BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The Premier League previews on Fan Fuel reach the Potteries, as after five years under Tony Pulis’ management, Stoke City embark on a new campaign with Mark Hughes guiding the helm.
There is no denying that Pulis did a respectable job by keeping Stoke City in the Premier League for five consecutive years, and in almost all those seasons the team was never seriously in danger of being relegated. However, the longer the Potters stayed in the division, the more stagnant their play felt, and while we’ll never know if Pulis would have got them to elevate their play to the next level, the board decided that Mark Hughes was the man who would take the club forward.
Other than letting Dean Whitehead and Rory Delap – two players who epitomized Pulis’ values in the first three seasons of Stoke’s Premier League journey leave, it’s been hard to see Hughes put his own stamp on the club as far as the playing squad is concerned. Pre-season has seen reliable performances from the team, but the answer to the question of whether Stoke are truly heading into a new direction this season will only be revealed well into the middle of the campaign.
On defence: Asmir Begovic has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League for a while now, and many expected the Bosnian international to leave the club, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all rumoured to be interested in him. Begovic stays at the Britannia for now, but if a move materializes before the end of the transfer window, then Stoke have the next big hope of English goalkeeping ready to take over in the form of Jack Butland.
Stoke feature the most consistent partnership of centre-backs in the Premiership, as captain Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth are ever present for the Potters. Huth’s greatest strength is his comfort in the air, a facet that doubles up as a viable goal threat from set pieces. Shawcross is equally excellent in the air, but also uses his strength to ensure opposing forwards don’t get past him in the box. Hughes has played the pair consistently in pre-season and he will rely on the stability of the partnership to establish the foundations of a successful reign at the Britannia. Andy Wilkinson, while not possessing the quality of the first-choice partnership will provide a reliable option as back up when called upon by Hughes.
Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shotton will alternate frequently at right-back, though the American international should feature prominently if Hughes wants to develop a better footballing ethos on the field. Cameron is comfortable on the ball, and can also deliver crosses of substantial quality in the final third. Shotton provides the more physical option, and other than some potent throws, his tactical prowess is limited.
On the opposite flank, new signing Erik Pieters has claimed the left-back slot after having an excellent pre-season and for the first time Stoke will enter a season without needing to convert anyone to fit into the position. Barcelona youngster Marc Muniesa will provide another option at left-back, resulting in a limited role for Marc Wilson unless injuries affect the Dutchman and the Spaniard.
The midfield: Surely if Hughes wants to transform Stoke’s style of play he has to sign a few more creative talents in midfield. The one guaranteed starter in midfield throughout pre-season has been Steven N’Zonzi and the tough tackling midfielder was certainly one of the best signings of the Pulis era. N’Zonzi is extremely adept at the protecting the defence, and his strong running with the ball also serves a purpose for Stoke.
Compared to his predecessor, Hughes also seems more open to giving the forgotten Wilson Palacios a chance in midfield. During his successful reign at Blackburn, Hughes often played two physical midfielders in the centre of the park, and if Palacios can regain the form that made him sought after a few years ago, then in tandem with N’Zonzi he can form a partnership that can be vital in frustrating the opposition’s creative players and forwards.
The creative spark in midfield will be provided either by Glenn Whelan or Charlie Adam, and on the rare occasion, the pair could both feature in the line-up. Whelan keeps the ball moving, and is adept at playing short passes and creating triangles with other players when Stoke do keep the ball on the ground. Adam on the other hand is more prone to attempting the Hollywood ball, and when it comes off it looks sensational. However, Adam’s consistency of passing has reduced dramatically since his ill-fated move to Liverpool two seasons ago. The Scotsman can still deliver a brilliant set piece, and in a team featuring tall forwards it certainly can be an asset for Stoke. US International Brek Shea has limited experience in the top flight, but could also turn out to be a valuable option from midfield on his return from injury.
On the attack: QPR were the only team in the Premier League last season that scored fewer goals than Stoke, and Hughes will have to work on a solution to cure the team’s scoring ills. It certainly doesn’t bode well for the Welshman that he managed QPR for a significant part of the season when they were struggling with scoring.
Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch were the leading scorers in the last campaign, hitting eight and seven goals respectively. Walters will always provide commitment and honesty on the field, and his physicality is an excellent option to make opposing defenders uncomfortable. Walters is a good bet as an auxiliary striker but he lacks the flair required to be a constant menace, and on most occasions the best defenders can mark him out of the game pretty easily.
Crouch has lost himself a bit since arriving at Stoke. For a big man, Crouch has always possessed more finesse than physicality, yet manager after manager have relied on him to be an aerial threat. Maybe Hughes will bring back an element of sophistication that sees Crouch closer to his best, linking smartly with other attacking players on the ground rather than over the air. If Hughes truly does want a target man, he can turn to Kenwyne Jones, the Trinidadian being another forward who has lost his way in the Premier League in recent seasons. Cameron Jerome is the other forward on the team, and can be relied upon to make strong runs to drag defenders out of positions, and is also a good outlet for through balls. American forward Juan Agudelo comes with a strong scoring record, but the youngster will only join the squad in January, so the jury remains out on him until then.
In Stoke’s current setup, the wingers naturally play a crucial role. Hughes has a trio of inconsistent wingers to call upon, in Jermaine Pennant, Matthew Etherington and Michael Kightly. Kightly has been playing really well in pre-season, and with age on the side of the youngster, he can develop into a more rounded attacking player under the tutelage of Hughes. The manager will also have to coax the best out of Etherington and Pennant, if Stoke are to genuinely establish coherence in attack.
Conclusion: “Men rise from one ambition to another: first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.” The wise words of Niccolo Machiavelli. Peter Coates, Stoke City’s chairman realized that Tony Pulis took care of the first ambition, securing the team’s status in the Premier League on the back of a strong defence with a safety first policy drilled into the ethos of the players.
Coates is now relying on Hughes to guide Stoke to the next level of ambition through attacking play. Whether Hughes is the right man to realize that ambition is open to debate. Hughes isn’t necessarily recognized as a purveyor of beautiful football, and the squad is still filled with Pulis stalwarts. Change will probably be more realistic next season, but Hughes will have to navigate through a tough first season in charge at the Britannia, where he will be backed by the home faithful despite nagging doubts about his credentials after recent failures in the Premier League.