In the 1990’s, Mark Hughes, who in May replaced Tony Pulis as Stoke City manager, wore his hair long, played for several European powerhouses, and routinely scored incredible volleys. He was a sexy center forward, the kind of player who these days appears on billboards and negotiates image rights. Presumably, Stoke hopes Hughes will recapture some of that glamor.
“The teams I have been involved in in the past have always scored goals,” Hughes explained at his first press conference, conveniently forgetting that he once managed Queens Park Rangers. “My philosophy is always to play football, good football, create chances…I’d like to make [Stoke] a little bit more offensive.” Hughes has already positioned himself as a kind of anti-Pulis, the Pep Guardiola of Stoke-on-Trent, if you will.
But here’s the thing: whatever its critics say, Stoke is already entertaining, precisely because it doesn’t play “good football.” Indeed, the team’s whole appeal rests on its rejection of everything that Barcelona has taught us to admire. Rory Delap’s (and, more recently, Ryan Shotton’s) long throws, Robert Huth’s headers, Peter Crouch’s very existence – all of this is different, refreshing. Pulis’ tactics were just as distinctive as Guardiola’s, and they’ve contributed memorable games: notwithstanding Aaron Ramsey’s injury, Stoke-Arsenal matches have consistently produced exciting football.
Pulis deserved to be sacked. Over the last few seasons, he made numerous mistakes in the transfer market. Many of those ill-fated signings – players like Tuncay Sanli and Eidur Gudjohnsen – represented clumsy attempts to “improve” Stoke’s style. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Pulis’ philosophy. Commentators tend to undervalue footballing variety, to reflexively disregard teams that don’t adhere to certain aesthetic standards. Stoke City is not a relic of a bygone era; it’s an example of the tactical diversity that makes football interesting.
Hughes insists that Stoke won’t change approach overnight, that he is “not going to chuck the baby out with the bath water.” But his long-term plan is already coming into focus.
Two weeks ago, Hughes completed Stoke’s second signing of the summer window. Marc Muniesa is a defender. He used to play for Barcelona. And today, here’s what Hughes said about his opinion about the current Stoke City squad:
“I have to say I’ve been really pleased with the technical ability of the squad as a whole and I think maybe I’ve been guilty of assuming there’s a certain type of player here.
“That’s not the case I’ve been really pleased with what I’ve found here and the level of ability that’s in the building.”