There is nothing quite so miserable as when someone you have always known to be rubbish suddenly become ace. It’s like when school chubster, who used to spend around £20 a week just on cheesy Wotsits, now looks like he could punch a hole in your house with his abs.
Dusting the cheese dust off their rippling torso in the football world is Stoke City. Under Tony Pulis, though never especially troubled by relegation, Stoke became a byword for the kind of hoofing, grinding football that makes Arsene Wenger want to be sick all over his ProZone.
— Sphera Sports ® (@SpheraSports) June 29, 2015
Yes, they were a small club finding a very legitimate way to win, but the rest of football still glared smugly down at them like the Daily Mail looking at a famous woman in her swimsuit. And then, just as we were all entirely comfortable with lumpy, humpy Stoke they had the audacity to become good. The sh*ts.
A Mark-ed Improvement
Ok, so the transformation Mark Hughes has sparked at Stoke hasn’t been quite as, er, transformational as we’re often led to believe. Despite a lethargic final season, Tony Pulis had laid the foundations for a team that only John Carver or a kiwi fruit could relegate. Nevertheless, Hughes arrived in 2013 and began the process of taking the team forward and their reputation upwards. And of course Hughes himself arrived with a reputation that was ever so slightly caked in sick and wee. On reflection though, making an utter balls-up of managing QPR is far easier than perhaps we gave him credit for.
In Hughes’ first season in charge he took Stoke to a respectable 9th place, with 13 wins and 50 points. Last season he followed up with an incremental improvement – 9th place again, but this time with 15 wins and 54 points.
But rather than a stitch-inducing charge up the table, Hughes’ achievements have been more quietly and substantially remarkable. The style of play is undoubtedly more varied, although there is still a place for thudding the ball up-field or chewing away at an opponents shins, thighs, spine and eyelids. (Even as ‘new look’ Stoke, they committed the second most fouls in the league last season.)
What is propelling this steady revolution is a squad of players becoming increasingly more balanced and reliable. While Peter Crouch and Jon Walters accounted for 16 rather ‘Old Stoke’ Premier League goals, the likes of Mame Biram Diouf took a different approach to plucking 11 goals of his own. Even Charlie Adam – a tenaciously refined midfielder trapped in the body of a retired bin man – claimed 7 goals in the league.
And the same is true across the pitch – players doing their bit, parts adding up to more than the whole. Marko Arnautović created chances at a steady rate, Steven N’Zonzi was muscular presence in midfield, Ryan Shawcross provided authority and intelligence at the back. Even tiny Bojan – at first glance, easily the most unlikely-to-succeed transfer of a summer that also saw someone pay actual proper money for Mario Balotelli – looked imaginative, aggressive and, probably most surprising, fully on board.
Signings Of Things To Come
Now Hughes has the tricky challenge of taking the club forward, even if just by a few more inches. And Stoke’s transfer business has so far been like hiring Raheem Sterling to make balloon animals at your child’s birthday party – a series of highs and lows.
Losing Asmir Begovic to the Chelsea bench is disappointing, but if England Under-21 keeper Jack Butland isn’t ready to step up now people might start to suspect he is actually Steve Harper wearing the peeled skin of a gangly young man. Also Marco van Ginkel, who arrives on loan in exchange for Begovic, has all the potential to become an outstanding defensive shield – and not one from the Lee Cattermole School of Shouting and Slide Tackles.
Hughes has also added quick and beefy Spanish forward Joselu (who was virtually unbeatable in the air in the Bundesliga last season) as well as Liverpool’s Glen Johnson (who can’t possibly have become so bad as we all think he has).
Perhaps though, it was the audacious £12 million bid for stocky Swiss seat-moistener Xherdan Shaqiri that best outlines Stoke’s ambitions. Ok, so we can probably assume Shaqiri doesn’t in any way fancy, to paraphrase the popular saying, a lot of cold and windy nights at Stoke.
— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) July 10, 2015
But to pursue such a lofty target points to a club that would absolutely not now sign Peter Odemwingie, Kenwyne Jones or some grotesque hybrid of both – Kenter Jondemwingie.
Yes, annoying as it may be, it looks like we’re all going to have to find another club to complacently patronise from now on.
Oh, hello there West Brom.