Mark Hughes was officially appointed as the new Stoke City manager on 30th May 2013 following the sacking of Tony Pulis and I must admit my first thoughts were “thank God”. I’d like to make it quite clear that this was in no way a slur against Stoke, their chairman Peter Coates, their fans or Hughes himself; this was because of who they had been linked with. For a long time the man Stoke were rumoured to be close to appointing was the ex-Wigan now Everton boss Roberto Martinez. I’m not saying Martinez is too good for Stoke but in my opinion the two just were so incompatible that I was glad they avoided each other.
I understand that Stoke City want a change of style which is why they sacked Pulis. I have a good deal of respect for Pulis because I think he did a great job at Stoke and he has done well to establish them as a Premier League side. His methods were of course open to scrutiny but then most managers’ methods are unless they can bring regular success. Even the great Jose Mourinho has his critics for the way he prioritises winning over beautiful football. As a Chelsea fan I can appreciate the football that a team like Arsenal play but would I trade their style for our substance? Not a chance. Pulis got Stoke up to the Premier League in his own way but I think the decision to move on was right, it was probably as far as Pulis could take Stoke.
Now Mark “Sparky” Hughes is in charge and I suspect many Stoke fans will be anticipating a change in style, away from their accustomary long ball game. This was probably confirmed by Hughes’ early transfer market activity. First he released a number of players including Rory Delap and Mamady Sidibe, two key features of the early long-ball/long-throw period in Pulis’ management. He has also signed two new defenders, Erik Pieters from PSV and former Barcelona man Marc Muniesa. Both would seem to represent a significant change in style of play with both players being extremely comfortable on the ball especially given they are defenders.
Hughes was a great player but sometimes I wonder if people have overhyped him a little bit as a manager. There is no denying he did a wonderful job at Blackburn Rovers but since then I would probably classify him as a failure really. At Manchester City he was given a huge transfer budget but of all the money he spent and all the players he brought in I’d argue that only Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany have had a noticeable impact on the club. He signed plenty of other decent players but they are all now gone or on the fringes of the team. His Barcelona contacts clearly helped with the signing of Muniesa and perhaps he will be wiser in the transfer market now.
Having said that if you look at his dealings at other clubs and take those into account with his transfers at Manchester City he probably couldn’t do any worse. Admittedly he was responsible for bringing Moussa Dembélé to England when he was at Fulham and his signings were fairly low key during his spell at Craven Cottage. Not that we needed to worry because once he was back in management at QPR he was back to his best. The thing that puzzled me most about Hughes’ move to QPR was that when he left Fulham he claimed he needed to leave for his career, saying he deserved bigger things. That was in June 2011 and by January 2012 he had clearly realised no-one was interested in him so he went to QPR, that’s some step up…
At QPR he made a serious of spectacularly unsuccessful signings including Rob Green, Jose Bosingwa, Andy Johnson and Stephane Mbia. Yes he brought Esteban Granero and Julio Cesar to the club but that was more Tony Fernandes’ money rather than Hughes’ persuasion techniques. Hughes certainly has a fairly scattergun approach to signings. He seems to operate under the policy that if he makes enough signings he’s bound to get a few right.
So Stoke fans, beware of Hughes in the transfer market but how will he impact the club’s playing style? To get a better idea I have decided to look at three seasons and compare them to Stoke’s figures from last season. I have chosen his spell at Manchester City between 2008/09, his spell at Fulham between 2010/11 and the season that QPR spent in the Premier League 2011/12. In the last season he was actually only in charge for half of the season after being appointed in January and that is something that will be important to remember.
First let’s look at discipline and interestingly two out of Hughes’ three seasons have better records than Stoke’s last season. The reason this is interesting is because at Blackburn Hughes’ team garnered a reputation for being extremely dirty and they finished bottom of the fair play table in all of his full seasons in charge. At Manchester City there were 49 yellow cards and four red cards, at Fulham 52 yellow cards and one red and at QPR 54 yellow cards and NINE red cards, yes nine. Obviously he has something of a problem with players at his club and discipline but weirdly his team at Fulham qualified for the Europa League via the Fair Play League. Last season at Stoke there were 78 yellow cards and four reds. Both manager and club seem to have a problem but Hughes should hopefully be able to lower the yellow card count (he’s helped it a bit already by releasing chief offender Dean Whitehead).
Now for some passing statistics and this is extremely interesting. In Hughes’ three seasons he averaged a total of 2,145.67 long balls per season. By comparison last season Stoke only played 1,989 long balls. We don’t have data on what percentage of passes were played in the final third for the season at Manchester City but at QPR and Fulham the percentages are both lower than Stoke’s last season. However in terms of total passes played in the attacking half of the pitch all three of Hughes’ seasons are higher than Stoke’s. It is hard to read into these statistics but it could be argued that Stoke aren’t necessarily gaining an upgrade on Tony Pulis.
One of the biggest features of Pulis’ side was his preference to play with two out and out wingers and to get crosses into a big target man. Last season Stoke played 857 crosses and although Hughes’ season with Fulham was higher (866) his time with QPR (796) and Manchester City (690) saw far fewer crosses. Obviously you have to adjust your game depending on what you are given and after seeing Hughes re-sign Jermaine Pennant after releasing him I would presume that wingers are going to be a part of his tactics.
Goals were something Stoke struggled for last season, in fact only relegated QPR scored fewer goals than The Potters last season. They managed 34 in all last season not including own goals and Hughes’ sides all comfortably out-scored that figure with Manchester City (58) leading the way. Of course goals can only be scored if the chances are created and last season Stoke only created 281 chances. QPR, probably Hughes’ weakest side of the three created 395 whilst Fulham and Manchester City both broke the 400 barrier.
On the face of it I’d have to say that Mark Hughes does represent sensible business from Peter Coates. The former Manchester United player will hopefully bring a more attacking style to Stoke and whilst it may not be a drastic style shift it should be more exciting to watch. Under Tony Pulis my biggest criticism of Stoke was that they were probably one of the more boring teams to watch in the Premier League. I’m not saying that Hughes’ sides were Barcelona-esque but I reckon he’ll make Stoke a bit better to watch. I’m reserving judgement on this appointment at the moment because whilst it could turn out to be a good move I think Stoke should be extremely wary of Hughes turning out to be Tony Pulis 2.0.
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