Since their Premier League arrival in 2008 Stoke have built up a respected yet perhaps rather discerning stereotype of being a team the opposition does not want to face on a windy December afternoon or a rainy Tuesday night. The Potters under Tony Pulis built up a formidable reputation of making the most of set pieces, second balls and being big, physical and in general not a nice team to play nor watch.
Those days are now long gone and this Stoke team which has been inside it’s hardened cocoon for so long has evolved into a beautiful, and on this occasion ruthless, butterfly.
Mark Hughes along with chairman Peter Coates have worked hard and brought in several flair players in attack while still managing to remain loyal to the foundations and system that got them to, and kept them in, the Premier League.
Hughes has overseen the attacking additions of: Bojan, Ibrahim Affellay, Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri. It was this attacking quartet that caused Manuel Pellegrini’s City no end of problems as they shocked the title favourites with a 2-0 victory. These players have all come from huge clubs across Europe, played in the Champions League and played with and against some of the world’s greatest players.
Stoke have cashed in at the opportune time with each of the players with them looking to get their careers back on track after rocky spells at big European clubs. They may be seen as a stepping stone for the aforementioned players but for now both parties are winning.
The result symbolised two things: One is that without Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany Manchester City have no spine and very little leadership. The other is that the project to get Stoke playing more attractive football with more technical players has finally set in.
Both of Stoke’s goals came from fantastic counter attacking play in a half which saw Arnautovic and company produce an almost perfect 45 minutes of football. Hughes’ tactics worked to perfection. Stoke invited Man City on, tackled well and then broke at lightning speed running at the much flawed Manchester City defence.
Although it was Arnautovic which scored the goals the real star of the show was Swiss international Shaqiri. His flicks and tricks often had £32m signing Nicholas Otamendi flailing in hopelessness and he was able to deliver in the final third throughout the 90 minutes. Shaqiri was a menace on the ball always taking on his man, often beating him in a stunning fashion, before attempting to find any of his attacking team mates in and around the box. Bojan was also in good form with his endeavour and willingness to work off the ball, teamed with his class and ingenuity on the ball, made life very difficult for the Aleksandar Kolarov.
It was in the winning the ball back element of Stoke’s game which struck a chord that they still bare the Pulis mark of being tough to break down and being physical all across defence and midfield. And it is not just in their weekend victory this has come to the forefront. A November clash against Chelsea saw much of the same heroics typified by Dutchman Erik Pieters who, broken nose and all, kept Hazard and co quiet. Captain Ryan Shawcross has become the lion hearted leader which sees The Potters remain stable at the back and the Englishman’s influence was sorely missed when he was dismissed in their 2-0 defeat to Sunderland last month.
And of course no tough team is complete without a tough goalkeeper and Jack Butland is seeing his England credentials rise as he turns in consistently brilliant performances. The game against City had a sense of a personal battle as England’s number one, Joe Hart went into battle trying to fend off the ever increasing advances of the young Stoke shot stopper. It was a battle in which Butland won.
Hughes has blended what Stoke were and what he wanted them to be perfectly and the finished product was showcased in a devastatingly beautiful and effective counter attacking display. The former Blackburn manager has given a small head nod of respect to his predecessors style yet has given the team and the club as a whole a radical makeover which is quickly seeing Stoke become a beauty as opposed to the beast.