During Tony Pulis' reign as manager, Stoke City were one of the toughest teams around. Roughhousing the opposition and playing a style of football based around attacking primarilty at set-pieces, teams were warned of a tough 90 minutes against the Potters. Despite knowing what was in store, sides would struggle to get the better of Stoke, especially when playing them at the Britannia Stadium.
However, Stoke's form dipped at the beginning of 2013 and after a 13th-placed finish, Pulis was relieved of his duties last summer. In his place came Mark Hughes, who admitted he had a point to prove after a torrid time as QPR boss.
The decision to hire Hughes was not the most popular with Stoke fans at the time, but the former Manchester United striker did well in his debut season in charge. Stoke came 9th last term, their best finish since returning to England's top tier in 2008, while the team is playing a more attractive style of football under the watchful eye of the 50-year-old.
The Potters have maintained the rough streak they had under Pulis, highlighted in that only Aston Villa (12.9) averaged more fouls per game than Stoke (12.8) in the Premier League last season, with that figure also the same as in Pulis' final campaign at the helm. Hughes, though, injected flair into the side, with the manager bringing in a number of players that signalled a change in philosophy.
Rory Delap, Dean Whitehead and Matthew Upson, amongst others, were released as Hughes aimed to alter the stigma associated with Stoke City Football Club. Erik Pieters, Marc Muniesa and Marko Arnautović all signed for the club last summer, while Bojan Krkic and Mame Biram Diouf have joined this transfer window. Hughes has also added Premier League experience in the form of Steve Sidwell and Phil Bardsley as Stoke look to improve in the upcoming campaign.
Football fans caught a glimpse of Stoke's potential at the back end of last season, as they lost only 2 of their last 11 league games. Defeat at Chelsea in that run was to be expected, while the loss to Tottenham was 1 of only 3 at home during the domestic campaign. Wins over Arsenal and Newcastle gave a clear indication that Stoke are more than capable of mixing it with the Premier League's European contenders.
Under Hughes, this Stoke team are evolving. Last term, they played signifcantly more short passes per game (356) than they did in Pulis' final season (274), and Stoke resultantly averaged more possession per match in Hughes' first year (47.5%) than in the previous campaign (43.3%). Hughes favours a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football than pumping the ball forward for main striker Peter Crouch or, prior to his move to Cardiff, Kenwyne Jones.
That is not to say the Stoke manager did not adopt this approach at all, though. Crouch won more aerial duels (258) than any other player in England's top tier last term and the striker impressed under Hughes, scoring more league goals (8) than any other Stoke player. However, Crouch may not be an option for the Potters in the upcoming campaign if reports linking him with a move to West Ham come to fruition, even if Hughes insists the striker is key to the team. It's fairly evident Hughes is aiming to move away from the long ball approach that became synonamous with the club, as the signings of Bojan and Diouf suggest.
Diouf is a capable striker in the air having developed a WhoScored strength of 'aerial duels', winning a commendable 5.1 aerial duels per game in the Bundesliga last season, while 3 of his 8 league goals were headers, but he is a better striker with the ball on the deck. Bojan, meanwhile, despite indifferent spells with Roma, Milan and Ajax, has hit the ground the running in pre-season this summer, bagging 3 of Stoke's last 4 goals, although it remains to be seen whether he can take that form into competitive games.
Bojan's slight stature means he will fare better with the ball on the floor rather than pumped long from defence and his early performances indicates that Hughes will build his attack around the former Barcelona trainee.
More important for Hughes, however, is ensuring Stoke's away form improves this season. Only Hull (12), Cardiff (10) and Norwich (9) took fewer points on the road than Stoke (14) last season, with the Potters relying on home comforts to pick up the bulk of their 50 points. Only the 3 relegated teams shipped more goals away from home than Stoke (35), while the Potters conceded a high number of shots per game (16.6) on the road. Robert Huth's return to fitness is a boost to the Stoke backline, but Hughes must improve the concentration and organisation of his defence if they are to secure more positive results away from the Brittania and realistically challenge for a top-7 finish.
The Potters have begun to move away from the somewhat outdated approach used during Pulis' reign at the Britannia and while the success of the system consolidated Stoke's position as a Premier League team, Hughes' ideas are helping to take them to the next level. With no major departures at the time of writing, Stoke have the potential to secure a higher finish than 9th next season.
The capture of Bojan in particular is a real sign of intent, while Hughes has solidified key areas ahead of the campaign and should he bring in one or two new faces before the season kicks off in 8 days time, the Potters could be considered an outside bet for a European finish.
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