Remoulding the Potters

by Will Giles

Bojan StokeBojan Krkić to Stoke. It’s the kind of transfer that tends to only exist in Football Manager saves that have made it past 2024, and even then the lack of realism is disorienting enough to make the most committed of gamers admit they’ve probably taken this career too far.

Nevertheless, the move happened, and once people had moved from denial through to acceptance, the general reaction was one of mocking disbelief at Bojan’s career trajectory.

However, whilst it is probably true to say that the ex-Barcelona, Milan and Ajax forward probably hadn’t anticipated relocating to the Potteries at 23, him signing for Stoke should be seen as an illustration of the club’s progress under Mark Hughes, rather than an indication that the young Spaniard is already in decline.

Hughes himself found his career in something of a downward spiral upon his arrival at the Britannia. Queens Park Rangers’ spectacularly expensive implosion not only made him an underwhelming appointment, but also fuelled the belief that his preferred managerial style is to throw money at teams until they win – a largely unfair accusation given his success at Blackburn and, to a lesser extent, Fulham.

In addition, although the locals had grown tired of Tony Pulis’ methods and seemingly decided he’d taken Stoke as far as he could, Hughes was still following on from an extremely popular manager, one who’d delivered the club its most successful period in at least a quarter of a century. He’d also been tasked with implementing a more free-flowing, aesthetically pleasing playing style, replacing the robust, direct one the team were accustomed to in the process.

Stoke were subsequently installed as the pre-season favourites to go down, a move which surprised no-one except Hughes, whose suggestion that there was a ‘real sense that people want me to do well’ looked likely to become as infamous as his declaration that QPR would never be in a relegation struggle again.

But whilst Stoke and Hughes had to ride out a difficult 2013, by the season’s end he’d been proved right; people had started to enjoy watching his side doing well. The campaign had ultimately hinged on the Kenwyne Jones-Peter Odemwingie swap deal in January. Directly replacing the static-at-best Jones with the productive Nigerian was evidence enough that Hughes’ transfer market nous hadn’t entirely disintegrated at Loftus Road, and it enabled Stoke to change their system mid-season.

The emphasis on increasing possession in the post-Pulis era had seen Hughes, quite justifiably, go for three in midfield. Whilst the stats did change favourably, the play was often laboured, and the lack of wide outlets was hurting Stoke. Essentially, the formation Hughes had started with was too different to what the players had been used to under Pulis.

Accommodating Odemwingie, though, resulted in Stoke playing two central midfielders rather than three, with the ex-Cardiff man and Marko Arnautovic (another shrewd Hughes signing) on the wings, and one of Stephen Ireland or Jonathan Walters just behind Peter Crouch. The alteration saw the Potters start having to release the ball from midfield earlier, but also gave them more options to give the quicker ball to. The increased directness suited Stoke’s playing personnel, but the desired fluidity was retained.

The first game with this new system? A 2-1 win at home to Man United (admittedly not the achievement it would have been previous seasons). Hughes’ side went from strength to strength after that, recording a victory over Arsenal and an entirely unbeaten March on their way to a ninth place finish – Stoke’s best ever in the Premier League.

The results were impressive in their own right, but the way Stoke went about getting them was what really demanded attention. West Ham, Aston Villa and Fulham were all dispatched, comprehensively, in confident displays of attacking fluency. The question for Hughes this season, then, is whether or not his team can reach those levels on a consistent basis, and do so against the bigger teams.

The answer to that question is where Bojan comes in. That he, a talent unfulfilled but a talent nonetheless, could actually fit into a Stoke City team is testament to the job Hughes has done. The 23-year-old’s freedom of movement and unpredictability can add an entirely new dimension to Stoke’s game, and he has shown enough in pre-season to suggest that he could be a revolution playing off of a main striker.

Joining Bojan as new recruits are Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell and Mame Biram Diouf. All arrived on free transfers, and they will add Premier League experience, depth and, in Diouf’s case, increased mobility in the central striking position.

All are excellent signings, and are further evidence of the good work Hughes is doing. He may have been initially misguided when claiming that people wanted to see him do well, but they do now; with Hughes at the helm, Stoke are well equipped to become one of the most watchable teams in the Premier League this season.

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