You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Stoke City were still a Premier League club last season, given the paltry level of media coverage they received. They ended up finishing a highly respectable ninth place, just behind the much-talked about and highly rated Southampton.
Under Tony Pulis, the club earned the unwanted reputation of a side that bullied and muscled teams into submission. Mark Hughes has set about remedying that image, as well as his own after his failure at Queens Park Rangers.
After a solid debut season, and with the spotlight—and pressure—well and truly off the club, Hughes has all the tools to spring a surprise on the upper echelons of the league.
The relationship between City and their manager has been a mutually beneficial one. Stoke have given Hughes the opportunity to resurrect his ailing career, and he in turn has repaid their faith in him handsomely.
Hughes’ managerial career has been one of peaks and troughs. He proved his credentials at Blackburn, before giving a good account of himself at Manchester City, who had ambitions which ultimately proved too lofty for the grounded former striker.
He proved he wasn’t a flash in the pan at Fulham, before leaving them in controversial fashion, per BBC Sport. However, he was unable to advance QPR despite bringing in numerous players, and he left them after 10 months in charge with the club bottom of the table.
With his reputation severely damaged, it was considered a gamble on Stoke’s behalf to sack Pulis, who had been in charge since 2006, and replace him with Hughes.
However, Hughes has proved his worth once again, achieving positive results while gradually transitioning the team toward a more attractive brand of football. His predecessor had been given a pass by the Stoke faithful while his methods got results, but in his last season there was little to placate them when the wins weren't coming.
Another area where Stoke previously struggled was in the transfer market. Pulis was at one time running the third-highest net spend in the league, which rarely yielded proportional results. Players like Wilson Palacios and Kenwyne Jones—both bought for £8 million—never looked capable of living up to their transfer fees.
Hughes has changed all that, spending just over £5 million last season. He brought in quality flair players such as Marko Arnautovic and Oussama Assaidi and successfully combined their skills with those of players more accustomed to Pulis' system.
This season’s signings look to be more of the same. The club are expected to make Assaidi's loan from Liverpool permanent, per The Daily Telegraph, and have also brought in strikers Mame Biram Diouf, on a free transfer, and Bojan Krkic, for an undisclosed fee.
Stoke's main issue last season was scoring goals, with just 45 in the league—only two more than 17th-placed West Bromwich Albion. This term, however, Stoke will have a formidable and flexible forward line.
Hughes can't be held completely responsible for Stoke's resurgence, however. While Pulis did leave much to be desired in the transfer market, some of his signings, as well as some academy products, are heading into the peak of their careers.
Asmir Begovic has been one of the best goalkeepers in the league since his arrival in 2010. Despite interest from several top teams, Begovic has stayed true to the Potters, and will provide superb cover behind an experienced centre-back pairing of Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross.
In between the sturdy defense and flowing—but potentially lightweight—attack, Hughes will turn to the combative qualities of Steve Sidwell, Stephen Ireland—whose loan from Aston Villa has been made permanent—and Jonathan Walters in the centre of the park.
The key to Stoke's potential this term is their flexibility. With the managerial arrivals of Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman—as well as the various tactical styles showcased at this summer's World Cup—this Premier League season is set to be one of the most tactically diverse ever. The ability to adapt will be critical to success.