When Tony Pulis was let go as manager after five years of the club punching above their weight/budget in the Premier League but doing so in a fairly brutal and unentertaining way, it was a surprise that the club decided to go with Mark Hughes as the replacement. Hughes has never been confused with Arsene Wenger or Pep Guardiola when it comes to preferred style of play. Maybe the idea was that Hughes will serve as a gateway manager from Pulis’ ultra-physical style to a more pleasing one by incorporating elements of physicality will adding at least some flair. Maybe they just have a deal with the Welsh labor commission to maintain a certain number of Welsh in their employ and subbing one Welshman in for another was the only way to keep their bargain.
Whatever the reason for the change, it worked as Stoke City recorded their first-ever top half of the Premier League finish after finishing consistently at the top of the bottom half under Pulis (12th, 11th, 13th, 14th, and 13th in 5 Premier League seasons). Whether the club’s finances or the new manager are capable of rising any higher remains to be seen but the competition and the stakes get much higher as they start approaching clubs that spend significantly more on wages than the £53Million that Stoke City spent in 2013-14. Whether they can even be expected to finish 9th again with most of the league’s returning clubs outspending them remains to be seen.
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Predicted Finish: Stoke City were widely predicted to finish at or around 14th or toward the bottom of their typical range under Pulis. They did much better than that, didn't they?
Quick Review: Honestly, there was only a little slippage from Stoke’s typical tight defense that characterized the Tony Pulis years. The club conceded 52 goals in Hughes’ first season compared to an average of 48.5 over Pulis’ last 4 seasons. Where Hughes made a difference was on the attacking end where Stoke City improved from an average of 37.5 goals/season over Pulis’ past four seasons to 45 under Hughes. While 7 or 8 goals may not seem like a ton to Chelsea or Manchester City, when you’re in the middle of the table moving your attack from rotten to at least adequate while maintaining a strong defense is a big deal. Doing so while staying on a relatively tight wage bill is even more impressive.
Departures/Likely Departures: The only significant name, not to be confused with being a significant recent contributor, to be leaving the fold this off-season appears to be Matthew Etherington. Long a favorite value play for fantasy managers, age and injury have betrayed him and limited him to 11 Premier League appearances last term.
Needs: There is a lot of “solid” on the Stoke City roster but not a lot “wow” and usually mid-table teams that aspire to creep up toward the Europa Cup spots have at least one or two players who you could see breaking in to a bigger club (think Yohan Cabaye at Newcastle, Adam Lallana at Southampton, or Leighton Baines at Everton). Asmir Begovic is the closest thing that you could imagine to Stoke City having a Champions League caliber player but that is probably what is needed to ensure that things continue to progress. It probably doesn’t matter TOO much what position the player in question plays – the problem will be recruiting that sort of player to sign up for a steady diet of actual rainy Wednesday nights in Stoke.
Summer So Far: There are two potential approaches to the dilemma that Mark Hughes faces as the manager of a club with a limited budget in an unfashionable location. The Hull City/Steve Bruce approach of sticking to proven quantities with limited upsides like Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore, Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic in the transfer market and knowing that you’ll be buying a very high probability of staying up but a very low probability of being a huge surprise package. The alternative model is the Newcastle/Alan Pardew model of buying a lot of foreigners that could have big upsides but could just as easily flame out. This strategy can see you achieve greater heights if there is a Yohan Cabaye for every Hatem Ben Afra and a Mathieu Debuchy for every Sylvain Marveaux. The downside is that if you miss on too many, or they get plucked away by bigger clubs then you risk relegation as Newcastle’s second half form last season demonstrated.
Mark Hughes seems to be employing a bit of a hybrid of the two approaches as he looks to move Stoke City forward. In Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell, he has gone with two veteran Premier League performers that are highly unlikely to surprise with their performances for the Potters either to the good or bad next season. In Bojan Krkic and Mame Biram Diouf he is taking some risk on unproven quantities in the Premier League but both bring that potential to be a Yohan Cabaye-esque home run acquisition.
Bojan Krkic - Bojan was once tipped to be the next transcendent attacker off of La Masia production line at Barcelona. His career has stalled and it feels like he’s been around forever but he’s still only 23-years-old and could just need a spot a little farther from the spotlights of Barcelona, Milan, Roma and Ajax where he can rack up minutes and find his form. He is certainly no guarantee but if he can find even half of what was predicted for him then the £3Million paid for him will look like nothing.
Mame Biram Diouf - Diouf is definitely less of a longshot than Bojan. After failing to break in to the first team at Manchester United, the forward found his stride over the past two and a half seasons at Hannover in the Bundesliga. He scored at a rate of a goal every other game in the competitive and physical German top flight and is in his prime at 26-years-old. That he was available on a free after his Hannover contract expired makes one wonder why there weren’t more suitors for his services. Regardless of the circumstances, the combination of Diouf and Bojan have the potential to help Stoke City take a significant leap forward over a summer where they have experienced no significant losses either. It has been a very strong summer so far with a month still to run that could bring more reinforcements.
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