On Sunday at Carrow Road, Xherdan Shaqiri made his Stoke debut in a 1-1 draw against Norwich. Shaqiri provided an assist on a free kick, completed 34 passes and looked solid on his debut. However, what he did on his debut is ultimately irrelevant.
What is relevant is that Stoke City had a 23-year-old who has played for two former European champions and scored a hat trick at the World Cup starting for them.
Shaqiri is the best and most prominent example of what can be described as a culture change at Stoke City under Mark Hughes. (It can also be described as the Potters reaping the benefits of the new TV deal, but let’s stick with this.) In stark comparison to his predecessor, Tony Pulis, Stoke is now a team appealing to watch for the neutral. Under Hughes, Stoke has attracted talent that would have had no interest in joining the Potters if Pulis was still there.
Let’s not be unfair to Pulis, though. While Pulis’ long balls and brutal physicality might not have been fun to watch, it did ensure Stoke never flirted with relegation once in in his five seasons there. His Stoke teams finished 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 13th during his tenure, with the Potters averaging 45 points over those five seasons.
Pulis’ success made sacking him an unpopular decision with Stoke supporters given what he had done for the club. This displeasure was accentuated by the fact that Mark Hughes was his replacement.
Stoke signed Hughes as he was recovering what can best be described as a dumpster fire stint at QPR. He made it 12 games into the 2012-13 season before getting sacked, having failed to win any of those games. Hughes spent the 2012 summer transfer window adding an odd collection of talent for a QPR team that escaped relegation on the last day the prior year. Ji-Sung Park, Julio Cesar and Jose Bosingwa headlined QPR’s signings. That would have been brilliant in 2009.
Freed from Tony Fernandes’ clutches, however, Hughes made sure his first window with Stoke would not be littered with mercenaries who were past their prime; he made sure his first window would include players Pulis would never think to buy.
First, he purchased Erik Pieters, a 25-year-old left back from PSV. The Dutchman had 93 Eredivisie appearances with PSV, along with 26 appearances in the Europa League for good measure. Then, Marko Arnautovic joined Pieters in the move to the Britannia. The 24-year-old Austrian had 72 games in the Bundesliga before joining Stoke.
But perhaps the most interesting transfer in during the summer 2013 window was Marc Muniesa. A free transfer for a 21-year-old centerback by itself is hardly notable. However, when that free transfer is a La Masia product? Muniesa at the time looked like he’d take the longest to contribute to Stoke, but the fact that a player from Barcelona decided to join Stoke was a huge statement for what Hughes wanted to with Stoke.
Just as notable for Hughes as the three players he brought in were two stalwarts of the Pulis era he bid farewell to: Rory Delap and Dean Whitehead. The two midfielders combined for 266 appearances under Pulis in the Premier League. Ryan Shotton and Mamady Sidibe also left the club, two more players often used by Pulis.
Hughes’ changes were a success in his first season. Stoke scored 11 more goals than in their last season with Pulis and finished 9th, improving four places from Pulis’ 13th place finish the prior season.
Building off the strength of his 9th place finish, Hughes continued to add the type of players that Pulis would never dream of. He added Mame Diouf. Diouf had prior Premier League experience, but scored an underwhelming 4 goals in 31 appearances between Manchester United and Blackburn in his first time stint in England. However, his prior performance didn’t concern Hughes, since Diouf had scored 25 goals in 56 Bundesliga appearances for Hannover 96. Hughes also took a gamble on a Barcelona player who had failed to live up to the hype around him: Bojan Krkic. After being a chaotic few years playing for Barcelona, AC Milan, Roma and Ajax, Mark Hughes offered Bojan a steady home.
The addition of Bojan and Diouf helped make a positive impact on Stoke. They still finished 9th, but did so with with four more points than the prior year, their goal differential improved by ten and an additional three more goals scored.
Stoke is currently 16th in the very early Premier League table this year. However, with the crop of players Mark Hughes has added the past three transfer windows, they could have a chance at making a run for the Europa League.