Mark Hughes knew that his first season at Stoke City was going to be about evolution rather than revolution. Old habits die hard and Hughes had no intention of tearing everything up that the players had been doing – in some cases for five years and more – under Tony Pulis, the man he replaced as manager last summer. What Hughes quickly discovered, however, was that he was preaching to a group waiting to be converted.
"When I came in, I felt I wasn't forcing things on players. Maybe they were ready for change themselves. And they were capable of change. I think that's what I recognised early on," Hughes says. "I just felt these guys have got ability and can play in a slightly different way, just to give them more options and still be effective, and that's been born out."
Opta's statistics certainly point to a tactical shift. Stoke made the fewest number of passes in four of their five seasons in the Premier League under Pulis (in the other campaign – last term – only Reading were below them). With Hughes in charge, Stoke, on average, are making almost 70 more passes per game than they did last season. They have had more possession than their opponents on six occasions – something that happened five times during their first four seasons in the Premier League.
Despite growing complaints from fans, Stoke's style of play was not a factor in the club's decision to part company with Pulis at the end of last season and at no point during Hughes's talks did the subject of how he would set the team up crop up. At the same time, there was a natural assumption that Stoke, under Hughes, would play with greater freedom, even if he was working with broadly the same group of players.
"We've got good players here that have a little bit more license to affect the game in a positive way, rather than the mindset that they're going to be difficult to beat and more destructive than constructive, which is no reflection on Tony," Hughes says.
"We've moved to a different point in terms of how we approach games. We're probably a little bit more adventurous away from home – it hasn't reaped benefits as yet but we think it will. At home we are easy on the eye, people enjoy watching what we're trying to do. But we're only 20 games in, so it's early days. But I'm pleased with what we've done in that period."
At the Britannia Stadium, where Liverpool visit on Sunday, Stoke have beaten Chelsea and lost once in the league. Yet away from home, they have picked up five points out of a possible 30. Hughes has a theory behind that poor return. "Sometimes we revert to type, we're not as brave as we should be, we just try and protect what we've had – we've certainly been guilty of that in some away games," he says. "Hopefully that mentality will change with more success."
Perhaps most frustrating for Hughes is that, even with greater possession, Stoke's achilles heel continues to be putting the ball in the net. Stoke scored 188 times in 190 Premier League matches under Pulis – they were the only one of the 13 clubs that featured in the top flight in those five seasons to fail to average a goal per game – and more than half of the total arrived via set-pieces. Since Hughes took over Stoke are scoring far more frequently from open play – another two goals will equal the 15 they managed in the previous two seasons – but the overall picture is not any better. Stoke have scored 19 in 20 games this season. Despite all the money spent on strikers over the years, they have never found a prolific goalscorer.
"There has been a problem here with chance conversion. I don't think it's improved markedly, so we're trying to address that," Hughes says. "If that means bringing different types of players to do that, then that's what we'll have to do. But we're working in a market that is difficult for us because we haven't got great resources in terms of being able to pay big transfer fees."
Hughes knew those budgetary constraints when he took over and he is certainly not complaining. Peter Coates, Stoke's chairman, has been an extremely generous benefactor – Pulis's net spend in the Premier League was the best part of £80m, which was behind only Manchester City and Chelsea across those five years – but that policy had to change. Stoke aim to become a self-sustaining Premier League club. That means bringing through homegrown talent and recruiting more shrewdly.
It is all part of a wider project that Hughes hopes to be given the chance to oversee. "We're not where we need to be but we're ahead of where I thought we would be at this point," he says. "Maybe in a year, 18 months' time, we'll be in great shape – we haven't had the benefit of enough transfer windows, because we need to add to the group. But the key to it all is time."