Tottenham take on a Stoke City side on Sunday in the midst of a reshuffling that might finally make them competitive against the Premier League’s bigger sides.
A shift since the new year suggests that Hughes might be learning how to best utilize his own team, especially against sides like Tottenham.
Since his appointment following the dismissal of Tony Pulis, Hughes has been given a mandate to radically change how Stoke look, play and win.
Pulis’ Stoke was a uniform and slight rules chance away from being a rugby squad. Their players were physical, especially in defense, and the goal-scoring strategy revolved around balls cleared forwards, pacey wingers and a tall man up top to bring punted or crossed balls back down to Earth.
It was a strategy that worked, but had a definite mid-table ceiling. In giving Hughes free reign to do what he would with the club, Stoke hoped to be taken to the next level.
To that end, the club financed the purchase of half a dozen players that represented a dramatic shift in how Stoke City played football. It began with former Barcelona prospect Bojan, continued with former Bayern Munich playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri and seemed to have a future in Egyptian wunderkind Ramadan Sobhi.
More from Tottenham News
- Storybook ending after difficult period for Tottenahm’s Richarlison
- Tottenham comeback showcased invaluable intangible Ange has cultivated
- Tottenham player ratings in 2-1 comeback win over Sheffield United
- Tottenham projected starting 11 for Sheffield United
- Tottenham’s Richarlison says he’s going to seek psychological help
There was a problem however. Hughes couldn’t exactly start from scratch. Stoke’s locker room was still populated by Pulis signings, some acquired for grand sums long enough ago that it wasn’t practical or profitable to replace them.
From the very start Hughes was caught between two worlds, his own and Pulis’. His new crop of stars performed in fits and starts. His veterans struggled to play the game he wanted to play. Matchday squads often looked a strange incongruence, big and small, quick and plodding, crafty and blunt.
It therefore proved difficult for Stoke to break though the ceiling Pulis also struggled with. For three years running, Stoke have finished ninth in the Premier League — the same position they hold coming into Sunday’s visit to Tottenham.
There are hints that Hughes is finding inroads however. Since hefty defeats to Liverpool and Chelsea just before the new year, Stoke have looked something of a fortress. Not one in the subsequent six Premier League matches have Stoke conceded more than one goal. That includes successive 1-1 draws against high-scoring Manchester United and Everton sides.
Credit for that successful run is at least partly owed to Hughes’ increased reliance on Pulis-era signings. Phil Bardsley and Charlie Adam are on pace to earn more starts this season than last. Glenn Whelam remains a mainstay in midfield despite the expensive acquisition of Giannelli Imbula last January.
Perhaps most shockingly, 36-year-old erstwhile Tottenham striker Peter Crouch is now a regular starter. Since his start against Chelsea on New Years Eve, Crouch has scored four Premier League goal and set up one assist. He is expected to start against his former club on Sunday.
Sobhi should also start against Tottenham, as should other Hughes-era signings like Marko Arnautović and Joe Allen. Far from looking like mismatched puzzle pieces though, Hughes has found a way to fit Stoke new and old together into an effective package.
Against a Tottenham side that could prove punchdrunk after two weeks of disappointment, Hughes’ latest adaptation might continue earn rewards.