Stokelona: Where Myth meets Reality
Everyone has bad memories of the Tony Pulis led Stoke teams. They were often rough, not easy on the eye and were prone to the occasional leg breaking injury. They did what they had to consolidate in the Premier League and in that sense, Pulis had a successful reign as manager. But these teams will never be revered or remembered for anything on the pitch beyond dirty challenges and goals coming from long throw ins. Even taking a look at the type of players Stoke brought in during Pulis' last season in 2012-13 feels like harking back to a different era in football: Michael Kightly, Geoff Cameron, Charlie Adam and Maurice Edu to name a few.
In the most literal sense, Stoke City have changed. One only has to look at their most recent signing in Gianelli Imbula. A dribbling, creative CM during Tony Pulis’ days would've had as much a chance of getting playing time as you or I. Now, Stoke broke their transfer record and spent £18.3M on him. Back in the day, the closest Stoke would ever come to having someone like Xherdan Shaqiri is if someone played manager mode on FIFA and bought him. Now they're stocked up with silky (albeit flawed) midfielders: Bojan, Marko Arnautovic, Shaqiri, Ibrahim Affelay. Hell, they got a kid named Moha El Ouriachi from Barcelona. It's pretty funny to see how much of a U-turn Stoke have taken when you remember the old days of Matthew Etherington, Rory Delap and Cameron Jerome.
There’s no question that the transition to Stokelona has been aided nicely by the enormous TV deal. Go through every squad around midtable and you’ll find creative midfielders finding a home. Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Dimitri Payet (West Ham), Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace). Five years ago Stoke couldn’t offer the type of wages that were needed to attract the talent they’ve got with no guarantees of European football, but here we are now and Stoke have a trio consisting of Bojan/Shaqiri/Arnautovic. What a time to be alive!
Flip through a newspaper (oh who am I kidding, no one reads those anymore) and you’ll probably find glowing praise for Mark Hughes. “Look what a great job Stoke have done”, “Stoke play attractive football”, “Chelsea should be going after Mark Hughes”. A very little bit of this is true. Certainly Stoke do not play the eye gauging levels of football that once was their staple and now rank in the top 10 in shots coming from throughball passes. That type of stat pre Hughes would have never come close to happening.
Where the Stokelona mystique starts to go haywire is go past the admittedly fun tagline and the novelty; Stoke this season haven’t been a good attacking team, or even average. For all the potential silk, Stoke have concocted a below average attack. Whether using an xG model that value all shots or just shots that hit the target, Stoke are below average in shot quality and they rank in the bottom five in shot generation. Everyone remembers the 6-1 drubbing against Liverpool last year or the 2-0 wins against both Manchester clubs and the bonkers 4-3 win against Everton. Those type of performances put together have furthered the narrative that there's a football renaissance going on (in ways, it's similar to the hype around how Everton should be better than where they are).
To drill this point even further, let's play a quick game. I'll give you two teams' statistical profiles and you tell me which one is which:
||Shots Per game
||SoT per game
All right, so who are the teams. Team A is 2015-16 Stoke City. Team B is... West Brom, managed by the angel himself Tony Pulis. Considering how everyone has utter contempt for the style of West Brom, having numbers that are within closing distance of them isn't exactly flattering, so maybe the praise is slightly unfounded.
Having said all that If you do squint hard enough, you do see a growing modernity to Stoke's attack. Passages of play like this wouldn't have happened under Pulis.
The best attacking teams in football are able to throw multiple looks. Dortmund and Barcelona often alternate between attacks that are counter attacked based and others that are from established possession. Even in the PL, the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Man City at their best can overwhelm teams offensively by varying their offense. Stoke are nowhere close to that but you can see the makings of something interesting, particularly in that attacking midfield trio.
What's also been interesting has been the use of Ibrahim Afellay as at times a holding midfielder. Throughout his rather disappointing career, he's been used as a winger but Hughes has experimented with him playing as a faux central midfielder. My guess for why this is the case is his ability to individually transition the ball from the middle third to opposition territory.
