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Mar 16, 2014

Silky Stoke starting to take shape

Mark Hughes completed his first double as Stoke manager in his 300th game in the dugout, beating a one dimensional West Ham United 3-1. It was somewhat ironic watching West Ham, the self styled purveyors of the beautiful game, adopt tactics more akin to those often seen at Stoke over the years. Andy Carroll was of course a threat with every ball lumped up to him but the Potters passed around their opponents with flair, devastating them on the counter.

Much of the run up to the match was about how the absences of Charlie Adam and Jonathan Walters would affect the side, but any concerns were quickly laid to rest as their replacements performed so exceptionally well. For me though, it's more than that. I've long since argued that despite his goal contribution Adam is not suited to Stoke's new shape and style; he offers Peter Crouch no support whatsoever and is far too far behind any breaks that come the side's way.

- Thorne: Awayday despair for Allardyce

Similarly, Walters is often a target of my ire given that every counter-attack seems to stop as soon as the ball makes its way to him; the system needs pace and incision on the break and on Saturday, fans saw a glimpse of what Hughes can achieve with the right players in the right positions.

It was interesting that this game, where neither Adam nor Walters played, highlighted their relative failings more than any they had taken part in. Stephen Ireland's mastery of the number 10 role was the difference on the day and his decision making, timing and positional sense meant that every break was meaningful and had fans off their seats. He knows how to play that role to a tee and any who perhaps doubted him can now see why Hughes is so keen to tie the Irishman down to a longer deal. He was unlucky not to grab at least one goal for himself having made a couple of well timed runs in behind Crouch, the big man clearly enjoyed having someone to play off in close attendance as he too had his best game for some time.

The other main threat on the day was Marko Arnautovic, who has gone from strength to strength since Oussama Assaidi's injury presented him with the chance to impress with a prolonged run in the side. It was always going to be a difficult season for him in a new country and whilst he made a relatively slow start he has come on leaps and bounds in recent weeks and is now one of the first names on the team sheet. His work rate was immense, he chased every single lost cause, every ball back to the opposition keeper and I was delighted that he managed to get on the score sheet in front of the home crowd; his performances of late deserved it. His decision making gets better and better and having players on the same wavelength ahead and inside him only seemed to spur him on; the cheeky rabona was an added bonus.

Saturday's game was a telling indication of what the manager is looking to achieve and the thought of him bringing in more players in the image of that tactical aspiration is pretty exciting; a strong pacey striker added to the frontline, as seen on Saturday, is enough to whet the appetite of any fan.

It was nice to hear the manager's name being sung from the stands too, I can't remember the last time that happened consistently and hearing "Mark Hughes' barmy army" ringing around the Britannia will be a welcome boost to the gaffer. That appreciation and recognition will hopefully serve as a catalyst to the sales of the upcoming early bird season ticket offers as the club seek to reclaim the 2,000 or so who had had enough last season.

Thirty-four points sees Stoke able to stop looking over their shoulder quite as much and sitting in 10th place Hughes will be looking to stay in the top half of the table for the remainder of the campaign. A tricky visit to Aston Villa awaits next week with the Villans buoyed by their own winning performance, against Chelsea. Their pace will test Stoke's backline, but there's no reason why the Potters won't turn up in good spirits and rightly focus on what THEY can do to the opposition. Based on Saturday's performance, that's a hell of a lot.