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Farewell Old Stoke, Hello Tiki-Taka-on-Trent

With their collection of Clasico cast-offs, Stoke City have become one of the most intriguing teams in the Premier League.
August 4, 2015, 3:27pm

(Ed. note: This week, VICE Sports previews the start of the 2015 Premier League Season. You can find all the stories here. This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.)

It might not have been enough to snap you from your transfer tattle-induced slumber, but one of football's more compelling news items last week involved Stoke City signing the Dutch winger Ibrahim Affelay.

On the face of it, a 29-year-old free agent joining a mid-table club is just about as unremarkable as transfer news gets. Zoom out a bit, though, and apply a bit of context, and the emerging picture becomes altogether more interesting.

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As many reports noted, the addition of Affelay to the existing cohort of Bojan Krkic, Moha El Ouriachi and Marc Muniesa takes the number of former Barcelona players on Stoke's books to four. Another summer signing, Joselu, was schooled at Real Madrid. It's an odd trend: a coal mining hotbed in Staffordshire doesn't jump out as the most natural destination for a stray La Masia graduate, even before considering the recent aesthetic traditions of the club itself.

Along with adding to their collection of Clasico cast-offs, this summer has also seen the banishment of Wilson Palacios and Andy Wilkinson, two players whose capacity to manipulate the flight of a football was always far outweighed by their willingness to plough into opponents with bone-shuddering intent. After last season's zestful play hinted at the ushering-in of a new era in the Potteries – call it tiki-taka-on-Trent – we can now definitively wave goodbye to the Stoke of Old, the team typified by thundering tackles, becapped coaches and unrelenting aerial bombardment.

While Mark Hughes, heading into his third season at the club's helm, might appear to be cut from a similar cloth to predecessor Tony Pulis – a very British cloth of bulging quadriceps, touchline dust-ups, and a brow permanently set in a raging scowl – this is where the similarities end. Hughes' divergence from the School of Tony runs far deeper than his preference for a finely tailored ensemble to the cap-and-tracksuit combo. Two years into the job, he has comprehensively transformed a club that for so long acted as a byword for windswept brutality.

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An assortment of Afellay skills set to rousing music. Calm yourselves, Stoke fans.

Where once stood James Beattie, there is now Bojan Krkic. A midfield formerly manned by Liam Lawrence and Dean Whitehead is now home to the rather more delicate stylings of Mario van Ginkel and Stephen Ireland. It all speaks of a profound and quite deliberate remodelling. Godspeed to them: the Premier League is full of clubs whose management speak grandly of self-entitled 'projects', but look to Stoke and you'll see one whose actions actually correspond to the term.

But there is much to be lamented, too, in the loss of the Stoke of Old. Because while the Premier League, since picking up its ball and marching indignantly away from the Football League over two decades ago, has played host to teams of all shapes, sizes and styles, none have been anything like the first incarnation of Stoke, introduced to the division in the summer of 2008.

David Foster Wallace once wrote that beauty is to top-level sport as courage is to war, but he never watched Stoke City under Tony Pulis. Not only did their MO run counter to all football's in-vogue notions of artistry, but it did so with rampant success. Soon after their promotion, even the country's most skilled and glamorous sides made sure to don their hard hats and steel toe-capped boots before heading to the Britannia with trepidation.

At the top of Stoke's hitlist, of course, was Arsenal. Again and again, Stoke's unapologetically vicious tactics bludgeoned Islington's finest into forlorn submission, denying them a small fortune of points and coaxing Robin van Persie into one of the most hilariously petulant red cards of the modern age.

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Conveniently, this all came at exactly the time when Pep Guardiola's Barcelona were popularising their much-vaunted brand of fast-passing finesse as football's own expression of aesthetic perfection, and provided the perfect antidote. So for Stoke City, of all clubs, to now be conforming to the latter idea feels like an ideological defeat of some sort.

But pseudy nonsense aside, the obvious reading of the remoulding of Stoke into a kind of Barca-lite is as yet another symptom of the Premier League's ongoing and riotously successful economic expansion project. If Richard Scudamore is Darth Vader, England's top tier is his Death Star, and with the tide of money flowing his way having redoubled with February's mammoth TV deal, one of the hallmarks of this summer has been a notable upgrade in the calibre of player lured by previously uninviting mid-ranking sides (see the recruiting of Yohan Cabaye to Crystal Palace, of Dimitri Payet to West Ham – or of Glen Johnson to Stoke City).

In which case there would be a certain degree of irony at play, given that the Stoke of Old might just have epitomised one of the keys to the Premier League's lucrative popularity. Not Stoke in and of themselves, exactly, but the Stoke-driven notion of a league in which a team so unfashionable and of such defiant inelegance could become established and competitive.

It is sad that a new generation of fans will grow up not knowing the terror of a Rory Delap long throw | Photo by PA Images

Famously, Andy Gray once posited that the true barometer of FC Barcelona's greatness lay – brilliantly – in their ability to cope with a Pulisian onslaught at the Britannia. You may hate Gray and all he stands for but there was a truth buried within his surface-level inanity. Here was a self-professed PR man for the Premier League attempting to cut to the heart of its aura by invoking not the Theatre of Dreams or Anfield's Kop, but the bloodthirsty battleground of the Britannia.

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He probably had a point: in a competition that could not lay claim to either the best teams or the best players, the fact that a collection of shaven-headed psychopaths who weren't especially good at football could prove so upwardly mobile hinted at an alternative USP. La Liga might have Ronaldo and Messi, but rarely is its hierarchy hurled into disarray by the throw-ins of a jug-eared Southampton reject. So: perhaps the Premier League's success is becoming self-defeating.

Except things are never that simple. As tempting as it is to interpret Stoke's renovation in light of February's obscene TV rights deal, correlation may not mean causation. After all, the project of de-Stoking Stoke commenced with Hughes' appointment, which predates February's windfall by nearly two years. Before that, it was not as though Pulis's ultra-agricultural tactics were borne of any pre-windfall austerity policies (only Chelsea and Manchester City exceeded Stoke's net transfer spend during his time in charge) and nor was the division they came into seven years ago a place untouched by money or glamour. Equally, the makeover of Stoke, as curious a case study as it is, does not necessarily equate to a league-wide stylistic upgrade, a comprehensive flushing-out of all brawn and browbeating from England's top flight.

And yet it is hard not to feel that with each passing year, with each new horde of Sky Sports subscriptions, and with each upsurge in TV money, the likelihood of another promoted club replicating Stoke's formula of survival-by-violence seems less and less plausible. And that fact, if true, carries a certain element of tragedy.

Ultimately, only time will reveal whether the death and rebirth of Stoke is indeed emblematic of a wider sea-change or simply the consequences of one club's well-executed restoration plans. Either way, before we sit back and soak up the frisson that Stoke's coming season will surely provide, it's worth briefly bowing our heads to mourn the passing of a side who stake as big a claim to being genuinely and meaningfully unique as any to have played in England's revamped top flight.

@a_hess