Mark Hughes was maybe not every Stoke fan’s first choice as their new manager, but the Welshman is looking to develop the Britannia Stadium side into a more-rounded team.
Succeeding Tony Pulis, who in his second stint at the club had led Stoke to Premier League stability over the course of seven years at the helm, was never going to be an easy job. The first thing that the new man would have to decide on was the style of play he would adopt and whether it would be a continuation of Pulis’ direct approach.
Stoke became a prickly Premier League customer, especially at the Britannia, under Pulis. Rory Delap’s customary long throws, a multitude of burly forwards with an aerial threat and set-piece prowess ensured that no opponent was given an easy 90 minutes.
However, despite the personnel changing, the tactics largely didn’t and top-drawer Premier League opponents started to develop ways to counteract Stoke’s approach. This resulted in a downturn in form and with no Plan B, Pulis’ time at the club was done. The Premier League is unforgiving and to remain competitive evolution is necessary.
Mark Hughes has decided to abandon the direct style that the club has become renowned with and is imploring his players to get the ball down and play. The switch to the popular 4-2-3-1 formation has been adopted and early in the campaign there were surefire positive signs.
After winning two of their first four games and also drawing with Manchester City, the last three Premier League outings for the new-look Stoke have been nothing to write home about. Three defeats have followed and it is evident that the newfound methods that Hughes is trying to install will take time to master.
The former Fulham manager has one main problem in turning Stoke from a direct side into a passing one. The players are not accustomed to playing the ball on the deck for the majority of the game and a fair share lack the technical nous to do so.
A lot of the Stoke players have been at the club for a number of seasons, and have become accustomed to their own method of attack. Changing this will take some time, as the first reaction to get the ball forward is still in their heads but frowned upon by their new manager.
Yes, Hughes has brought in the likes of Erik Pieters, Stephen Ireland and Marko Arnautović who are all technically able. However he has problems in deep-lying areas as some of his players are not overly confident with the ball on the deck.
To play the football that Hughes desires of his team you need centre-halves who are able to pick out a pass and find a team-mate under pressure and in a dangerous area. You need central midfielders who are not there solely to break up play but to create. At the moment, it remains to be seen whether Stoke have the personnel to play Hughes’ game plan at Premier League level.
Hughes’ ideals are admirable and if he is given time and investment there is no reason why they cannot be successful. However, in the meantime the evolution may well hit a few road bumps and cause frustration along the way.