Stoke City were at war at the Britannia stadium last season.
With the arrival of Mark Hughes, it was initially feared that changing the brand of football at the club would be potentially disruptive to a team that had just found it’s identity as a solid defensive unit under previous manager Tony Pulis. Yet, the application of Hughes’ possession based style of play to a side that had grown to be a beacon of stone wall defending seemed to be a surprisingly smooth process, due in large part to the extremely effective combination of long ball midfield play with hard pressed defending. I still recall having the fear of God put into me when, from within an atmosphere befitting a riot, the voice of a lively young Potters supporter was caught on an open mic as Ryan Shawcross made a strong challenge, then whipped the ball into the final third.
“That’s f***ing it Ryan break ‘em till they can’t stand”.
And there it was. One line, the tone of which perfectly described an emphatic home record that went on to read three home losses out of nineteen. Like that deep-in-angst bully of a class mate with whom all the teachers and students try everything before finally settling for acceptance, aggression was rudimentary – the Stoke City brand of football per say – and was now complimented by a slow trickling in of retaining possession and passing the ball around. With two beasts in Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross at the heart of defense, a long ball playing midfield, and the two meter tall ironically named English robot Peter Crouch there to slot in whatever exited it’s orbit and came his way, Stoke were set, unsurprisingly notching 7 wins in their last 10 games of 2013/2014, including a scalp against long held kings of passing play Arsenal.
It only became apparent that this was a side undergoing serious albeit guided transition in their seven opening fixtures at the beginning of this season. The arrivals of players like the young Bojan Krkic from Barcelona and Mame Biram Diouf from Hannover 96, who came off of a solid 26 goals from 57 appearances for the German side last season, both reflect a serious step in the direction of commitment to taking the club to the next level by Hughes. Yet in all their promise, the men in red and white could only muster 1 win in their pre-season campaign, though one can take heart from the fact that it was a win against the formidable Real Betis, and one in which Krkic looked especially lethal, finding his first goal.
The drastic drop in their home prowess was evident at the beginning of the season, as Stoke slumped to a 1 – 0 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa. Although the volume at the Britannica continued to boom, the 12th man’s voice simply wasn’t enough for a side that now seemed fortunate to have somewhat successfully adapted Hughes’ early tactics last season to match the foundations set by Pulis in the seasons before.
With a switch away from long pass plays and a focus on passing, Stoke City persisted with their pre-season tactics and had to contend with an already solid defensive unit in Villa who had world cup hero Vlaar on top form, a rock solid Guzan between the posts, and in general seemed happy to pick up yellow cards if it meant breaking up play. Add to the defensive strengths an on form striker in Andreas Weimann, and the Potters seemed to be facing a tactical replica of their 2013/2014 side. Yet the lesson wasn’t – perhaps even couldn’t – be picked up on: Hughes’ men were already too deep into trying to adapt to the new style of play, and had to pay the price of this process, drawing with Hull City away in their next game.
What came next was unprecedented, yet what came thereafter could be described as so as well. Travelling away to reigning champions Manchester City after their draw against Hull, nothing was expected of a side that had thus far not managed much. And yet Diouf, in a moment of Mancunian frenzy, picked up the ball in his own half, dribbled through the likes of Kompany like they were training silhouettes, and slotted past Hart between his legs to give the side a 1 – 0 lead and eventual win. Epic celebrations followed, yet fast forward two weeks, and the side lost 1 – 0 away to new boys Leicester City, and that too at the Britannica. Now, it was epic silence.
Perhaps the higher than usual pressure of performing well at their home stadium due to their being so clinical there not so long ago was what did them in beyond their transitional status. Yet, with only four games having elapsed in a league that is renown for its unpredictable nature, anything can happen. The only thing that remains a surety is that this team is learning, and will continue to do so. It will hence be no surprise if the Britannic crowd roared for Ryan once again.