With Leicester performing so well in the Premier League this season and currently occupying a top four spot, other team’s good performances have maybe been lost in the romance of the Foxes being title contenders.
One of those teams impressing this season in the English top-flight is Stoke City. For much of their Premier League existence Stoke were regarded as a solid, physical and technically limited side.
Under Tony Pulis they were often accused of being over physical, but since the arrival of boss Mark Hughes the team’s style has gradually changed. The Potters team is now far from one-dimensional.
On Monday the Potters claimed a 4-3 win at highly-rated Everton, as Mark Arnautovic grabbed a stoppage-time winner from the penalty spot.
An abundance of flair
Stoke have pulled-off some very impressive coups in recent years. Boss Mark Hughes has signed players who are inconsistent but talented and seems to have a knack of getting the best out of them.
Marko Arnautovic, Bojan, Ibrahim Afellay and to a certain extent Xherdan Shaqiri arrived as players who had struggle to find their best form at big clubs. Most of the quartet arrived in the Potteries for bargain prices, which were not true reflections of their technical ability.
Bojan and Afellay had enjoyed chequered careers because of injuries and seemingly a lack of confidence in their own ability. Both had appeared for European champions Barcelona and looked to have promising careers, but the footballing gods had others ideas.
Unfortunately Bojan has already experienced injury problems in his Stoke career. Hopefully for the Spaniard he is now over his fitness problems, as he has undoubted talent and can be a match-winner. The former-La Masia graduate seems to combine well with his skilful teammates in the Potters team.
The player who looks to have made the biggest strides this season is Austrian winger Marko Arnautovic. If you look up mercurial, enigma and maverick in the directory there is a picture of the former-Werder star.
Arnautovic has the talent, but too often he seemed to have a poor attitude and it lead to the winger not fulfilling his undoubted potential as a player. Last season he scored just once and produced seven assists.
The 26-year-old is already well on his way to bettering that record, as he has found the net seven times in the Premier League and collected three assists this season.
However, it is not just his output that seems to have improved, but also his work-rate and attitude. He now seems to chase opponents and lead from the front for the Potters.
Still solid at the back
Hughes has found a good balance between those flair players and the solid base that Tony Pulis had built. The blend is producing some superb football and results of late. It is strange to think that the Potters were struggling slightly at the start of the campaign. It took them six games to claim their first league win of the campaign.
However, the Potters are now the epitome of a well-balanced unit. The three goals conceded at Everton are the exception, rather than rule, as the Stoke defence have been very solid this season. The Toffees are just exceptional going forward.
Young England ‘keeper Jack Butland has been a formidable last line of defence for the Potters, doing his chances of regular international football in the near future no harm.
Eyeing up a European spot
This season’s notoriously open Premier League campaign has opened the top six and even the top four up for some usually unlikely candidates to nick a European spot. The Potters are currently odds of 25/1 to claim a top four spot this season.
As the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and even Everton search for some crumb of consistency Stoke could take advantage. The Potters are no flat-track bullies either, having defeated both Manchester clubs at the Britannia Stadium.
The Potters seem to have all the ingredients to become a very good team in the future. The key to success for the Staffordshire outfit is for boss Mark Hughes to manage to keep his group of inconsistent performers consistent.
If he can then Stoke may just sneak a European spot this season and the view of Stoke as a thuggish, long-ball team will be consigned to the dim and distant past.
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