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COMMENTARY

Stoke's progress proves you can't buy instant success

A visit to Stoke on a Tuesday night in January was once the stuff of cliche, but when Liverpool go there tomorrow for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final they will encounter a side who have gradually altered their image under Mark Hughes.

After trying to change too much too quickly in his previous job at Queens Park Rangers, he has clearly learnt from the mistakes he made at Loftus Road and repaired his reputation in the process.

He inherited a squad that were used to playing a certain way under Tony Pulis: they were hard to break down and score against and had a direct approach when it came to attacking. Hughes took his time to study and analyse what he already had and did not move away immediately from a style which was effective. Pulis did a great job at Stoke. It wasn't everyone's cup of tea but it was successful.

Unlike at QPR, Hughes had a sound base to build on and has been more calculating in his approach. At Stoke, you're allowed breathing space. You're given a bit of time to build. At the bigger clubs, you make those decisions and they have to work for you right away - as Hughes discovered during his time in charge at Manchester City.

Unlike at QPR, Hughes had a sound base to build on and has been more calculating in his approach. At Stoke, you're allowed breathing space. You're given a bit of time to build. At the bigger clubs, you make those decisions and they have to work for you right away - as Hughes discovered during his time in charge at Manchester City.

At City, he had owners who wanted everything overnight and he paid the price for indifferent results. He made some good signings, such as Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta, but others looked like they were imposed on him. Paying Real Madrid £32.5 million (S$67.9 million) for Robinho, a showboating Brazilian of no great substance, springs immediately to mind.

The owners were new to City and new to football, and were used to getting their own way instantly. If they wanted something, they bought it.

Football is not like that. It's a process and that's what Hughes has been given time to do at Stoke. The signing of Glen Johnson on a free transfer from Liverpool last summer is a good example of his gradual shift in emphasis, sacrificing a bit of defensive work for somebody who is really good going forward.

It's not just in their buys that Stoke have done well. They sold Asmir Begovic to Chelsea for £8 million last summer because they knew Jack Butland was ready to play in the Premier League. They also sold Steven N'Zonzi to Sevilla for £7 million and that was another brave move because, like Begovic, he had been a mainstay for them.

It's easy to mention the flair players Hughes has signed, such as Bojan Krkic, Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri, but he has blended them with the best bits of the Pulis team. Glenn Whelan does a really good job in midfield. You're not going to leave the Britannia Stadium saying remember that pass, shot or goal from the Ireland international, but he gives everything in every game and sets their pressing tempo. Every club needs a Whelan, somebody who has been around the Premier League for a long time and knows it inside out.

Ryan Shawcross is a real defensive anchor for them. They have kept clean sheets in six of the nine league games he has started this season.

There's too much emphasis today on passing for the sake of passing, but his side don't do that. They are incisive and have a nice mix to their play. The balance is right. If you are playing in the opposition's half, it's less likely you will concede goals. They are not overplaying it on the edge of their 18-yard box and play their football further up the pitch.

I can see them winning tomorrow because Stoke are playing with their tails up and we don't know which Liverpool will turn up. Will it be the Liverpool who won at Manchester City or the one who lost at Newcastle, Watford and were again disappointing at West Ham on Saturday?

I was at the Watford defeat and they were toothless and lightweight. They didn't win a challenge from the first to the last minute.

They have not shown the consistency to get into the top four or to do some damage in the Premier League.

Liverpool have to be in the Champions League and they have to put a run together and hope confidence builds from that for a storming end to the season, because the first part has been too patchy.

The League Cup is a bonus, the priority is finishing in the top four.

In contrast, the competition is a big thing for Stoke and for Hughes' managerial career. I moved to Newcastle after winning it with Blackburn. If you win a trophy and get yourself knocking on the door of the Champions League, your name will be mentioned when the bigger jobs come up.

How you come across in the media and the type of football your team plays is also important today, but success certainly helps.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'Stoke's progress proves you can't buy instant success'. Print Edition | Subscribe