How Mark Hughes has transformed Stoke City’s playing style

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Stoke City arrived in the Premier League in 2008, the club’s first season in the top-flight of English football for over 20 years. They’ve never left the top division since. The epitome of a club living within its means and playing a style utterly devoid of pretentiousness under Tony Pulis, they finished 12th in their first Premier League season with 10 victories, and they’ve never really looked back.

If anything, Stoke have been pushing further up mid-table, and as the Premier League TV money grows, so do fan expectations. Manager Tony Pulis did not play an attractive style of football, which was accepted when the club were just trying to establish a foothold in the division, but after four straight seasons of mid-table football, nobody could blame the fans for wanting a bit of expansiveness, which the club hoped to do when appointing Welshman Mark Hughes at the end of the 2012-13 season.

Granted, Stoke under Pulis were never the thugs that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger made them out to be, and their reputation was battered by a couple of high-profile incidents, notably Ryan Shawcross’ horror tackle on Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey. However statistics did prove that they consistently had the least possession among Premier League teams, and they played amongst the most number of long balls as well. Their most interesting tactical innovation was the use of Rory Delap as a long throw specialist, reinforcing them as a side that cared about territory, and getting the ball “in the mixer” as often as possible, rather than possession.

Defensively, they were always solid under Pulis, never conceding more than 55 goals a season (in their first season back up), and never less than 45 (in Pulis’ last season). Their direct methods also brought them modest goal returns, never topping 40 a season. Stoke fans don’t see their team winning the title any time soon, but never having a positive goal difference is not a route to progress into the top 8 or 10 consistently.

Mark Hughes not only added a bit of stardust to the unglamorous Staffordshire side. A striker good enough to play for Manchester United and Barcelona will do that. He quickly realized that there was very little downside to opening Stoke City up more. As defensively solid as they were under Pulis, they were not winning enough games or picking up enough points to threaten consistent progression. Sides always finished above Stoke despite conceding more, simply because all offensive potency was sacrificed in the search for solidity.

Hughes was proven right in his very first season in charge, as the club not only finally breached the 40 goal target with a tally of 45, scoring 11 goals more than under Pulis in his last season, but they conceded pretty much the same amount of goals they always did – 52. The following season was the Potter’s first ever Premier League season with a positive goal difference, 48 scored and 45 conceded. Not only were they scoring more, but having more of the ball and giving opponents less of the ball to hammer away shots meant they were also conceding less. Fifty four points was a record haul and Hughes’ effects were showing.

The appointment of Hughes and his pedigree as a player plus his big club experience with Manchester City also had a positive effect on player contribution. Technically skilled and gifted players who wanted the ball kept on the floor and played to their feet would never have signed for Pulis. Whereas Hughes more enterprising style, and his contacts at the Camp Nou, have seen Stoke sign four former Barcelona players and a significant coup in Xherdan Shaqiri from Bayern Munich via Internazionale.

Yes, Premier League money has made it easier for these players to turn down some continental leading lights for Stoke, but Hughes’ style and the promise of future improvement must have been an undeniable pull factor. Players like Bojan Krcic and Ibrahim Affelay have been able to resuscitate their careers and maybe attract some covetous glances from bigger names at a club that plays a style they’re used to, rather than wasting their talents away at a club not playing to their strengths.

SeasonAverage PossessionShots/gamePasses per 90 minutesShots faced
2012-1342.6%10.2632314.3
2014-1549.813.1540511.9

Looking at the table above, even without the season descriptions on the left side column, the stats would make apparent who the manager was. Under Hughes, it’s been almost 100 more passes per game, and the increased possession means less time in the game for opponent’s to get their shots off. Three defenders (Ryan Shawcross, Marc Wilson, and Geoff Cameron) have all improved their pass accuracy by above 10% since Mark Hughes implemented a more pass-oriented style of football at the club.

Despite all the improvements made under Hughes, it’s clear that Stoke aren’t challenging for the title or top four. And although a tilt at the Europa League may be viable, the extra games could strain the club. However, supporters of a team that shouldn’t fear relegation and shouldn’t expect consistent trophies should at least be able to expect pleasing football, and a team that can stretch any opponent. As Stoke proved against Manchester City on Saturday, this is a team that does just that.

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