[dropcap]S[/dropcap]toke City’s image as a direct and physical side has been revolutionised over the last 18 months by manager Mark Hughes, who has added brains to the existing brawn at the Britannia Stadium.
In recent weeks the Potters have shown just how good they can be on their day, beating and outplaying both Manchester sides and Chelsea at home and going to a dangerous Everton outfit to win 4-3.
Much of this renaissance in the Potteries is down to the higher calibre of footballer that Stoke can now call upon in their forward line.
The headlines are commonly dominated by the irrepressible Bojan Krkić and scintillating summer addition Xherdan Shaqiri – and rightly so.
The Catalan attacker has shown just why he was being likened to Lionel Messi in his younger days at Camp Nou, with his range of passing, immaculate first touch and vision a joy to behold.
Shaqiri is clearly thriving in England due to being given a chance to play week-in, week-out; something that was never forthcoming at Bayern Munich or Inter.
Along with Ibrahim Afellay, Stoke possess players of real footballing intelligence and when they link-up the Potters have the ability to prise open any defence in the Premier League.
However, the attacking unit is completed by Marko Arnautović’s power, aggression and technique, with the Austrian every bit as important as Bojan or Shaqiri.
The 26-year-old’s footballing ability has never been in doubt, with the versatile forward showing in his time at Twente and Werder Bremen that when in the mood he can be a devastating attacking weapon.
Despite this, disciplinary issues and a questionable attitude have seen Arnautović pegged as something of a troublemaker and a prickly customer.
José Mourinho famously stated that the Austria international had the mentality of a child after coaching him during a loan stint at Inter, while controversy has followed Arnautović throughout his career.
That said, since arriving in England the powerhouse forward has let his feet do the talking and looks at home at the Britannia Stadium.
The 26-year-old is also a figurehead of an up-and-coming Austria national side that blitzed their Euro 2016 qualifying group and that will pose a difficult opponent in France next summer.
He has scored seven goals this season in the Premier League, including in all four of the afore-mentioned memorable victories, while offering up three assists.
In the most recent win over Everton, Arnautović’s threat was apparent from early in the match.
The 26-year-old started from the left flank but made his presence felt by coming off his wing and repeatedly getting ahead of false nine Bojan.
His runs allowed the mercurial Spaniard to drop deep to pick up possession, knowing that the Toffees defence would have an onrushing threat to deal with in the form of the Austrian.
Meanwhile, when Shaqiri had the ball on the right, Arnautović would tuck in and make clever runs across the face or in behind the Everton back four that gave the Swiss winger a target to play a killer pass to.
Fittingly, it was arguably John Stones’ worst performance of the season, with the England international struggling to come to terms with Stoke’s fluid attacking set-up and being repeatedly perplexed by Arnautović’s runs from deep.
It was the Austrian that won and dispatched the decisive penalty, regardless of the questionable nature of its award. Both Bojan and Shaqiri had been substituted by this point, showing Arnautović’s importance to his side.
Just how far Stoke can go this season remains to be seen, but there is no doubting just how good a job Hughes has done at the Britannia.
However, the individual abilities of the team’s attacking players must be largely accredited for the Potters’ rise, with Arnautović as dangerous and gifted a star as the much-lauded Bojan or Shaqiri.
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