Jack: How Hughes is starting to put his mark on Stoke

Kristian Jack,
9/4/2013 9:16:54 PM
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Much has been written in the last few days about players changing addresses but in the English top flight we are currently experiencing an unprecedented time with the amount of changes in the dugout.

Incredibly, 15 of the current 20 bosses in charge of Premier League teams did not have their current position at the end of the 2011-12 season. To put it a different way, 75 per cent of them have been in their job for fifteen months or less and only 25 per cent of the current crop of managers have been in charge for more than one full season heading into this campaign.

Despite high-profile changes coming at many of the big clubs, it is hard to think of a change that has prompted so much talk of a new style than the one made by Stoke City owner Peter Coates this summer.

The decision to relieve former manager Tony Pulis of his job was a polarizing one, with many believing the Welshman had overachieved by keeping Stoke in the Premier League for five successive seasons.

During his time in the top flight, Pulis was known for bringing a physical, long ball style, one that was far from fashionable in a world where everyone now wants to copy Barcelona. However, it is not a fun sport if all teams play the same so there was nothing wrong with being brave enough to try something different at Stoke, provided it remained successful.

Over the last five seasons Stoke never finished below 14th but last season the Potters showed no signs of improvement and in fact posted their worst ever points total (42), goals scored (34) and total wins (9) during their five year run in the Premier League.

After a net spend of close to 80 million pounds during that time (more than the likes of Manchester United and Tottenham) it was apparent that Coates felt his team wasn't getting better when they should have been.

Those fully behind Pulis and his style didn't change their tune when he was replaced with what seemed an underwhelming choice in Mark Hughes, who was sacked last November after a shambolic time as Queens Park Rangers manager.

Hughes, though, jumped at the chance to manage in the Premier League again and knew from the moment he took charge the mandate in terms of his style, announcing: "It will take time, on occasions we will make mistakes but if we want to play in a certain way then that's what we have to do."

It is important to note that Hughes, despite having once played at Barcelona, is no Pep Guardiola when it comes to possession-based tactics. In fact, when in charge at Blackburn he guided Rovers to a 0-0 draw at Arsenal in an FA Cup match and afterwards spoke about what Cesc Fabregas said to him as he left the field.

"When we shook hands at the end, the young man asked me a question which I thought was disrespectful. He asked me if I had played for Barcelona and when I said yes, he shook his head as if in disbelief. Then he said, 'Well, that wasn't Barcelona football'."

No one will expect Hughes to bring that style of football to the Britannia but with strong, physical, players, lacking overall technical quality, it could be easy for him to fall closer to the ways Pulis adopted, but it's clear he and the Stoke board feel very strongly things need to change.

Early signs from the opening three weeks of the season suggest they already have. A narrow opening day loss at Liverpool showed a different Stoke, cheered on by the away supporters signing "We're Stoke City, we're passing the ball."

Overall the team attempted 120 more passes than the game at Anfield last season, while their pass completion (81 per cent) was not only better than the 67 per cent in 2012-13, but better than all 19 away matches last season, by some distance.

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A poor first half home display against Crystal Palace followed but in the second half Stoke came from behind to win 2-1. Afterwards, Hughes admitted the team was in transition: "We need to play better and we will. We have a group of players who are coming to terms with how we can play, and on other days we will be more fluid."

One of those other days was Saturday at West Ham. The game was decided by a piece of individual brilliance by Jermaine Pennant from a direct free kick, but despite winning a game via a set-piece this was nothing like a team seen under Pulis.

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Once again more passes were attempted and completed (78 per cent to 69 per cent) to the corresponding fixture last season but for those watching the game it was more than apparent , without checking the stats, just how comfortable Stoke were when in possession.

Post match Hughes reflected: "I've got a group of really solid professionals who understand what it takes to win Premier League games and, maybe in the past, they haven't been given enough credit for the ability that they have. Maybe I am allowing them an opportunity to show people what good players they actually are."

One of those players is central midfielder Steven N'Zonzi. Bought to the Premier League by current West Ham boss Sam Allardyce, while at Blackburn, the Frenchman tormented his old boss with an outstanding performance at Upton Park.

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The 24-year-old flourished in a midfield three alongside Marc Wilson and Charlie Adam, treasuring the ball in deep areas by finding outlets close-by (rather than lumping it forward) and occasionally surging forward past West Ham's outnumbered midfield duo of Mark Noble and Mohamed Diame.

It was close to being a complete performance from N'Zonzi, who was equally impressive without the ball than he was with it.

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The system introduced by Hughes is one that gives players like N'Zonzi the freedom of the park, putting trust in them to go forward and make a difference in the final third while still being able to be responsible towards their defensive duties.

The results so far have been remarkable; with the midfielder contributing much more to Stoke's attacking play than he did last season.

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Despite many believing Stoke's approach under Pulis was not broken and didn't need to be fixed, in the last two seasons the Potters scored a putrid 28 goals from open play. Fourteen teams scored more than that just last season.

It is clear Stoke need to become more comfortable with the ball while not compromising the defensive unit that has kept them in this league and, so far, Hughes seems to have found a balance. He certainly has found happy players receptive to his ways.

Said Pennant: "We're getting the ball down and showing what we can do, which is a lot different to last season and the years before that. We've got the players to do it, and this was probably one of our best away performances since I've been here."

Striker Kenwyne Jones added: ""Before we wouldn't have come here and played like that, actually dominating the home team and trying to win the game. We'd have played for percentages and hoped that something would come off.

"It is a different approach to take the game to West Ham. We've had the players to do that for quite a while, but you know it's a different philosophy now and things are going well."

N'Zonzi, whose transfer request earlier this summer was rejected by the club, also looks like a man transformed under Hughes.

"Until you work with players on a daily basis you can underestimate their talent," Hughes said of his midfielder.

"I was one who maybe didn't put Steven into the bracket of a top Premier League player. He still has faults that he has to work on, he understands that, but the way we play will bring the best out of him."

Looks like the players are not the only ones discovering new things at Stoke.

Mark Hughes (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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