How Stoke stretched their ambitions in Barcelona, by the men who made it happen
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The Potters remain a powerful and physical force, but now also combine a more possession-based philosophy with greater artistic ability. That's not to downplay Tony Pulis's tenure at the club: the now-West Brom chief was integral in Stoke’s progression from mid-table Championship side to stabilised Premier League outfit.
It's just that now, Hughes can bring in the type of technically proficient players nobody would have pictured at the club two years ago. When at one point it was almost impossible to look past Rory Delap’s superhuman cannonballs into the box, Stoke are now scouring the talent pools of Spain’s best clubs in search of their next signing (though not to forget the mightily impressive arrival of Xherdan Shaqiri from Inter).
All about the Muni
"Muni [Marc Muniesa] was obviously the first one who came to the club," Hughes begins as FFT pops some questions at a recent press conference at Clayton Wood. "I think conversations that I had with him [helped], and maybe my experience at Barcelona as a young player."
The former Manchester United striker only spent a season at Camp Nou, however, where he had Gary Lineker for company up front and Terry Venables as manager.
"It was probably an opportunity missed in terms of my playing career because I didn't really understand what I needed to do to be a successful player there," Hughes admits.
"I always look back on it with regret. Maybe that experience helped when I was in conversation with Marc, who was making a big decision at the time to leave a club of the stature of Barcelona. Maybe that resonated with him, and was something of an advantage I had."
Unlike Hughes, however, Muniesa never started a game for Barça, making only four substitute appearances in five seasons. He became the second-youngest player in the club’s history to make his debut, but was sent off for a fairly innocuous challenge within minutes of coming off the bench. In 2012, he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in his right knee which ruled him out for six months.
With opportunities few and far between, the then-21-year-old centre-back left for Stoke on a free transfer in 2013, perhaps disheartened by experiences in Catalonia. "It's not easy and you have to have a good strength of character to concede that you're going to have to shut the door on a dream that you’ve had for a long, long time,” Hughes muses. “He was prepared to do that and saw us as a good option."
I always look back on my time at Barça with regret. Maybe that experience helped when I was in conversation with Marc
It was up to Muniesa to prove himself in a new country – and he wasn't an instant success. "He had to be patient, he didn't just walk straight into the team,” says Hughes of the defender who has just signed a new four-year contract at the Britannia. “He had to work really hard and probably wasn't physically strong enough initially when he came, but he worked exceptionally hard in the gym.”
- Xherdan Shaqiri (Inter, £12m)
- Joselu (Hannover, £5.5m)
- Philipp Wollscheid (B Leverkusen, £2.5m)
- Jakob Haugaard (FC Midtjylland, £400k)
- Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea, loan)
- Ibrahim Affelay (Barcelona, free)
- Moha (Barcelona, free)
- Shay Given (Aston Villa, free)
- Glen Johnson (Liverpool, free)
Four former Barça players have now relocated from Spain to Staffordshire in the last two years, after Bojan was followed by Moha El Ouriachi and Ibrahim Afellay. Another from Real Madrid, highly-rated defensive midfielder Sergio Molina, recently made his debut for the club’s under-21s.
"The players who came through La Masia like Muniesa, Bojan and Moha are educated the right way," Stoke head scout Kevin Cruickshank tells FFT. "You know they are going to be technically very good and you know that they can play."
It's not always such a smooth transition when Barcelona players leave behind such a distinct ideology, and the same can be said of those moving the other way, but it's certainly become easier since the Potters adopted a slightly more refined strategy.
"We wanted pace in our team, which is why we brought in Moha," Cruickshank confesses. "Bojan and Muniesa are very intelligent, clever players on the ball, and Mark likes that versatility. Muni can play centre-back, left-back and central midfield. We feel Bojan is in his best position in our team, which is in behind the striker; he can play wide or as a nine but we feel his best position is as a No.10."
PULIS TRANSFERS 2012/13
(Tony Pulis's last summer in charge)
- Charlie Adam (Liverpool, £4m)
- Steven N'Zonzi (Blackburn, £3m)
- Jack Butland (Birmingham, £2.5m)
- Michael Kightly (Wolves, £2.5m)
- Brek Shea (FC Dallas, £2m)
- Geoff Cameron (Houston, £1.5m)
- Maurice Edu (Rangers, £400k)
- Jamie Ness (Rangers, free)
At Barcelona, Bojan fell out of favour when Pep Guardiola took over as coach and is now at his fourth club in as many years after largely unsuccessful spells at Roma, Milan and Ajax. Still only 24, Bojan started 14 league matches last term, three fewer than his record haul of 17 from the previous campaign in Holland after a cruciate knee ligament injury cut short his season in January. "He's not quite at the level that he was before the injury," Hughes notes, though the attacker has recently stepped up his workload with 90 minutes for the under-21s.
The Potteries make for interesting surroundings for someone who has recently lived in Rome, Milan and Amsterdam. "They don't get hassle," says Cruickshank. "People are used to seeing footballers in that area, so they can walk around without getting pestered. When Bojan broke into the team at Barcelona, he couldn't walk out his front door because of paparazzi and he couldn't go out to eat with his girlfriend. Here, he is left to get on with his life."
Dutch winger Afellay was perhaps just as big a surprise at Stoke, with the winger's talent rarely glimpsed at Camp Nou due to a succession of injuries.
He had no such problems at Olympiakos last season, though, which prompted Hughes to make his move. "I think Ibrahim is better than I thought he would be in fairness," the Stoke chief admits. "Obviously he hadn't been training with a group because he was in between clubs. [But] he doesn't look like he’s struggled with the workload we’ve given him, which shows he’s put a lot of work in himself."
Stoke’s scouting department clearly enjoy poking around Spain, then, but how exactly have they formed such a profitable relationship with the reigning European champions?
"We don't really have a relationship as such; we get on well with them through the transfers that we’ve done, and they have always been very open to us," shrugs Cruickshank. "Our chief executive Tony Scholes obviously deals a lot with his equivalent at Barcelona.
It's so difficult for their young players to break into the first team, which makes it easier to get them from their second and third teams
"It's so difficult for their young players to break into the first team, which makes it easier to get them from their second and third teams. We’ve always gone about things the right way."
Cruickshank thinks that Hughes's previous history with the Catalans has been a huge influence. "It’s definitely helped," he affirms. "When we sign players they always sit down with the manager before we put pen to paper because the gaffer wants to tell them about Stoke, how we play and how they are going to fit in.
"He also likes to get a feel for their character. With people like Bojan, Muniesa and Afellay, they speak to Mark Hughes as he has also moved countries. Because he’s played for Barcelona they can relate."
Hughes agrees. "It's helped," confirms the Potters' chief. "It certainly hasn't hindered, that connection I had with the club. There are still people there that I know, and whenever I'm over there I see familiar faces. It's not always going to get you the players you want, but it maybe gets your foot in the door and that helps."
So far it's worked for Hughes, which leads the Welshman onto his next task: getting both feet through the door for Europe. You wouldn't bet against it.