Sparked Back Into Life
Stoke City are in a glorious place right now: sitting comfortably in the top half of the Premier League and agonisingly close to some of England’s top football clubs. They’re capable of scoring terrific goals, assured in defence and winning games in a professional, yet entertaining, manner. Players are being rewarded for playing impressively, however team performances haven’t dipped when fringe players have been introduced due to injury, suspension or as a reward for their patience. The club has found multiple ways of changing up its play style and a clearer long-term plan seems to be in place in order to help the club grow and achieve. Putting it simply: Mark Hughes hasn’t had the credit he’s deserved over the last couple of months.
Stoke had a horrific start to the season: earning just one point from fifteen, conceding goals left, right and centre and looked uninspiring and inept. However, the win against Burnley last weekend means that Mark Hughes’ Stoke City have only lost once in their last nine Premier League games, picking up all five of their wins during that period. During this time, they have conceded just five goals and scored thirteen. This remarkable run of form means that Stoke have nineteen points and sit comfortably in ninth position, just two points away from Manchester United in sixth place. Before this run, the Stoke manager had a proportion of fans calling for his head and understandably so with the club looking doomed to a relegation battle – for a short time after the embarrassing Crystal Palace game, I was one of them. However, if we look at the two periods in isolation, the last nine games have resulted in Stoke being one of the most in form teams in Europe (spread across a season, that’s title winning form). It could be argued that Stoke should be winning against the kinds of opposition they have been facing recently; although don’t forget that Stoke have come unstuck many a time against similar opponents in recent years. Mark Hughes should be as highly praised right now as heavily scrutinised he was months ago.
Part of his and Stoke’s success has come courtesy of some stellar performances at the back from the most unlikely of sources, namely Hughes’ newest recruits. Lee Grant was brought to the Potteries solely to cover for the relapse of Jack Butland’s injury. He was playing second fiddle to 40 year old Shay Given, who had conceded fourteen goals in his five games in between the sticks with zero clean sheets. Derby’s backup goalkeeper was then bravely deployed by Hughes for his first taste of Premier League football at the age of 33 and since has performed spectacularly: conceding just five goals, earning four clean sheets (therefore not conceding more than one goal a game) and has pulled off some outstanding and, dare I say it, Butland-esque saves. You can’t lose when you don’t concede and he’s saved us time and time again. The same goes for Bruno Martins Indi, being a vital part of the Stoke City backline and has adapted to new-centre defensive partnerships wonderfully whilst keeping up a ridiculously high performance level for a Premier League newcomer. He’s been Stoke’s man of the match multiple times and credit must go to Hughes again for making the bold decision of bringing in Bruno as a replacement for the opinion dividing Philipp Wollscheid. Even players such as Phil Bardsley and Erik Pieters, who have both suffered from poor form in previous months, have been integral parts of keeping the ball out of their goal and creating chances of their own.
Speaking of chances, Mark Hughes has had Stoke create them in abundance and has brought the very best out of certain members of his attacking threats. A prime example is Joe Allen: brought in as a box-to-box midfielder, Hughes saw fit to install the Welshman as his ‘number 10’ and his intuition was rewarded with a rather remarkable flurry of goals (four goals in three matches). The pressing from the front and the deadly killer instinct of Wee Joe have brought teams to their knees in surprise and kickstarted the wonderful run of form his side have been experiencing. Hughes has also added consistency to Xherdan Shaqiri’s game, the Swiss international had been accused of performing on an on-and-off basis for his new club, partly due to his recurring injuries. Yet in the latest run of fixtures, the former club record signing has been on fire: scoring two beautiful goals against Hull City, creating countless chances and dazzling many a fullback – none more so than the outrageous flip-flap that sent Roberto Pereyra into the stands for a pint. It’s the freedom from his right wing shackles that’s been the secret to his success and resulting happiness and it’s the gradual release he’s received from his manager that’s assisted him greatly in that. Furthermore, players such as Marko Arnautovic are still able to reclaim the form, if not the goals, everyone involved benefitted from last season and continue to get lift bums off bet365 Stadium seats.
His player management has also been first class. High fliers have, quite rightly kept their place in the team; however, those out of form have been rested and the lads on the fringes have been blooded back into the side. With multiple injuries in central midfield and the lack of form of Bojan, Charlie Adam was given his chance to stake his claim despite not initially appearing to possess the skills of a box-to-box midfielder. He’s not been the most consistent game-to-game but he has been an ever-present figure in this in form team. Marc Muniesa, a player starved of first team football, has been given his chance also and has grasped it with both hands. Clean sheets in both of his games and a rocket of a volley against Burnley are just a couple of example of the the fruits of Hughes’ selection process. But perhaps the person who has benefitted the most from Sparky’s management has been Giannelli Imbula: a poor performer at the start of the season and exiled from the squad for a number of games following that period, being told to sit and absorb the Premier League form a distance. The French midfielder has come back in and bossed the centre of Stoke’s park with some beautifully controlled play whilst remaining disciplined and intelligent. Certainly, Hughes’ methods of keeping his players motivated and prepared for whenever they are needed certainly work and are paid back with some wonderful efforts from those who are patient. He’s even managed to find space for a couple of youngsters, such as Julien Ngoy and Thibaud Verlinden, on his bench when more experienced heads may have been preferred.
Perhaps it was Mark Hughes’ long term ambition that’s been criticised the most at his lowest point this season: the desire for European football was there for all to see but the methods of achieving this were not clear and the feasibility of such an accomplishment even more obscure. His substitutions slated, his tactics torn apart, his transfer strategy condemned and his vision for the future plunged into doubt. Despite this, during the most recent of games, it appears his philosophy is clicking into place. The introduction of the Antonio Conte style 3-4-3 has been deployed in the last two matches with three mobile centre halves, two semi-aggressive fullbacks, a hard-working yet silky midfield duo and a dynamic attacking trident spearheading the side. Perhaps his explains why Hughes has been trying to recruit an abundance of box-to-box midfielders when specialists seemed more appropriate, why the formation tested due to a thin squad during pre-season and why Stoke suffered such a bad start to the season. He’s trying to adapt to an increasingly more popular footballing framework and, with the key players performing, could become the force to be reckoned with that the club have hinted to evolve into time and time again. On the other hand, this last point could be complete trash and it’s another temporary solution to a persistent, squad-wide injury problem. I guess we’ll just have to wait to find out.
So, there are my reasons why I think Mark Hughes has more than redeemed himself for the less than impressive start to the season, why he’s the effective manager our fans crave and why he deserves more time to develop our football club into the monster that it promises to be. No, it’s not perfect, he’s not perfect, but let’s be honest right now he’s doing as good a job as we’d wished for and he should be spoken in the highest regard across all Stoke fans at this point in time. He’s getting results, he’s keeping players happy on and off the pitch and he’s making us look good while he’s doing it. One special mention should go out to one of the best football club owners in the United Kingdom: Mr Peter Coates. He’s as big a Stoke fan as any of us and, with a little less experience, trust or passion for our football club, Mark Hughes would have been out the door before he could finish a chorus of Delilah. He gave the captain his chance to steer away away from the iceberg and into the calm seas; by chance, he may have just landed ourselves an oasis.
All hail King Sparky, and long my he reign.
Written by Ben Rowley
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