Wednesday August 12th, 2015

Can a club change its DNA? That's the question being asked of Stoke City following the signing of Xherdan Shaqiri 12 months after the Swiss midfielder won the German league and cup double with Bayern Munich and scored a hat trick at the 2014 World Cup. Shaqiri is not the only notable arrival at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium this summer: ex-Barcelona winger Ibrahim Afellay, former Real Madrid youth product Joselu, and Barcelona’s highly-rated prospect Moha El Ouriachi, have also joined.

It’s a far cry from the last transfer window under previous coach Tony Pulis, when it signed Michael Owen (eight sub appearances, no goals) and three Americans: Brek Shea, Maurice Edu and Geoff Cameron, the last of whom started Sunday’s season-opening loss at Liverpool.

Pulis was the coach who got Stoke promoted to the Premier League in 2007–its first time in the top-flight for 23 years–and kept it up for five seasons straight. In fact, safety was never in doubt, with finishes of 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 13th under Pulis.

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The Pulis style was embodied by a series of good results against Arsenal: it beat the Gunners five times at home between 2008 and 2014. The Arsenal games were significant in shaping media perception of the club too. In 2010, after defender Ryan Shawcross made a bad tackle on Aaron Ramsey, then 19, and broke his leg, Wenger called it “horrendous… unacceptable.” Shawcross apologized and was “broken-hearted,” according to Pulis, but the incident left its mark.

Wenger continued to criticize Stoke’s tactics, especially its reliance on set pieces–even talking about games when Stoke played other sides.

“When you see how Shawcross kicked [Spurs goalkeeper] Gomes, how [Robert] Huth pushed Gomes in the goal, you cannot say that is football any more…” he said. “It is rugby on the goalkeepers [rather] than football.”

Stoke chairman Peter Coates complained to the Premier League about Wenger’s comments. He did not get the response he wanted, despite pointing out that Arsenal would regularly receive more red and yellow cards over a season than his club. (That’s a dichotomy at the heart of Wenger’s romanticism: he remains faithful to his "beautiful football" ideology but his sides have often had disciplinary issues.)

Words like "physical," "tough" and "battle" became synonymous with the team. Coates put it another way.

“We suffer from being what I would call an unfashionable club,” he told The Guardian earlier this year. Coates was the man who had appointed Pulis back in 2006 but in summer 2013, with fans’ frustration growing at what they felt were negative tactics and players being played out of position, said that “it was time for a change.”

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That’s when Mark Hughes came in. Hughes had cut his teeth in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, keeping it up over four years (and regularly mixing it up with Wenger in the process). He then had mixed success at Manchester City (the first coach under new owners), Fulham (finished eighth but resigned after one season) and QPR (survived on the last day of the season, then sacked after a poor start to the next campaign) before Coates appointed him.

His challenge was simple: keep Stoke in the top flight, and play better football. He spoke of wanting to change the club’s style of play, but was mindful that these things take time. Two years into his reign, he has been successful on both counts. Stoke has finished ninth for the last two seasons, its best seasons since a fifth-place finish in 1975.

Stoke now plays with more possession, makes more passes and is more creative. In Pulis’s final season, it scored 19 goals from set pieces and 15 from open play; last season, it was nine from set pieces and 39 from open play. Figures produced by the Premier League's website show other clear differences between the teams of Pulis and Hughes.

Stoke City's evolution
  2012-13 2014-15
Passes per match  323 405
Possession 42% 50%
Dribbles completed  160 359
Total shots 390 500
Goals 34 48

This success does not just belong to Hughes. Coates, along with his daughter Denise and son John, make the key decisions. He is a lifelong Stoke fan and he doesn’t look at the club as a business.

“For us it’s something important for the area and something we want to do,” he said.

The former fast-food salesman is also a rarity in the Premier League, where over half the teams have foreign owners. This is his second spell in charge; his first ended in acrimony in 1998 after a 7-0 loss to Birmingham left Stoke in the third division. In the intervening years, his online betting business Bet365, run by Denise, went from strength to strength (it announced a pre-tax profit of £319 million last year) and it was the company that bought Stoke for around £10 million in 2006.

It helps that Coates is a fan, as he can put them first. For the last two seasons, Stoke has provided free coach travel to every away fixture in the Premier League. The fans at its home ground, the Britannia Stadium, are among the loudest in the league.

Back in 2011, when Stoke reached the FA Cup final, Coates suggested we should enjoy the variety of different styles and that “it would be boring if everyone played like Barcelona or Arsenal.” Four years on, with a former Barcelona striker in charge and four ex-Barcelona players now in the squad, the revolution is underway. Stoke-alona is the new, unofficial, club nickname.

Swansea and Southampton are the models for many clubs in terms of playing style, succession planning and stability. It’s only now that Hughes has brought in these big names that people are taking notice of the quiet but brilliant work Coates and his team have overseen.

There used to be a joke about Lionel Messi: “He’s great, but can he do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke?” The implication was that Pulis’s battlers would kick him into touch before too long. It’s a different team now, and maybe we should be asking if Jonathan Walters could do it on a sunny Sunday in Catalonia instead. Stoke-alona is now looking up, not down. 

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