In 2014, Mark Hughes steered Stoke City to their first top-half Premier League finish in his first year at the club. It was also the first time Stoke had ranked among the league’s top 10 high-scoring teams in a season.
Although the Welshman repeated both feats in 2015, Stoke finished each of the last two seasons as the league 15th-highest scorers. The magic had begun to wear off and, by the end of last season, some fans were beginning to question Hughes’ ability to bring it back.
The summer brought changes, though, that appear to have rejuvenated Stoke’s creative flow.
Although four goals in the first four matches of 2017-18 may not appear much to shout about, the two home performances against Arsenal and Manchester United in particular have showcased the new order at the bet365 Stadium.
Hughes prioritised defensive reinforcements in the transfer window, not only bringing in new faces but a new 3-4-2-1 formation – occasionally toyed with last season, with varying results.
If the changes have helped shore up a leaky defence, the team has looked a lot more fluid on the ball, with more bodies free to get into the opposition half.
The evident chemistry between old and new faces amid such a tactical overhaul promises much for the season ahead.
Shaqiri question: solved?
Xherdan Shaqiri has struggled for fitness in two seasons at Stoke. When he has played, he’s often looked lost out on the wing – isolated, running up dead-ends with just a sole striker to aim a cross at.
In the middle of the pitch is where he has done the most damage, and he begins a lot more tucked in now in the new 3-4-2-1 than he was previously.
Though he still has the remit to explore space out wide, Shaqiri can now join in the short passing in the opponent’s half more easily, and perhaps work a shooting opportunity.
Still prone to losing possession cheaply in dangerous places, the Swiss has looked more threatening now he has been brought in from the cold out wide.
The finishing factor
The relentlessly competitive nature of the Premier League is such that even the best sides can sometimes only create one or two golden chances in a match – chances that have to be taken.
Where everyone is looking to add that extra goal-scoring touch at the top of their team, Stoke have been more sorely lacking than most in recent times. Saido Berahino, a £12million January signing from West Brom, is still goalless in 16 league appearances.
But Jesé’s assured finish in the 1-0 home triumph over Arsenal a fortnight ago and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting’s double against Manchester United this weekend have shown Stoke fans exactly what their side has been missing.
Before the last match, the only player to score twice in one game for Stoke in this calendar year was Marko Arnautovic (away at Sunderland in January, at home to Middlesbrough in March). Consider the £24million West Ham purchase replaced.
Two anchor men
The formation change has necessitated Stoke’s central midfielders dropping deeper to screen the back-three. They check and harry opposition ball-carriers while the wing-backs track back, keeping the centre-halves from getting dragged around so much. They are also vital to the team playing out from the back as Hughes would like.
Having recruited Joe Allen last summer, a smart ball player who can recover possession and set off counter-attacks, Stoke have added West Brom’s captain Darren Fletcher this summer.
Fletcher has been showcasing his penchant for hitting incisive longer balls since his debut against Everton a month ago, but it finally came good against Manchester United on Saturday evening – and in some style.
It was Fletcher who spotted Mame-Biram Diouf calling for the ball on the right flank, and who hit a pinpoint diagonal ball to put him in behind the United backline. It gave Diouf time to control the ball and measure his cross, which Choupo-Moting obligingly buried.
The range of passing between Allen and Fletcher looks like it will be well utilised in the new system.
Room to roam
The deployment of two deep-lying central midfielders combines with Stoke’s loose attacking triumvirate to create a fair amount of space in the midfield – space often exploited by the opposition.
The side’s dense central core is meant to ensure that opponents can only advance so far through this space. Meanwhile, when Stoke have possession, this space creates options.
With a front three, Jesé and Choupo-Moting are free to come deep to receive the ball if they choose, without worrying about leaving no options up top. Both players have shown their ability and willingness to dribble through this space. It was with one such surge that Jesé opened up Arsenal in the build-up to his winning goal last month.
Work in progress
Hughes appears to have finally matched his personnel to a tactical system he wants to stick with, and the result has been a much increased goal threat in this season’s opening four league games.
It is still very much a work in progress. Away from home, a strong showing at Everton yielded few gilt-edged chances in a one-nil defeat; at West Brom, a resolute home side effectively smothered Jesé, Choupo-Moting and Shaqiri before gifting Stoke an equaliser with some comedy defending.
The test will be whether this new-look side can keep running defences ragged throughout the season, once the opposition scouts are up to speed on them.