After the hope and excitement last Spring among Stoke City supporters that a quality manager would be hired to take the Potters to the next level, a feeling of being underwhelmed swept through supporters when the news was announced that Mark Hughes would be the club’s 38th manager. After the sad but necessary departure of Tony Pulis, the fans thought big. UEFA Champions League winners Rafael Benitez and Roberto Di Matteo were heavily linked, as was popular duo Gus Poyet and Gianfranco Zola. So when Hughes, whose recent record includes falling out with the owners at Fulham and causing irreversible damage at QPR, walked through the door, there was a natural sense of concern.
But I suspect many had forgotten how good a manager Hughes was. And in the short time that he’s been able to adjust to life ‘up north’ again, he has safely negotiated the first major hurdle. Stoke sit 12th in the Premier League and are progressing well, which is undoubtedly a very satisfactory result for a mid-table team going through the dreaded transition phrase. Beforehand, there was talk of Stoke getting too big for its boots after they got rid of Pulis and that they were genuine relegation candidates. So far, Hughes has responded to the task in an impressive fashion.
For those supporters who became attached to the strange ‘anti Hughes’ brigade that has existed for several years on the terraces and in the papers, words are beginning to be eaten and positivity is taking over. Many supporters had fallen out of love with the club towards the end of Pulis’s tenure, hence the slightly below-par attendance figures this season. However, Hughes is winning them back slowly but surely.
Initially the former Wales manager brought style despite keeping much of Pulis’s squad. He has kept what Pulis left him and describes the players as far more talented then what they were previously given credit for. The ball remained static to the floor and all players were encouraged to participate in the attacking phases. Full-backs were told to push forward while the midfielders were required to run beyond the centre-forward, a trait that would not have been seen under Pulis who always liked his central midfielders to remain solid and sit in ‘the cage’.
Oussama Assaidi has been a revelation on the left wing, adding pace and creativity to an otherwise static forward line, while also adding some vital and spectacular goals since his introduction in December. Charlie Adam has excelled in recent weeks in the number ten position that has taken on great significance under Hughes. His display and goal against Manchester United was excellent, and he is quashing rumours that surround his long-term place. Geoff Cameron looks a fine right-back who is a great threat when he gallops forward, and Ryan Shawcross looks the complete defender now he is comfortable on the ball. Even Austrian bad boy Marko Arnautovic is finding his feet.
This has all been helped by some thrilling performances this season. The 3-2 victory over Chelsea, 2-1 win over Manchester Unittd and 1-0 recent success against Arsenal have regained the fans’ confidence, while performances away at West Ham and Swansea have been refreshing. There has been a clear ethos and the fans have bought into it. They are becoming optimistic again under Hughes although appreciative of the size of the task he has. Following on from arguably the best manager in the club’s history is as difficult as any job out there at the moment but Hughes has relished it and the players have embraced the task.
Although exciting, the new ways did bring with it a soft underbelly. Leads would evaporate, like in the 3-3 draw at Swansea. The return to the side of Peter Crouch and Glenn Whelan has added more steel and, despite goals flying in left, right and center at times, Stoke defensively have improved too.
There are still areas that need to be addressed. It is clear that they are crying out for the right type of striker — one who will run in behind and stretch defenses, creating the space for Adam and Assaidi to play. This could be the biggest barrier to safety because despite Crouch’s good form, he isn’t tuned to this new system. A ball winning, tough midfielder is also required and defensive cover too.
But for now, Hughes has found the right blend of style and substance that Pulis was criticized for never quite achieving. After the stagnation of the previous 18 months, the Hughes era has breathed fresh air into this vibrant football club. There is a long way to go and several players to sign before he can get his vision for the side in full working order but so far so good for an unpopular manager who is starting to patch up his mangled reputation.