Arsenal used to totter to Stoke City as if venturing down a dark alley but last season they enjoyed a walk in the park.
May’s 4-1 victory for the Londoners was their first at the Bet365 Stadium for six years and seemed to carry a particularly symbolic importance, confirming that Stoke had lost an essential part of their identity – the ability to unsettle aristocrats. As Stoke’s players trudged around the pitch in a half-empty stadium after their last home match of a drab campaign, it all seemed ominous for Mark Hughes.
A sense of foreboding persists. The sales this summer of Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters in particular were a wrench even if age has taken a toll on them: with their warrior spirits they embodied much of what Stoke fans have admired since Tony Pulis took the club stomping back into the top flight nine years ago. The locals appreciate skill, too, and were aghast in July when their most reliable trickster, Marko Arnautovic, also departed. The Austrian agitated for a move to West Ham United and added insult to the loss by suggesting it was because Stoke were stagnating.
The accusation that Stoke lack ambition after falling to 13th last season following three successive top-half finishes gained currency as the club kept its wallet closed. Whelan was replaced by a 33-year-old free agent, Darren Fletcher, and Arnautovic by another free signing, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Those recruits did not excite many observers in a summer in which rival clubs have splurged fortunes.
Since then Stoke have paid £7m to secure Bruno Martins Indi on a permanent transfer from Porto after an impressive loan stint for Hughes’s side last season and this week made a mouthwatering loan hire, persuading the forward Jesé Rodríguez to join from Paris Saint-Germain for the season. The former Real Madrid forward has had problems with injury and form in recent years but retains the potential to thrill. Stoke are the quirky answer to a trivia question – which Premier League team has the highest number of Champions League winners (five) in its squad? – and Hughes says the gloom is misplaced.
“At the moment there is that negativity around,” says Hughes, whom most bookmakers rank among the favourites to be sacked early this season. “We just feel people are taking maybe a few cheap shots at the club and what we do. At the owners, at me and at the players. It all builds up. People are saying we’re not having a go, we’re not spending millions, we didn’t have a good season last year, we’re under pressure.
“Some of it is a little bit lazy, some aren’t looking too closely at what we’re doing. The key is whether you’re stronger coming out of the window than you were going into it. My view is that we are. We’ve replaced predominantly squad players with potentially first-team players. People will see that with the lads we’ve brought in the quality will be enhanced, not diminished.”
Quality is not measured only in terms of skill. Battle-readiness is also key. Hughes says no one should have concerns on that front. “People would have to be quite naive to think the likes of Jack Butland, Ryan Shawcross, Peter Crouch or Darren Fletcher would lessen the influence or the leadership that we have within the group.
“I think the likes of Ryan, who knows the club and the traits and what’s acceptable, they pass that on as they go along and make others aware very quickly of what we do here. I have absolutely no worries about the leadership within the dressing room. That’s as strong as it’s ever been.”
Hughes says Stoke are set fair to remain a powerful and distinctive force in the Premier League. He says that while the club have not spent heavily, they have spent shrewdly and hope to continue doing so until the transfer window closes. His vision, towards which he had made progress before last season’s regression, is a blend of flair and fire, a style that mixes the best of the club’s previous eras, from Pulis and before.
“There’s sometimes talk of Stoke’s DNA and whatever, and you can take a view on that,” he says. “In recent times people have come to the conclusion that the DNA is long ball and fighting challenges and so on and for a long time that’s what it was. But further back than that, Stoke’s DNA was Sir Stanley Matthews and players like Alan Hudson. So maybe we’re just trying to get back to that along with the elements of what people have seen in more recent times.”
Hughes reckons Stoke have not changed so much as regenerated. Much like their stadium. One side of the Bet365 Stadium has been filled in over the summer, increasing capacity by more than 2,000. “Teams have found it intimidating in the past and we’re all waiting to see how the sound resonates around the place now,” says Hughes, who suggested there could be no better time for Stoke to be hosting the team they most enjoy beating.
“We’re at a point where people want to show that others can’t take liberties with what we’re doing or even question what we’re doing. When that happens, we circle the wagons and show people what we’re about. I think we’re at that point. Arsenal coming to town maybe helps.
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