At one point one of the highest rated young players in Europe, Bojan Krkic seemed destined for an illustrious career. Such was his promise, he made his Barcelona debut aged 17 years and 19 weeks old (breaking the record for youngest first team player previously held by Lionel Messi) and netted twelve goals in his debut season.
Though faltering form and lukewarm loans in Italy and Holland had appeared to dent that promise, his unexpected arrival at the gates of the Britannia has reversed his fortunes. Under the management of Mark Hughes, allowing him a free and mobile role in this increasingly technically proficient Stoke side, Bojan has begun to rediscover his early promise. Exhibiting strong performances throughout the season, his impact on Hughes’ Potters was at its most evident in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Arsenal.
The game’s final scoreline perhaps underplays the quality shown by Stoke, whose domination of the first half left them with a three goal advantage before the break. The first came after just 19 seconds, with the aerial presence of Peter Crouch proving pivotal. Outmuscling two Arsenal men, he headed the ball to Steven N’zonzi on the right flank, who purposefully strode forward before sending a well-placed ball into the box. Following something of a melee in the penalty area, Crouch showed sharpness to turn the ball past Martinez. It was Bojan who found the net for Stoke’s second, picking out Jonathan Walters before ghosting towards the box, evading Arsenal’s back line to calmly slot home from Walters’ cross. Walters added a goal to his assist when, after Crouch knocked down a corner into his path, which he confidently volleyed into the roof of the net.
Three ahead and with a fourth, again from Bojan, spuriously ruled out, Arsenal flattered themselves with a quickfire double, the first a penalty and the second Aaron Ramsey’s well-struck volley from a corner before Stoke reorganised and saw the game out for a valuable three points. With flowing football, quality goals scored, and only conceding from set-pieces, Stoke’s performance demonstrates the reversal in playing style wrought by manager Mark Hughes. In the past typically characterised by “hoof it and hope” long-ball tactics, Hughes has brought an increasing impetus of stylised, on-the-floor football that appeared to come to fruition at home to the Gunners, dominating the first half comfortably and resolute to hold their lead.
Despite a history of victories over Arsenal, who have won just one of their last nine visits to the Britannia, Saturday’s win marked how far Stoke have advanced – previous wins through packed defences and set-piece goals (a tall group, Stoke often towered over Arsenal physically smaller side) have been exchanged for impressive, visually stimulating football.
In his post-match interview manager Mark Hughes was quick to heap praise on the impact of Bojan on his already-improving Stoke team. After peaking early in his career at Barcelona Bojan had found it challenging to maintain that form and consistently make good on his early promise until arriving at Stoke. The freer role permitted by manager Mark Hughes (itself an indicator of his own faith in the player), he has begun to once again flourish and demonstrate the skill and effectiveness that characterised his early career. Furthermore, clearly buoyed by his returning success and faith from Hughes, his work rate has considerably improved, demonstrating his own determination to succeed as well as significantly contributing to results seen on the field.
Looking to build on their ninth place finish in last seasons final standings, a record high since their entry to the Premier League in 2008, Stoke must maintain their current form and ensure they convert good play into goals and, thus, victories. With Bojan continuing to impress and Mark Hughes’ constructive effect on the side’s style of play, Stoke are more than capable of matching these expectations.
How might Stoke ensure the continuation of their encouraging form?