Stoke City face Cardiff City tonight knowing that anything but a win will leave them hanging above the relegation zone and their former boss hunting them down with only three points separating the two sides. This summer after defying all the odds for years and making Stoke a mid-table Premiership team, FA Cup final and European side, Tony Pulis walked away from the club after seven years at the helm.
The club made a statement that they wanted to go in a new modern direction and swapped one Welshman for another by bringing in Mark Hughes to lead them in that direction. The talk was about the style of football played under Pulis and how the club and the fans had become disillusioned with their long ball and aggressive tactics after flirting with relegation in Pulis’s final season in charge.
Hughes, former Manchester City, Fulham and QPR manager, was brought in to change the style of play and make the Potters a more attractive team to watch and a more attractive team to other players to join. Right now Stoke sit three points above the relegation zone and have a very interesting fixture list this December. The Potters will play Chelsea, Manchester United and Aston Villa at the Britannia and also travel to Hull, Newcastle and Spurs before we bring in the New Year.
I suppose in an article like this, I could go into stats about the two managers. Who has the bigger win percentage, which Stoke team has completed the most passes or which team plays more long balls than the other. But the fact remains, for a team like Stoke, it doesn’t matter how many long balls you play or what your passes in the attacking third are like, none of that matters if you’re not winning or improving. Stoke are not a top six side, it’s that simple. Now, Hughes was brought in to change the team’s style of play while moving the club forward. It is very early in the season, only 13 games have been played, but for Stoke fans to want more than what Pulis gave them is asking a bit too much.
Pulis, coming off his first win as Crystal Palace manager against West Ham, did achieve huge success with the Potters but a lot of people seem to think that it was on a shoe string budget. It wasn’t quite a shoe string budget. Pulis signed Peter Crouch for £10 million, Wilson Palacios for £8 million, Tuncay, Jack Butland and Matthew Upson for £5 million each and Cameron Jerome for £4 million and I’m still leaving out a few more players here. So to think that Pulis had limited resources was a myth. He spent money on players to suit his system and style of play.
With these players Pulis took Stoke from the Championship to playing against one of the best teams in the world in Manchester City in the FA Cup Final and also making it to the last 32 in the Europa League facing Spanish side Valenica. Not bad for a negative long ball team is it. No one complained about Pulis then. No one wanted to go in a new modern direction then. If you compare Stoke’s last few seasons in the league compared to teams around them, I think then do you only realise how well Tony Pulis did. Villa have done nothing, same with West Brom, Newcastle and Sunderland.
After Pulis left a few players came out and criticised the former manager’s style of play. They called it negative and described the atmosphere as negative, boring and not encouraging. Kenwyne Jones, Jermaine Pennant and Cameron Jerome were the payers who criticised their former boss days after he left. It’s funny that these players were either not getting into the side or were loaned out and yet regular starter and club captain, Ryan Shawross had nothing but praise for his former gaffer. I suppose it’s natural, players looking out for themselves.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure what style of play would suit Kenwyne Jones or Cameron Jerome, neither of them are really that good. Jermaine Pennant has no one to blame but himself. He can say the way Stoke played was a factor to his absence from the team sheet but what about failing at Arsenal and Liverpool? In an article by the Mirror back in October, Ryan Shawcross was asked about a rift between the dressing room over their allegiance to their former gaffer. The captain denied any rift between the players and fully supports the new gaffer.
In Sparky’s defence, he hasn’t spent an awful lot of money to change the side around. His side is still the one that Tony Pulis built. Hughes this season brought in Marko Arnautovic and Erik Pieters for a combined fee of £5 million and released a total of 12 players. Having watched them a few times this season, I haven’t noticed a great deal of difference in their play. I suppose it is very early to see a change.
Look at Southampton, after sacking Nigel Adkins, who got them to the Premier League after back to back promotions, everyone questioned the board’s decision of letting him go and bringing in relatively unknown Mauricio Pochettino. Nearly a year on from his appointment and Southampton are surprise package so far this season sitting above Man United and Spurs. So I guess maybe it will take a bit more time to really judge Hughes and the new style of play he plans to implement.
But what will be a success for Hughes? Finishing above 11th place and more European football? Will getting more than 47 points be judged as a successful season for Hughes and his Stoke team who currently sit on 13 points after 13 games. It will be extremely difficult for Hughes to do any better than his predecessor. Irrespective of their style of play or tactics, Stoke under Pulis were a team to be feared. No one liked to play them whether it was home or away. As I mentioned, they played European football and came runners-up in a FA Cup Final.
In fact, Pulis is the only manager in Stokes history to reach an FA Cup Final. Before their Europa league exploits in the 2011-2012 season, Stoke fans hadn’t seen European football since 1975. I don’t know if anyone remembers but during Sparky’s time as Blackburn boss, his team was often criticised by the media and opposition managers for being overly aggressive and very physical. During his four years with Blackburn the club finished bottom of the Premier League disciplinary table every year. Sound familiar Stoke fans?
Look, I’ll say it again, it’s very early days for Mark Hughes and who knows what he can do with this Stoke team given time. He will feel that he needs more funds to get in the type of players to suit his system and then we can properly judge him. I think Stoke fans are very quick to criticise Pulis’s style of play. The complaints about not playing attractive football are just pure and utter garbage. Attractive football doesn’t guarantee you success. Look at Wigan. Ok, they won the FA Cup, fair enough, but throughout the season, they received so much praise for their fluid style of play and how they kept the ball. Well they still ended up being relegated didn’t they? They lost their best players and now have no manager.
So Stoke fans, would you rather play nice attractive modern football and be playing against Leeds in your next game or mixing it in the best league in the world week in week out and being feared throughout the league? I’m sure Palace fans won’t care how they play as long as Pulis can keep them in the Premier league. I’m hoping he can.