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Glenn Whelan impresses at Euro 2016 amid questions over Stoke role

Zlatan and Ireland players
Glenn Whelan, right, was imperious as Republic of Ireland drew with Sweden at Euro 2016.

When Mark Hughes arrived at Stoke in 2013 eager to put his own stamp on the club, fans could have been be forgiven for thinking that it was a case of out with the old and in with the new.

Given the sea change needed to implement his preferred way of playing, though, he soon became aware of the need to transition his side to a less direct and disciplined approach. That meant retaining a number of the old guard to help ease that evolution with the likes of Jon Walters, Peter Crouch and Glenn Whelan seeing plenty of game time during Hughes' three years to date in Staffordshire.

While Crouch has all but been phased out and Walters started just 18 games last season, Irishman Whelan has proven to be an immovable object in an otherwise new-look midfield, sat in front of the back four.

Arriving in 2008 from Sheffield Wednesday for a bargain £500,000 it took a while for him to be trusted by then manager Tony Pulis, who struggled to keep the reins on a player who often joined his colleagues up-field. That independence of inspiration was soon removed by a manager who expected him to operate within the confines of the much fabled "cage" (an invisible square in front of the defence never to be deserted).

While this was a move that restricted some of his natural talents, it was one that moulded him into a quite formidable defensive midfielder -- one, at 32, is still one of the first names on the teamsheet. That's not to say that both Pulis and Hughes haven't tried to replace him but each and every pretender to his throne has been seen off with kind of dogged determination fans have come to expect.

Having enjoyed arguably his best season yet in 2015-16, he still has to endure stories of replacements being targeted with Axel Witsel the latest to be linked with a move to the central midfield berth to play alongside club-record signing Giannelli Imbula. If anything, the arrival of £18.3 million Imbula has only placed more importance on the defensive discipline of Whelan and in many respects, that leaves Hughes with a big decision to make.

For all his talents, Witsel is not the kind of defensive destroyer that is needed to complement the freedom and flair of others and even with the dozens of names being linked, none stand out as such. The yard-stick against whom all defensive midfielders will now be measured is Leicester's N'Golo Kante. Seemingly the mould was broken with him as there appears to be an extreme dearth of unselfish, defensive powerhouses.

With the manager reverting to more direct tactics during the side's poor run in the final months of the season, the evolution he started three years ago would still appear to be very much a work in progress. In that respect if the intention is to replace Whelan this summer there is little room for failure. On the other hand, there are no guarantees that he will be able to maintain the physically demanding standard he has set himself as he enters the final years of a successful career.

Thankfully, based on his performances in Euro 2016 there is little to suggest that he will do anything other than pick up exactly where he left off in May. The Republic of Ireland's 1-1 draw against Sweden on June 13 was a perfect example of the importance of his talents. Fans could be forgiven for adjusting the colour on their TV sets as while they were trying to catch a glimpse of the mighty Zlatan Ibrahimovic their eyes were constantly drawn to Whelan, the green blur next to him.

He tracked the Swede perfectly and gave him no time on the ball to showcase the talents many are hoping he will be bringing to Manchester United should rumours of a bid from Jose Mourinho prove successful. It was a thankless task from the ultimate team player and one that served to illustrate just how important he has been during his eight years in the Potteries.

Thankfully it's quite on-trend at the moment to celebrate the often unheralded players so his exploits have not gone unnoticed and he is enjoying the plaudits normally reserved for others.

Not that a lack of appreciation has ever been an issue with Hughes, certainly after last season, which makes his decision for exactly what the midfield needs for his fourth campaign at the club even harder.


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