In a summer filled with managerial switches at big clubs, Stoke City’s decision to replace Tony Pulis with Mark Hughes offered arguably the most dramatic change in any one team’s playing style. Upon his hire, Hughes remarked, “It’s not a case of wiping away all the hard work that’s been put in place over previous seasons. That would be crazy. But I would like to think I can make them a bit more offensive and maybe that’s where the club hasn’t helped itself in the past by not scoring goals.” A tremendously diplomatic way of acknowledging Stoke chairman Peter Coates’s desire to move beyond Pulis’s (in)famous direct and physical approach.
So far this summer, Stoke have only permanently acquired former Barcelona center back Marc Muniesa and Dutch left back Erik Pieters, although Liverpool winger Oussama Assaidi has joined on loan and American striker Juan Agudelo is due to join on a free transfer in January. With incomings limited, Hughes has had to try and make good on his promise of more positive football without making a major overhaul to the playing staff constructed over the course of seven years by Pulis. Despite having only played two Premier League fixtures, there is already tangible evidence to suggest that Mark Hughes’s methods are being absorbed by his new charges.
Under Pulis’s direct approach, the squad was tasked with launching the ball forward as quickly as possible to the Potters’ collection of physically imposing target men. In by-passing the midfield zone, Stoke gave the opposition very few chances to counter into space and get a clear look at goal. Consequently, it also led to an inefficient passing game and few chances from open play for Stoke itself. The most apparent change under Hughes has been a demonstrably more patient and lateral passing game.
As seen above, Hughes has emphasized playing the ball side-to-side as opposed to immediately hopping on Route One. The roughly seven and a half percent decrease in forward passes has been approximately mirrored in an increase in lateral passing, seeing the squad’s pass completion percentage rise by nine percent. Two players at the core of this transition are midfielders Steven N’Zonzi and Marc Wilson, both more well-known for a solid defensive presence in the middle of the park than a cultured passing game.
N’Zonzi’s passing directions are not wholly radical from last year, with simply more emphasis on passes to the left flank than right. But what has been different is a five percent rise in his pass completion percentage and a dramatically different rate of creating chances: every 45 minutes this year compared to every 207 last. Whether or not he is able to sustain this rate, we will soon find out.
While N’Zonzi has tapped into his creative side, his versatile comrade Wilson is a different player entirely. After playing a stunning 61% of his passes forward in 2012-2013 as a full back, Wilson now sends just 26% of his passes upfield as a member of the midfield unit. The results have seen his pass completion rate jump from 61% to 89% and a 30% jump in his pass completion rates in both the attacking zone and final third. Though not quite at N’Zonzi’s rate of every 45 minutes, Wilson is now creating chances once per match, instead of once every 166 minutes.
An increased completion percentage doesn’t mean much unto itself, but, as we saw with N’Zonzi and Wilson, that rise has also seen a significant increase in Stoke’s chance creation numbers. With essentially identical personnel, Mark Hughes has Stoke creating a chance every nine minutes as opposed to every 13 and a clear-cut chance every 63 minutes — almost twice the rate of last year’s 120. The squad is putting a shot on target every 17 minutes, much quicker than 2012-2013’s 32 and is at a robust 50% shooting accuracy.
The issue for Mark Hughes at this point is whether his forwards are of sufficient quality to make a more possession based approach worthwhile. The former Manchester City and QPR boss has done an admirable job in breaking his squad’s deeply ingrained direct approach, but if his strikers don’t convert their chances, it will all be for naught. His new approach has had a positive effect in possession, but has also seen a defensive error committed every 63 minutes compared to last year’s rate of once every 164 minutes. A more efficient conversion rate from the likes of Jonathan Walters, Peter Crouch, and Kenwyne Jones will be required for Mark Hughes’s style to pay dividends. Otherwise, Peter Coates and Stoke supporters may find themselves yearning for the simple and secure days under Pulis.