Despite positive aspects to Stoke's attack, there are massive problems. The obvious being that they don't shoot enough. 10.7 shots per game is a paltry shot rate for a team widely perceived to play attractive football; even a peak Tony Pulis' Stoke team in 2010-11 produced a considerably higher shot tally at 12.7. Last year, Stoke were a middle of the road team in terms of shot generation, ranking 9th with 13.2. Obviously not all shots are equal, and Stoke were below average in generating quality shots but it was an improvement over Hughes' first season there.
Another problem for Stoke is that there's a statute of limitations on how good an attack could be without a decent striker. Liverpool are a good example of this whenever Roberto Firmino is played as a 9. Firmino does a lot of things you would want from a striker, especially in the context of what gegenpressing entails. Despite hitting a nice run of form recently, he just can't do the last 10-20% needed that top strikers consistently can (generating tons of shots from good areas, finishing skill etc...).
Bojan is in a similar boat. He has gotten some run as Stoke striker but he faces similar problems with Firmino. When Bojan has played as the 9, he's averaged 2.5 shots per 90 which is fine given the context of Stoke's shot producing problems, but in that role there's a need for more. A tendency with Bojan is whenever he's played up top, there will be numerous instances where one or both of Arnautovic/Shaqiri will make runs in front of him so he can either make long balls towards them or short throughballs.
Bojan is just not a striker period. Neither are Arnautovic or Shaqiri. Arnautovic honestly might be the closest thing to a competent striker that Stoke have, which isn't something you would hope for as an emerging club. Bojan at his best will buzz around like a little bee and create for others either with his dribbling or his passing. Him or Arnautovic are the best of a bad bunch.
It's been the cool thing in the media to give Mark Hughes loads of credit for what's gone on. 11th in the table, two point away from 8th. Hey that must mean that Stoke are on the ascendancy. If Stoke do eventually become a perennial top 8 side, Hughes' work will be looked upon favorably by the media which I somewhat understand on a basic level. However I do have some apprehension with the amount of praise that Mark Hughes has garnered for recreating Stoke's attack. Yes, he's changed them into something that's considerably different from his predecessor and as a result, that's helped in some small part to recruit better talent (again though, money talks and any PL club has more money than about 8-10 other clubs in Europe). But even taking those factors into account, there's loads of evidence to suggest that Mark Hughes is more or less the same manager he's always been no matter the talent or vision at hand. In comparison to someone like Pardew who has greater volatility, you'll know what you get if you hire Hughes: middling shots for numbers and an overall midtable finish.
Again though, I don't want to totally slag Hughes as a manager because there's something noble about his vision of recreating Stoke. Signing Imbula was a really smart use of asset managing and another sign that Hughes at least knows what he wants Stoke to be (even if his ability to actually take good players and make them fit into a healthy shot generating team has rarely been proven). Imbula's playing style is like a younger Moussa Dembele and if he can ever find some end product, the world is his oyster. Even at such a young stage, he can be a considerably upgrade on Afellay when it comes to initiating counter attacks and defensively, he's good enough to not rock the boat.
Stoke are in the beginning phases of a revolution and there are some positives. They're slowly but surely diversifying their attack and some of their recent signings show that the club is aware of what's needed to compete for European spots. There's a massive hole at striker which needs to be addressed. Mama Biram Diouf had an okay season last year but he's 28 and for where Stoke are going, he'd be much better off as backup to whoever the upgrade is. I also think fullbacks are another place for upgrading soon. Glen Johnson at his peak was a very good attacking fullback but he's been decaying for some time now. If the Arnautovic rumors are to be believed as well, Stoke will also have to be on the lookout for another attacking midfielder.
The term Stokelona when it comes to Stoke's new era of football can either be looked at in an endearing manner or a term purely based on banter. There are large issues at hand that need addressing both currently and in the near future, issues that make the current reputation of Stoke City football rather unreasonable. But hidden through all the narrative and hyperbole, there's a project going on that's very intriguing.