During last summer’s managerial merry-go-round, Mark Hughes’ arrival at Stoke City went relatively unnoticed. Ferguson, Mourinho and Pellegrini may have grabbed the headlines, but the change at Stoke was the bravest. Stability was sacrificed for an attempt to alter the style of play. Was it the right decision?
Of course, the answer will be revealed at the end of the season. If Stoke are relegated, criticism will be hurled at the board and the manager. But I feel that Premier League survival would mean a successful start to Mark Hughes’ tenure. Stoke certainly play a different brand of football now. They pass the ball along the ground far more, seem to have more attacking options and are better equipped at matching teams for possession. Furthermore, players like Arnautovic and Assaidi have brought an attacking flair to the side that it has been lacking since the departure of Ricardo Fuller. They are exciting players to watch, and when in form, can be a real threat to the opposition. Just ask Chelsea.
However, a big problem area has been the defence. Stoke have almost conceded as many goals as they did during last season’s entire campaign, with another eleven games still to be played. Perhaps it is this new attacking flair that is leaving the defence over-exposed. Having said this, keeping Manchester City out for so long last weekend, and with ease, shows that the organisation and determination implemented by Tony Pulis is still there.
Their former manager deserves huge credit. Not just for the phenomenal job that he did at the club, but also for leaving Mark Hughes something to work with and build upon. Hughes has carried on Pulis’ tradition of making the Britannia Stadium a very difficult place to come, especially for the top teams, with wins against Manchester United and Chelsea. But arguably the biggest game for Stoke is this weekend’s match against Arsenal. Their previous visits to the Potteries have made this fixture a classic in its own right: a very hostile atmosphere pitting Arsenal’s fluid, beautiful football against a robust, Stoke City unit.
Success will ultimately be determined by the club’s league position come May. But equally important for a Stoke manager is pleasing the Britannia. And there are few sights more enjoyable for a Stoke fan than an irate Arsene Wenger, bemoaning some decision or other, as Delilah is roared from the terraces.