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Don’t freak out, but Mark Hughes may be the new Wenger

Having spending a lot of time sniffing permanent markers, Andrew Boulton explains why Mark Hughes' transformation of Stoke resembles one by a certain Mr. Wenger

by Andrew Boulton | January 13, 2016

Football – like haircuts, internet dance crazes and whether or not it’s ok to like the Kaiser Chiefs – is subject to the thin and fickle finger of fashion. Which is why it’s utterly vital to know who you should be praising, or indeed comparing unfavourably to an unusual poo you once did while on powerful antibiotics.

And we’re eager to help make sure you’re never caught waggling about yesterday’s sad and wrinkled hype balloon. Accidentally mention to a football hipster that Scott Dann is a largely under-rated defender and expect them to spit £12 worth of Ukrainian breakfast cereal all over your ignorant face and brain.

That’s why, to avoid embarrassing yourself, all you need to remember is this: Mark Hughes = mid-90s Arsène Wenger. Got it?Don’t worry if you’ve just involuntarily evacuated your bowels in sheer fury, we can explain. 

The changes Hughes has introduced to Stoke City go far beyond basic questions of style and philosophy. Much more than simply banishing the Pulis mantra of ‘Kick Everything’ Hughes has helped to transform Stoke’s footballing soul. Where once stood a portrait of enormous brutes, gnawing on human skulls on an endlessly wet Tuesday night, there is now poetry and redemption.

It’s a situation not unlike the arrival of a certain gangling professor-type in 1996, when against a backdrop of media sniggering he transformed one of English football’s most brutally efficient teams into one of our most beautifully successful.

And where Hughes has offered second chances to vanishing European stars (albeit second chances that have been dipped in liquid money) Wenger too largely built his empire on wiping away the tears of players the big clubs had grown weary of.

Hugh Remind Me Of Someone

Hughes’ rescue of drifting talent like Bojan Krkić and Xherdan Shaqiri reads not unlike Wenger’s own sneaky raid on Thierry Henry’s glass case of Italian under-appreciation. And let’s not forget, Patrick Vieira was an AC Milan reserve while Robert Pirès, although in considerable demand when he joined Arsenal, was coming off the back of a bleak and rather tantrummy season with Marseille.

So, as we can plainly see, Mark Hughes is the new Arsène Wenger. Thanks for reading. The end.

Except, without wishing to smear hot mustard into your newly opened eyeballs, we may be getting just a little carried away.

Hughes has undeniably had a transformative effect on Stoke. But while Wenger’s impact in 96 was the sporting equivalent of reanimating a corpse, Hughes’ impact is, as yet, more akin to a ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ situation.

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Stoke, while moving in an admirable new direction, are undoubtedly doing it very erratically. Their new identity is so awash with contradictions, they’re effectively behaving like the teenage girl who desperately wants to be a goth but would literally sh*t herself to death if Ed Sheeran liked her tweet.

For example, in the last 10 games, Stoke have lost just twice – beating Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton and Manchester City along the way. In the same sequence they’ve also lost to Sunderland and – in about the most Star Warsy thing to have happened all season – also lost to Pulis’ dark and filthy West Brom.

And what about this great exchange of beefy shin-crackers for sensitive little geniuses? Admittedly, Bojan and Shaqiri have at times looked extraordinary, treating the Britannia Stadium to some of the greatest top flight football they’ve ever witnessed.

At the same time, those two players have contributed 7 goals and 4 assists in their collective 32 appearances. Shaqiri, the kind of attacking magician you could easily fit inside a Nutella jar, has actually scored less times in the league than Jon Walters – that rumpled, rumbling symbol of all things ‘Old Stoke’.

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In fact, Stoke’s attack is amongst the most tepid in the league – something Wenger, even in his lowest moments, has never allowed. Rather then, we must raise the cliché bazooka to our shoulder and fire out such lazy missiles as ‘tough’ and, indeed, ‘uncompromising’ as we herald instead their outstanding defence.

Jack Butland has been mature and occasionally heroic; Ryan Shawcross is a fine defensive leader and Eric Pieters tops the list of the division’s most prolific tacklers (a list, incidentally, that contains not a single Arsenal player in its top 30). Even Glen Johnson – a full-back many of us would not have swapped for a pouch of cat food – looks revitalised.

So, on reflection, perhaps we were a little hasty in anointing Sparky with a crown made from croissants and strong cheese. There are, undeniably, some parallels between the work the two men are doing – not least Hughes’ brave attempts at scrapping a template that’s kept Stoke in the world’s richest league for nearly a decade.

Potter not? Can Stoke show their progress with another eye-catching performance against Arsenal?

But, as we may well see when the two men face each other this Sunday (and precisely as we saw in the corresponding fixture last year) it is Stoke’s differences from Arsenal rather than their similarities that continue to be a challenge Wenger hasn’t fully puzzled out.

Anyway, instead of Hughes emerging as ‘The New Wenger’, there’s no reason we should not all be frothing at the mouth and groin about one of British football’s most technically gifted players finally finding a managerial identity that gets us excited.

And if that’s not a reason to stick on your Kaiser Chiefs’ cassette and do the Harlem Shake, I just don’t know what is.

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