When Stoke City’s Bojan Krkic fell unchallenged and was subbed off in the FA Cup game at League One’s Rochdale on Monday night, one could easily imagine the groans from the away support in the stands. His fourth minute stunner of a goal – a volley from outside the 18-yard box that curved just beyond the keeper’s fingertips – was enough proof that losing such a player as Bojan would hurt any team. Before that touch of brilliance though he’d been on a serious run of form in the Premier League, scoring three goals in seven, among them winners at Leicester and Everton. When it was announced late Tuesday afternoon that he would be out for the season, any true fan of soccer would recognize that the sport would be slightly worse for his absence.
That such a thing would ever be said about a member of the Stoke City Football Club is a genuine shock. They’re not a team that is supposed to have players worthy of such praise. In fact, for much of the six years since their promotion from the Championship, they were a team built around the precise opposite qualities that Bojan possesses. From the field around him in Rochdale and on the bench were old guards like Peter Crouch and Ryan Shawcross, players more renowned for their height and physicality than their skills with the ball. How is it, then, that Bojan’s season ending injury suddenly feels so pivotal?
At the height of Tony Pulis’ reign at Stoke, commentator Andy Gray remarked critically that he’d like to see Lionel Messi’s Barcelona play on a cold, wet night in Stoke. Could the shortest team in Europe ever cope with Pulis’ team of reformed rugby players? Unfortunately, we never witnessed such a spectacle. The closest we could hope to get was the arrival of Bojan, a Barcelona youth product that was deemed surplus to the club’s needs and had spent the past several years bouncing around from club to club. That he finally found a home in Stoke must have tickled Gray, though by the time he arrived the club was already well on its way to destroying old stereotypes.
Pulis’ Stoke deserves immense credit for finding success with an unstylish brand of soccer. Focused primarily on long balls and set pieces, Pulis stocked his team with tall and physical players that could game a system that increasingly seemed to favor the opposite. If his competition would keep the ball on the turf and rely on short, quick passes, his team’s keeper would punt the ball into the opposition’s box and hope for the best. It was an ugly but effective strategy: Pulis won promotion for the team in 2007-08 and quickly established Stoke as a perennial mid-table Premier League team.
Under Pulis in the Premier League, however, the club’s transfer outlay was just short of £80 million, a figure only outmatched by Chelsea and Manchester City. Between Pulis’ arrival at the club in 2006 and his departure, the wage bill increased from £7 million to £53 million. For the type of players Pulis’ system favors, this comes as a bit of a shock. How is it that a collection of out-of-fashion utility players and the vertically unchallenged cost nearly as much, indeed more, than much more capable teams? One cannot blame club ownership for believing that this might be too high a price for a team with such a clearly visible ceiling. They let Pulis go at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season.
In his place, the club brought in the relatively steady hand of Mark Hughes. He is a difficult manager to codify. He does not represent a singular style the same way Pulis did, nor does it seem appropriate to label him as tactically pragmatic the way you could Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. His Blackburn side finished each of his four years in charge at the bottom of the Premier League’s disciplinary table and was frequently criticized for being overly violent. Three years later, his Fulham side earned a place in the UEFA Europa League under the Fair Play program that rewards teams with the best disciplinary records in their respective leagues. His arrival at Manchester City in 2008 coincided with the Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of the club and the ensuing cash influx. These days at a Stoke anxious to avoid the inflated finances of the Pulis years, he is in the process of redefining and rebranding the entire club on a shoestring. Perhaps the best metaphor for Hughes is the goldfish – his teams will grow exactly as much as the environment allows.
What makes Hughes’ time at Stoke remarkable is exactly how he’s letting the team grow. Other managers might have worked with what they have and simply repurposed players as best they could. Instead, Hughes offloaded almost a dozen players, reducing club payroll considerably and opening up significant space in the roster. In their place he’s relied on some savvy scouting to recruit relative unknowns like Marko Arnautović and Mame Biram Diouf on the cheap. His inaugural season could only have emboldened him – his Stoke City finished ninth in the Premier League. It was a height that the club had not achieved since the mid-70s. Though the core of Pulis’ physical team remains, it is now complemented by players who can do much more than punt the ball and head it into the net.
Let this be the most telling statistic. Of the 23 goals Stoke has scored so far in the Premier League this season, 17 have been from open play and only three from set pieces. One does not often witness sea changes such as this in soccer, particularly from clubs that were as fundamentalist in their style as Stoke. No longer does the club have to rely on towering over their opponents to reach the throw in from the touchline. They can play, and even excel, without such gamesmanship.
The marquee signing ahead of this season, Bojan feels like the exclamation point of Hughes’ tenure. Again, he was brought in cheaply, but his price tag belied his significance in Hughes’ philosophy. Still only 24, he’s the type of player that the club could rebuild itself around. Even with missing the rest of the season due to Monday’s injury, he’s done his part to help Stoke reach 10th place by the end of January. Though they would certainly prefer to end the season with Bojan’s skill in play, one gets the impression that Hughes’ rejuvenated Stoke City can hold on.
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