest club being Notts County.
It is fair to say the club was an established club in England’s top flight competition (Division One) after World War II, and despite being relegated a number of times, the “Potters” managed to get back up again. But in the mid 80s, they got relegated from the Division One, and only managed to get back up again in 2008. Back then, they had a fantastic manager in Tony Pulis.
- The Tony Pulis era, a rise after two decades of struggles:
The Welsh manager is undoubtedly the main reason behind Stoke’s recent rise. Having managed the team from 2002 to 2005, he came back to manage for a second spell from 2006 to 2013. You wouldn’t see managers stay for that long in a club these days. That is a proof of how important Pulis was to Stoke City. He is now being hailed as the manager who is never relegated.
Despite his success, not a lot of people are big fans of his coaching methods nor his playing style. He definitely is an old-fashioned manager, who would not hesitate to shout at his players when things are not done the way he wants them to be done, and he always shows his authority. Let me give you an example. He is now a West Brom manager, and he stripped the captaincy off long-serving Chris Brunt in order to give the armband to new recruit Darren Fletcher. If that is not authority, then I do not know what is.
Now let me go through his playing style. If you play for a team managed by Mr. Pulis, you need to understand two very simple points: Defensive organization and HOOF the ball forward. Every Tony Pulis team are known to be defensively very solid, and they always aim at dominating aerially and physically. He would easily field a starting XI, with all eleven players being at least 6ft tall. He would definitely field a back four, which consists of four centre-backs (Marc Wilson, Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Andy Wilkinson for example). In fact that has always been the case at WBA last season (Joleon Lescott (LB), Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson (CBs), Craig Dawson (RB)). Up front it is the same story: he had strikers such as Ricardo Fuller, Mamady SIdibé, and more recently PETER CROUCH and Kenwyn Jones, all of them are at least 6ft 3in tall. That says it all, doesn’t it? But I think his worst attempt was playing Ryan Shotton, who is a centre-back by trade, as a right winger…
And to make matters even more flagrant, Tony Pulis had at his disposal, a central midfielder – and former javelin thrower- who is ironically better with his hands than he is with his feet: the throw-in master Rory Delap. His throw-ins are pretty much as good as corner kicks (sometimes better) and annoyingly, a lot of them result directly in goals. It angers a lot of football fans, because, well… football isn’t really meant to be played like that, is it?
I think Tony Pulis has his own vision of football, and he is entitled to it, but his teams are likened to a rugby team rather than a football team. His tactics definitely work, because he has helped Stoke City to return to the Premier League and to establish them in the competition. So, you have got to give credit where it is due, but it is not pretty to say the least.
Sadly for Pulis, the 2012-13 season did not really go the way he wanted, although he managed to secure 13th spot and thus avoid relegation. He came under massive criticism from fans during the season, and at an end of season meeting with chairman Peter Coates, he was dismissed.
- A new era under Mark Hughes
Tony Pulis is then replaced by another Welsh manager, Mark Hughes, who, despite his spell at Man City, isn’t yet considered as a good manager. He has had some nightmare spells at Fulham and Queens Park Rangers. But the Stoke chairman trusted him to bring the club forward. Mark Hughes certainly has a different view of football than Tony Pulis has. Although it is not Barcelona-like “tiki taka”, Hughes encourages a more patient build-up play, a passing game. Slowly but surely, he adapts Stoke’s squad to his managerial and playing style.
At the beginning of the 2013/14 season, he brought in some technically gifted players, which we rarely saw in a Stoke’s shirt. That is the beginning of an identity overhaul. We saw international players coming in such as Dutch international Erik Pieters and Austrian international Marko Arnautovic. I saw those two first signings as a statement Stoke City wanted to make. After securing their status as an established Premier League club, the club wanted to make some steps forward, challenging for top 10 spots and why not for some European spots in the near future. In his first season in charge, we also saw Mark Hughes releasing some unwanted players that were part of Stoke’s old identity, including Rory Delap, Matthew Upson or Dean Whitehead. At then end of Hughes’ first season in charge – in which they finished 9th overall, which is their best finish since 1974/75 season- , we can already see some difference to the season before it, by just looking at the different stats.
Mark Hughes has made it to make Stoke play a much more positive style of football. More chances created, a (much) better passing accuracy, a better possession stats and more importantly more goals scored.
What is impressive, is that even though Mark Hughes is encouraging a more attacking style of football, the team doesn’t concede that much more than they did under Tony Pulis. Credit where it is due, because Hughes succeeded at improving the quality of football up front at Stoke while keeping it relatively tight at the back.
Having impressed during the previous campaign, Mark Hughes tried to at least do as good the following season in 2014/15. The overhaul in identity continued at Stoke, with the most remarkable signings being two former BARCELONA players, in Bojan Krkic and Marc Muniesa. The arrival of tricky wingers Victor Moses and Oussama Assaidi, both on a season-long loan from Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, also increased the expectation on Stoke City. They started the season brilliantly by beating Manchester City away from home (0-1) thanks to new signing Mame Biram Diouf’s goal, and found some impressive for in December, beating Arsenal (3-2), Everton (1-0) and WBA (2-0). They also ended the season in a magnificent manner, beating the like of Southampton (2-1), Tottenham Hotspur (3-0) and Liverpool (6-1) on the final day of the season. They managed to secure their second consecutive 9th place finish after yet another impressive campaign.
Here again, we can see that some improvements have been made. They are slightly more patient in possession. And they managed to create more chances, and thus score more goals than they did last time around. And we can see a significant improvement in defense, as they conceded less goals. It looked as if Tony Pulis’ defensive solidity has been mastered by Mark Hughes.
I would like to emphasize on the performance of one particular player who has caught my eye: Bojan Krkic. Even though, Stoke bought him for a relatively small amount of money, it still was a bit of a gamble, as it always is when a foreign player comes to play in England. You might have heard this phrase about Messi “He did it in Barcelona, but can he do it in a cold rainy Tuesday night in Stoke?” Well we can ask the same thing about Bojan. And boy… yes he can. Despite only making 16 appearances in the Premier League, he managed to score 4 goals and 1 assist and he averages about 1.6 key passes/game (chances created). His overall play is encouraging, always trying to take on people without trying to do too much. Unfortunately, his season was cut short after suffering a anterior cruciate ligament injury in a FA Cup tie in January. He was ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Mark Hughes never stops improving his squad, with expectation growing for the club who plays at the Britannia Stadium. This summer, they made another statement of intent by bringing in Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri for a club record of £12M and Barcelona winger Ibrahim Affelay. They will be looking at carrying their good form from the end of last season. Unfortunately for them, this season has not started the way they would have like, only scoring two points from four games. But I believe they will come good, and they will be in the shout to be doing at least as good as last season.
I have been impressed by what Mark Hughes has done so far at Stoke. It is very difficult to take over at a club that already have such a strong personality. But according to me, he has done extremely well to alter the identity of the club, without dragging the club down first. I think there are still room for improvement for Stoke. They would be willing to try and qualify for the Europa League as they have a very strong squad indeed.