Premier League 2014-15 preview No15: Stoke City
If Mark Hughes gets the best out of talented players such as Arnautovic and Bojan, Stoke can finish best of the rest
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 8th (NB: this is not necessarily Daniel Harris’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 9th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 3,000-1
Football managers have different strengths. Mick McCarthy knows about winning promotion to the Premier League, Tony Pulis is great at keeping teams there, Alex Ferguson is a motivational genius and Carlo Ancelotti makes people feel all gooey inside.
But these skills, though transferable, do not guarantee success, because, like everything else, football management is affected by circumstance, and things do not always fit. So, though Mark Hughes has not excelled at every club he has led, it does not mean that he is bad at his job.
He began by improving Wales, then left for Blackburn, where astute acquisitions and organisation earned sixth place, an FA Cup semi-final, and European football. This persuaded Manchester City to appoint him after sacking Sven-Goran Eriksson, and though he too was sacked 18 months later after frittering money and goodwill in dubious fashion, his contribution endures; it was Hughes who recruited Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany, easily the smartest purchases made by City since their windfall.
He then did well at Fulham, where conditions were similar to those in which he’d succeeded previously: defined by limited funds and expectations. Adapting and improving what he had, and again, augmenting it with suitable signings, he built a team in his own image, of toughness and flair – but when he was passed over for the vacant position at Aston Villa, resigned anyway, in indignation and mean spirit. He was still too good for Craven Cottage! How dare everyone!
Six months later, Hughes took over from Neil Warnock at struggling QPR, doing just enough to keep them in the Premier League, for which he was rewarded with a generous transfer kitty. With this, he constructed a quite tremendous mess at a spectacular pace. The expensive arrival of players with whom he shared an agent was peculiar, but nowhere near as peculiar as his inability to extract even the remotest contribution – from them or anyone else. By the last week of November, he was again unemployed, and suddenly something of a joke.
As such, when Peter Coates brought him to Stoke, the locals failed to experience uniform mirth. Tony Pulis was not only successful, but popular, so, once it was decided that he would not inspire the desired improvement, a bloke who, in his last job, won no times in 12 games, was not exactly what was expected.
But it was not a simple matter of recent failure that counted against him. Rather like Steve Bruce, Hughes suffered in the first instance from the pressure of narrative: wouldn’t it be cute if all those managers who played under Alex Ferguson were rubbish? This is despite the fact that most have done well here and badly there, Bryan Robson, Alex McLeish, Gordon Strachan, Roy Keane and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all enjoying notable moments.
And, in the second instance, Hughes – again, like Bruce – suffered, on account of his media image. Where Bruce was presented as something of a doofus, despite being nothing of a doofus, despite appearing something of a doofus, Hughes is not so much charmless as charmophobic, paranoia lurking where joy usually blooms. Lacking the definitive achievements to temper this persona, his reputation as a man overrode his record as a manager.
At the Britannia, though, burdened by expectation but without the scope for ego to intervene, he has been superb. Though there were bad periods, these were inevitable given the team he was left and mission to remodel it. Most significantly, Stoke improved through the season, their run of seven wins from the final 11 games catalysed by swapping Kenwyne Jones, disruptive influence, for Peter Odemwingie, proven goalscorer – a ludicrous hustle.
The move was crucial in the development of a quicker, more aesthetic style that helped Stoke to wins over both Manchester United and Arsenal. Though of course, after their most convincing result of the season, a 4-1 evisceration of Aston Villa, rather than luxuriate in his team’s brilliance, Hughes chose instead, and again, to lament the appalling nature of his lot. It no longer mattered.
So, the question now is how things proceed, because Hughes is not the consolidating type, and his summer business underlines that. But Stokies have seen this before. In the summer of 2009, Tony Pulis signed Tuncay Sanli and Eidur Gudjohnsen, touch players of undefined position. This seemed to mark a departure from the two banks of four, one big man, one big man pro forma that served him so well, indicating an intended assault on mid-table. But, within weeks, it was evident that Pulis either did not want or did not know how to use them; Gudjohnsen made just four appearances for the club, and though Tuncay accumulated 44, he did not start a league fixture until December.
Hughes, though, has already begun the process of footballer integration, most particularly with Marko Arnautovic. A player of undoubted talent, the managerial challenge is not in proving it but in harnessing it, developing and refining him into something more substantial than mercurial. The history of football is replete with players capable of brilliance, who were not brilliant - Rodney Marsh, Mark Walters, Dalian Atkinson and Lee Trundle, for example.
What Arnautovic must learn is how to be brilliant more often, but even more than that, how to be useful the rest of the time – not simply by running around, but in contributing the goals and assists that decide games. His league tally last season, of four and seven respectively, was reasonable for a first go, but only two of those goals were from open play; he should aim for double figures this time around.
And of one thing you can be sure: Hughes will not let him coast. David Bentley, another player of interesting ability and questionable application, was pleased to be shot of his hectoring ways when he joined Spurs – until Harry Redknapp’s laissez-faire approach underlined exactly what he was missing.
Then, of course, there’s Bojan, probably the summer’s most interesting signing. Quite where he will fit in is unclear, though Hughes must resist the temptation to accommodate him in a wide position, as is often the case with slight touch players. In pre-season, he has played across the front line, but, with Odemwingie to return on the right and Arnautovic a fixture on the left, chances are that he’ll play in his optimal position behind a striker – likely to be Mame Diouf. This will give Stoke an attack of invention, imagination, speed and flexibility.
Fortified with the confidence that comes from a solid and stable back-five, Stoke will look to play principally on the counter-attack. But they must assume that teams will be wiser and warier than was the case last season, and their ability to dictate games against opponents not able or not minded to dominate them remains to be seen. In midfield, Hughes will perm two from Steven Nzonzi, Glen Whelan and Steve Sidwell, but if he’s feeling brave, or if the opposition are feeling cowardly, can insert the guile of Stephen Ireland and Charlie Adam or the pace of Brek Shea and whichever other winger arrives.
Looking at the various Premier League squads, it seems fairly clear which of them will occupy the top seven positions come the end of the season. But there is no reason at all why Stoke cannot finish ahead of the rest, and even if they do not, watching them should be fascinating and exciting. Supporters can ask for no more, and for Hughes, there can be no higher praise.
By Daniel Harris for the Guardian