Saturday, 18 January 2014

How Hughes Has Changed Stoke.

When this afternoon Tony Pulis momentarily takes his seat in the home dugout as his new charges Crystal Palace entertain his former employers, Stoke City, he will be much more familiar with the players taking the field for the visitors, rather than for the hosts.

His replacement at the Britannia Stadium, Mark Hughes may have a shared heritage, but his preferred brand of football is far removed from that served up by Pulis in his time at Stoke. The exceptional, but ultimately limited success Pulis achieved during his two spells in the Potteries has been well documented and former skipper Danny Higginbotham describes the route one, possession poor, approach from the inside in this recent article for the Guardian.

Prior to this season, Stoke were outliers in virtually every statistical area as Pulis expertly identified areas of the game where he could eek out a tiny advantage that played to the strengths and more often the limitations of his squad. When Hughes was presiding over QPR, the league's most optimistic distance shooting side, Pulis' less frequent, but higher valued attempts, often executed from deep inside the six yard box, were providing continued Premiership football for the least admired member of that exclusive club.

Evolution, not revolution has been a constant promise, both this term and in Pulis' latter days at Stoke, and Hughes has resisted the temptation to make wholesale signings in the opening half of his first season in charge. It is likely that around eight of the starters for Stoke this afternoon will have been regulars under Pulis and this gives us an opportunity to take a look at the numbers recorded by those players firstly under Pulis and now under Hughes.

Marko Arnautovic, a rare addition to Stoke's 2013/14 squad.
Whilst shots and goals from distance, particularly from the boot of on loan Oussama Assaidi have been a feature of 2013/14, it is in the area of passing, both in terms of completion and accuracy, that the biggest change has occurred in the re vamped Stoke side.

Under Pulis, individual players were likely to see their rate of passing attempts fluctuate across seasons, simply through natural variation. For example, captain Ryan Shawcross made more frequent pass attempts in 2012/13 than he had done in 2011/12, whereas his central defensive partner, Robert Huth was broadly consistent across both campaigns. Overall, the common players in each season made a pass every 3 minutes and 9 seconds in 2011/12 compared to one every 3 minutes and 20 seconds a year later. A difference, certainly, but not a significant one. The chances that passes made in those two seasons where drawn from the same tactical pot reaches almost 40%

Passing Frequency and Accuracy Under Pulis and Hughes.

Player. Minutes/Pass. Under Hughes 2013/14 Minutes/Pass.
Under Pulis 2012/13.
Mins/Accurate Pass. Under Hughes. Mins/Accurate Pass.
Under Pulis.
Charlie Adam. 2.0 2.3 2.6 3.2
Peter Crouch. 2.6 2.4 4.1 4.1
Jonathan Walters. 3.4 3.4 4.9 4.7
Ryan Shawcross. 2.6 3.7 3.5 5.7
Geoff Cameron. 2.5 2.9 3.4 4.5
Steven N'Zonzi. 1.6 2.0 1.8 2.4
Marc Wilson. 2.0 3.2 2.6 5.2
Andy Wilkinson. 3.7 3.8 5.1 5.7
Glenn Whelan. 1.7 2.9 1.9 2.5
Robert Huth. 3.0 4.6 3.7 7.1
Matty Etherington. 3.3 4.0 4.0 4.9

If the difference in passing frequency seen in Pulis' final two campaigns is insufficiently extreme to indicate a major shift of emphasis, the same can not be said when comparing Tony's final year with Mark's first. The increased passing frequency currently displayed by Stoke is very unlikely to be a random draw from a typical Pulis season and the same is true of passing accuracy.

In short, under Hughes, Stoke are almost certainly passing more frequently and finding their intended target more often. Things have changed. Glen Whelan was making a pass every 3 minutes of playing time under Pulis and under Hughes that frequency is well below 2 minutes per pass and the majority of his team mates are showing a similar directional trend.

Of course, Glenn Whelan hasn't suddenly become a much better passer in his declining years, Stoke are simply playing a more conventional passing game, the average distance of their passes is also significantly shorter this term. Years of propping up the "definitive" tables for passing accuracy has been replaced by respectable midtable mediocrity for Stoke's previously unfairly vilified outfielders.

Tactics often make the statistics.

The first meeting between the sides, prior to Pulis' appointment was a close fought affair. Palace struck the important first goal, but Stoke's expected goals from their superior numerical attempts made them worthy winners, statistically and in reality. However, despite Stoke's apparently safe current position of 12th and Palace's 20th, the meeting is still very much a relegation contest.

The plan was that Stoke would turn into a more attractive passing side, maintaining their status by precariously staying out of the clutches of relegation, while Pulis animatedly prowled his technical area.That scenario becomes reality today....just not quite in the way everyone hoped it would.

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