Tony Pulis’ era at Stoke City is most certainly over, as the Potters are now thrown into Premier League combat under a new but tenacious mentor, Mark Hughes. Much has been made of a possible change in style, from the direct and powerful football under Pulis that saw Stoke clamber their way up from the Championship and establish themselves in England’s top tier. The free signing of Marc Muniesa from Barcelona turned a few heads in the summer, and perhaps made a few others explode at the thought of a Stoke without the long ball, with the incoming player seeming to hint that Hughes was prepared to trigger evolution at the Britannia. The old, combative model saw the Potters regress, as they almost slipped deep into the relegation mire last season, rendering the argument of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ relatively inapplicable.
The club currently stand at a crossroads, but it isn’t going to be Muniesa who is the standard bearer for Hughes’ potential shift of philosophy – the responsibility would be better placed on the shoulders of young Frenchman Steven N’Zonzi. There’s only so much that the new Welshman at the helm can achieve and change with a limited pool of technical ability in his current squad, but the former Blackburn midfielder brings the right attributes to the table for passing football.
As is key if Stoke look to play a shorter game, N’Zonzi’s ball retention statistics have been very impressive this season. Completing 89% of his attempted passes, the Frenchman not only leads Stoke’s team with this percentage, he has managed to make over double the passes of second-placed Glenn Whelan. Comfortable on the ball, and consistently looking to get involved from the centre of the park, N’Zonzi will be key to any system that Hughes chooses to implement. Calm and composed, the 24-year-old has an apparent experience ahead of his years in terms of holding onto possession.
In Stoke’s 1-0 victory over West Ham, N’Zonzi posted a phenomenal statistic, completing 61 of his 67 attempted passes. After being unearthed from Amiens by Sam Allardyce, his former employer could only stand on the sidelines and admire the player which he had picked up during his reign at Blackburn Rovers. In addition N’Zonzi, admittedly helped by his large frame, won 10 of his 13 headed duels, with a performance that was at the heart of Stoke’s victory. Capable of playing neatly, but also scrapping in the air, Hughes has a versatile playmaker at his disposal for the current season.
Steven N’Zonzi will be key to any Stoke success this season, but his disciplinary record could be a potential stumbling block if Hughes is to place reliance on the Frenchman. Picking up nine yellow cards and one red card in the Premier League last season, N’Zonzi marred Stoke’s disciplinary record, with additional attitude problems being well-documented. Key on the field, Stoke fans may worry that the 24-year-old has a few unwanted attributes which could lead to him spending valuable time off of it. Not shy from a tackle, he invariably adds bite and tenacity to the midfield, which is a nice balance of attributes considering his ability and range of passing, but the former Amiens man is sporadically a boiling kettle.
Following the switch of Muniesa to England, many pointed fingers towards a wholesale set of changes to Stoke’s manner of play this summer. No Tony Pulis and a Barcelona youngster seemed to hint towards evolution, but it appears that Mark Hughes hasn’t quite got the squad together to start again from scratch. Plenty of powerful and physical characters are still present, but there are encouraging signs for the Potters. Winning two out of their opening three top flight games, nobody will question their philosophy if their current formula is picking up valuable points, but Steven N’Zonzi is definitely the man they can count on. Potentially tenacious and scrappy during the interim, the Frenchman also has the attributes to become a mainstay at the Britannia after any change to a shorter passing game. Could Mark Hughes build a team around him? Probably not, but the former Rovers man definitely has the potential to be a real Stoke stalwart.