Mark Hughes arrived at Stoke to no great fanfare, rather he was met with cautious optimism, garnished with number of suspicious narrow-eyed gazes. Hughes has furrowed an odd path during his managerial career, gaining deserved plaudits and damning criticism in almost equal amounts. A promising start at Blackburn Rovers then led to acrimonious tenures at Manchester City, Fulham and QPR, all of which ended badly for different, but consistently strange, reasons. Much of the turbulence he suffered through at the latter clubs Hughes was to blame for (at least that was the public view), and when he took over from Tony Pulis at Stoke there was, as said before, no small amount of trepidation about the hiring. But the Stoke City fans were desperate after 7 years of Pulis-ball, the shine of consistent mid-table finishes and defensive solidity had been finally eroded by a lack of further progress and the utter absence of a playing style that could be described as attractive. The feeling was that Pulis had taken the club as far as he was going to be able to and that, with a firm place in the Premier League carved out, Hughes would be able to take Stoke to ‘the next level’, whatever that is. At the very least, Hughes might be able to begin to slowly drag the team out of the long-ball doldrums within which they had begun to stagnate. No one was expecting Hughes to conjure up a miracle cure to counteract the Pulis-itis quite so quickly. Within one season, Hughes had administered a radical change in style, while still leading them to a ninth place finish. He has made some astute signings to ease the already remarkable transition, with more coming during the latest transfer period. The change is evident as much in the demeanour of a match as it is in the statistics that result from it; watching Stoke City play has suddenly become infinitely less monotonous a proposition.
Firstly, the statistical change: at 46% Stoke City were the second worst team for average possession in the 2012/13 season under Pulis, only relegated Reading had less possession per game. Of course, having possession doesn’t necessarily equate to being the more effective attacking team, or the team with more attractive play (as an example, Spain had more possession than the Netherlands in their World Cup 1-5 loss, it hardly made them the better or more exciting team). But in Stoke’s case a lack of possession meant more defending and less scoring (they were 7th in the league for blocked shots per game, but 16th for interceptions, implying that a lot of their defending was done deeply and desperately). For a team that secedes possession, relying on direct passing on the break to score, shooting accuracy is vital; chances are few and far between, often strikers are uninvolved for long periods so being clinical when scoring chances do arise becomes even more important than normal.
Unfortunately, Stoke City had the worst shot accuracy in the league, only on target 38% of the time, with the majority of their on-target shots aimed right down the middle where the goalkeeper is most likely to make a save. This explains why they had the fewest total shots and also scored the second fewest goals in 12/13. It was obvious where they looked to score a lot of their goals; they had the 3rd most goals from set pieces, with 18. They had the lowest pass accuracy (70%), the second lowest amount of total completed passes (8,443) and the equal 4th longest average pass length (21 metres). To make matters worse, they had by far the most combined yellow and red cards that season as well. In spite of all of these damning numbers, they finished a comfortable 13th. Every measurable statistical area indicated that Stoke were working fully to Pulis’s mandate, they had been for years. This was the footballing nadir for the fans.
Let’s look at the change that Hughes managed to make the very next season. Their average possession increased by 3 percent, moving them up nine places compared to the rest of the league. They scored 11 more total goals, jumping up 11 places for goals scored last season. Pass accuracy improved to 78%, 44 more scoring chances were created and the average pass distance decreased slightly. Shot accuracy improved by 3 percent, and of on-target shots, the majority had moved from the centre of the goal to the more desirable bottom right area. The amount of average defensive actions per game dropped, with fewer total clearances and blocked shots. They also had fewer combined cards last season. Basically, Hughes reversed the Pulis effect in every single statistical area, and while doing this he led Stoke to a 9th place finish, higher than Pulis had ever finished in the Premier League.
Hughes also bought well last season, bringing in what turned out to be a number of good performers, as well a coaxing excellent seasons out of players already at the club. Marko Arnautovic and Stephen Ireland proved to be very handy contributors over the season, and Charlie Adam had what was maybe his best year in English football. January signing Peter Odemwingie managed five goals in only 15 appearances and Asmir Begovic again showed why he is a constant target for bigger clubs in need of a keeper. All of these players remain at the club, with the loanee Ireland making a permanent move from Aston Villa this off-season. New arrivals for the 14/15 season have also been secured, the most eye-catching of which is former Barcelona starlet Bojan Krkic for only £3 million. The 23 year old just recently scored a lovely goal in a win against Real Betis for the Potters and if he can deliver on his long-awaited promise, then Hughes may well have the signing of the season. They’ve picked up one of Fulham’s best performers last season, Steve Sidwell on a free transfer, as well as Phil Bardsley from Sunderland, also on a free. Odemwingie will be there for a full season, Arnautovic ought to improve, and if Adam can continue his form then the Stoke City fans will have a lot to look forward to next season.
It really is a remarkable revolution that Hughes has achieved at the Britannia Stadium. No longer will neutrals avoid Stoke City games, no longer will diminutive centre backs fear a strictly aerial bombardment, and no longer should Hughes’ reputation be defined by his time at Man City and QPR. As a parting gesture, look at the other goal from the Real Betis win, embedded below. Would that goal have been scored by Pulis’ Stoke City?
— Wild Words of Sport (@WWofSport) August 7, 2014