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Stoke City manager Mark Hughes had to be insistent, after seeing his side lose 1-2 at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday, that his team’s season “would not peter out”. It is indeed in danger of that happening, with defeats in their last 2 games before they head to Chelsea in a fortnight’s time. Their position in the top 10 is insulated by 6 points over Palace but Hughes said it was “important that we finish strongly”, refusing to let any complacency give a bittersweet ending to what has been another impressive season for Hughes and the Potters.
With 8 games left Hughes is 9 points away from bettering last season’s tally of 50 which was their highest in the Premier League since returning in 2008. So far Hughes has eclipsed former manager Tony Pulis’s league performance and is again on course to surpass his predecessor’s best points total of 47, achieved in 2009-10.
It has been a season which has seen the often overlooked Stoke record wins at Tottenham and Manchester City, do the double over Everton and, as seems to be the usual in this modern day Premier League, beat Arsenal at home. It is easy to see why Hughes is desperate to see his team end the campaign on a high note as they involve themselves in a three-way tussle with Swansea City and West Ham United for 8th place which would be the highest the club has ever finished.
Their previous best was the ninth place that Hughes led them to last year in his debut season as a manager who among certain sections of the Stoke support wasn’t the most popular choice to follow Pulis. The Welshman, appointed on a C.V that included impressive spells with Blackburn and Fulham but tarnished with failures with blank chequebooks at Manchester City and QPR, had the jury very much out and the pressure on as he inherited a side that had probably ran its course under the regimental guise of Pulis.
“I got the job because there was a feeling that the team was starting to fail”, was Hughes’s recent verdict, “the way we have progressed since has been quite exceptional.” On the second point it is hard to argue. In Pulis’s 5 years in the top tier at the Britannia his team only once managed above 38 goals (the 46 they managed in 2010-11), but this season they already have 34 goals and gone is the perception that they are over-reliant on an overly physical threat from corners and free-kicks. This term, only Liverpool and Swansea have scored less from set-pieces than Stoke’s five.
Although they remain typically stout defensively, their total of 37 goals shipped is bettered only by the current top 6, Hughes has encouraged more fluid and aesthetic football with a greater emphasis on short, crisp passing. That has stemmed originally from the back with the arrival of Marc Muniesa, forged in Barcelona’s technical breeding ground of La Masia, and Erik Pieters, good enough to earn 18 caps for the Netherlands during his time with PSV Eindhoven.
Ryan Shawcross meanwhile has continued his excellent form as club captain but Robert Huth, a symbol of the imposing physicality synonymous with Pulis, found himself immediately out of favour with Hughes and has since been shipped out on loan to Leicester City. Phil Bardsley has been brought in to provide energetic forward runs from right-back and together with left-back Pieters, they have combined to create a total of 31 chances.
A back four that utilises attacking full-backs and passing out from the centre-halves was perceived as anathema to Pulis but under Hughes, it has become natural.
The signings of Muniesa and Bardsley, both for free, and the £3 million acquisition of Pieters gives further detail to the quality of Hughes’s job at the Britannia, now having to make do with a restricted budget in contrast to the heady days of Pulis who, backed by chairman Peter Coates, oversaw a transfer policy that recorded a net spend of nearly £80 million in five years.
Last summer however Stoke spent the least amount on transfers out of the 20 Premier League clubs and with austerity ushered in at the Britannia, Hughes has had to revert to a management style geared more to getting the best out of cut-price dealings rather than paying big fees and having to manage the big egos that invariably come with the high wages. To make notable progression despite spending just £6.2 million across four transfer windows, especially in English football’s current climate of gargantuan spending, has deserved the highest of praise.
As well as Muniesa and Bardsley, Mame Biram Diouf, whose 8 goals puts him as Stoke’s top scorer, was also a free transfer while Steve Sidwell also came for nothing from Fulham to add his experience and steel to the midfield. The loan market has been used effectively for Victor Moses, who has brought his vibrant wing-play from Chelsea to be rated as Stoke’s best player from 18 league appearances, in the same way as Hughes did last year for Liverpool’s Oussama Assaidi.
Phillip Wollscheid has also been taken on loan from Bayer Leverkusen and the 26 year old centre-half, who has the option to make the move permanent in the summer, has made a quick impact as he looks to rebuild his career in England.
Perhaps most impressively though, the cut-price signings of Marko Arnautovic, for £2.4 million, and Bojan Krkic, for £1.5 million, have been huge successes for Hughes despite initially appearing as gambles. Once likened to a child by Jose Mourinho and happily wished goodbye by Werder Bremen after a string of controversies, the Austrian has been tamed by Hughes and turned into an effective squad option while Bojan, with his confidence shattered after failures with AC Milan, Roma and Ajax, produced some remarkable form for Stoke before knee injury cruelly curtailed his season in January. Hughes’s man-management expertise has shone through in both of them.
The Pulis era still remains prevalent throughout the team with Steven N’Zonzi and Glenn Whelan forming a midfield partnership that combines craft, energy and combativeness while John Walters provides his tireless work-rate on the right of the attack. He has 7 goals together with Peter Crouch who continues to lead the attacking line with a scoring touch and an underrated intelligence on the ball.
The 34 year old still tends to deceive with his gangly 6ft 7 inch frame, possessing quick, clever feet and good vision which makes him effective at holding the ball up and linking-play, something that Hughes’s philosophy of neat, attractive build-up play, has used more of.
Therefore the manager is probably right when he claims that he put the groundwork in place for Hughes to build on but there is undoubted progress, both in playing style and results, under the new regime. The focus will now go on trying to gain another record finish but even if they fall short, there can be no taking away from the superb job Hughes is doing with Stoke.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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