It looks a cut-price way of competing with the best. Stoke City face Chelsea on Saturday, completing a trio of demanding home games. Thus far, they have bridged a gulf in resources. They beat Arsenal, courtesy of a goal from the borrowed Jese Rodriguez. They drew with Manchester United, thanks to a brace from the free transfer Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
Perhaps it is Moneyball, Mark Hughes-style. Undervalued and unwanted players were identified, recruited, reinvented. Stoke proved capable of halting rather more expensively-assembled sides, aided by men who both have the potential to prove the snip of the season. And yet they only provide part of the picture.
Hughes is part bargain-hunter, part spendthrift. He was rightly praised for unearthing Jese and Choupo-Moting. Perceptions may have been different, however, had Arsenal and United been stopped by his two of his biggest buys. Instead Saido Berahino’s first 16 Stoke appearances have yet to yield a goal; this, after his January arrival, was supposed to be his season, but the striker was dropped after proving utterly ineffectual in the season opener at Everton. Giannelli Imbula has been loaned out to Toulouse. The chances of City recouping the club record £18.3 million they spent on the French midfielder are remote.
They highlight the paradox at the heart of Hughes’ management: he fares better with a smaller budget. He can make a little money go a long way, and a lot of money not go far enough. It can explain why he failed at Manchester City with unlimited funds: his two best buys were Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta, bought before Sheikh Mansour’s takeover and when resources were rather more stretched. He had vast resources at QPR, which were largely wasted on unsuitable choices as they were sucked into a vortex of unhappy underachievement.
The odd element is that he is not shopping in different markets. Formerly of Real Madrid, signed from Paris Saint-Germain, Jese conforms to Hughes’ type: talented players who have been at top clubs. It is no coincidence that Stoke have more Champions League winners than any of their Premier League peers.
Hughes can be resourceful and persuasive, coaxing footballers accustomed to rather grander surroundings to join his comparatively unglamorous employers. He targets those on the fringes, players who have been injured or dropped or out of sorts, and offers the prospect of rejuvenation.
At Stoke, as at Blackburn, it has proved a cost-efficient policy. In some cases, wages are substantial, but transfer outlay rarely is. Stoke had the lowest spend of any Premier League club in the summer, just £24.9 million, and recorded a profit, aided by the sale of Marko Arnautovic, a previous example of Hughes’ ability to rehabilitate gifted players bought on the cheap because they were underused by a more prestigious club. It is tempting to suggest the £18 million Kevin Wimmer will prove his worst summer signing, simply because he is the most expensive.
And while not all of his costliest deals have backfired – Carlos Tevez was a catalyst for Manchester City, Joe Allen a class act for Stoke City – there is an unusual element to Hughesonomics: similar signings, or even the same players, can perform best when they cost less. Roque Santa Cruz is a one-man example. He joined Blackburn for £3.5 million and scored 23 goals in his first season. He joined Manchester City for £17.5 million and only scored them four times in four years on their books.
Santa Cruz belongs in both columns, of Hughes’ best and worst buys. No one who has managed for as long as he does has an impeccable record in trading, especially one with as much of a focus on transfers on trading. But few, over the last decade and a half, can claim as many bargains: Santa Cruz, Benni McCarthy, Ryan Nelsen, Christopher Samba, David Bentley and Stephen Warnock at Blackburn, Kompany and Zabaleta at Manchester City, Mousa Dembele for Fulham, Erik Pieters, Bruno Martins Indi and, initially, Bojan Krkic for Stoke. Jese and Choupo-Moting promise to join them, just as they have the potential to trouble Chelsea.
But if one possible explanation is that a manager who objects to expectations prospers with players spared the burden a hefty price tag can bestow, there is no definitive answer why Hughes performs better when he has less to spend. It may deter any cash-rich club from employing him again but it does enable him to claim that, pound for pound, he is one of the best mid-table managers around. Especially when his budget consists of comparatively few pounds.