Mark Hughes' new look Stoke side ready to face their sternest examination of the season at Arsenal on Sunday
It is tempting to proclaim Mark Hughes the Premier League's Axl Rose. When gigging in modest clubs and forced to work within tight-as-leather constraints he excels; when surrounded by riches that give him the freedom to indulge his grander plans, he releases jumbled and overblown bilge. But that analogy does not quite stand up because Hughes the manager has never reached the height Rose did (although the disciplinary record of his Blackburn Rovers did hint at an appetite for destruction). Still, Hughes rocked at Blackburn and Fulham – relative to his discordant stints at Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers – and now his early sessions at Stoke City suggest he may have regained his mojo.
Arsenal versus Stoke used to be the ultimate Premier League culture clash but when the sides meet at the Emirates on Sunday, Stoke are likely to show that they are evolving under Hughes. Stoke have not suddenly become Paradise City but the difference between them this season and during the end of the Tony Pulis era is already stark: simply put, Stoke are passing the ball more accurately and cleverly, moving opponents around with skill as well as muscle. Opta statistics speak volumes: this term they have averaged more than 70 passes more per match than they did last season and their average rate of possession has climbed from 42.8% to 47.5%, which is especially impressive considering that two of their four opponents have been the habitual ball-hogs of Liverpool and Manchester City. You could argue that anyone could improve Stoke's ball retention after the crudeness of Pulis, but changing a club style is not easy – just ask José Mourinho.
Hughes is not just making Stoke more pretty, he also appears to be making them more effective. That was the most galling aspect of Pulis towards the end; the apparent refusal to accept that his trusted formula had stopped working and Stoke were regressing after years of admirable gains. Stoke looked shaky at the back on the opening day of this campaign at Anfield, when they had to rely on the splendid Asmir Begovic to keep the score down, but they have tightened up since then, suggesting the defensive fortitude Pulis instilled remains intact despite full-backs now being allowed to venture forward.
Style has certainly not come at the cost of solidity. While making more passes and having more of the ball, Stoke have also made more tackles on average this season than they did last term.
Going forward is where the main strides have been made, with Stoke creating more chances than at any time since their promotion to the Premier League in 2008. Last season they averaged fewer shots on target than any other team in the top-flight – this season they rank joint ninth. They can be expected to find even more openings if the bold summer recruits Marko Arnautovic and Oussama Assaidi fulfil their rich potential. Whereas Stoke depended on the willing but waning Jon Walters and Matthew Etherington to supply quality from the wings, the new arrivals and the return of Jermain Pennant from the cold give them an array of options, including additional trickery and speed. In the middle, Steven N'Zonzi is revelling in being encouraged to showcase his finesse and vision, helping to make Stoke less predictable and himself, it seems, less prone to committing angry fouls.
What Stoke need now is to start converting more of the chances they are creating. The lack of a regular goal-getter risks inhibiting their progress. Walters, Kenwyne Jones and Peter Crouch have their merits but to count on them to be prolific would be not so much blue-sky as pie-in-the-sky thinking. A new striker is needed. One will come in January, when, with the Major League Soccer season over, the 20-year-old Juan Agudelo will arrive following his free transfer from New England Revolution. If he is ready to prosper straight away, perhaps Hughes will not have to spend millions in search of a solution. That, surely, would be a good thing.