Stoke City: Joselu a Blend of the Old and the New for Mark Hughes

joselu

During Stoke City’s recent away win over Swansea, Joselu produced a stunning overhead kick. He may have flashed it high and wide of the mark, although only narrowly, but in some ways, it seemed to signify the newness of Stoke’s approach under Mark Hughes.

For starters, this was an impressive feat of technique, and the fact that it didn’t entirely come off seemed to be beside the point. After all, the 25-year-old striker, formerly of Real Madrid, combined skill, flair and instinct in a single moment. It was almost as if he wanted to show that the old Stoke, characterised by brawn and bustle under Tony Pulis, was a thing of the past. Throw in the short but exciting Bojan and Xherdan Shaqiri, two players also acquired through Hughes, and the Potters were contributing traces of high-grade technique punctuated by some impressive passing.

Hughes seemed to agree. “I thought we were calm in possession, knocked the ball around really well and obviously Swansea have a reputation for that, but I thought we more than matched them,” he said. This was especially prevalent in the first half, as although Stoke gave the ball away in a number of dangerous situations, they highlighted their new-found commitment to more of a possession game.

Therefore, when it comes to Joselu, there’s not much to dispute his team-player fit. “You can see technically he’s very adept, getting his body in the right position to take chances. That would suggest he will score goals for us,” Hughes said of his new signing in pre-season. “We’re really pleased to get him on board. He’s a player I think complements the qualities of the front players we already have. He fits right into the middle of the players in the squad.”

That’s certainly true in terms of Stoke’s more technical approach in the final third, but it’s equally applicable to their recruiting strategy, too. Indeed, in recent times, the club have opted to go for high-pedigree athletes. Bojan, for example, spent his formative years at Barcelona before moving to Roma. Shaqiri played for both Inter and Bayern Munich, while Marko Arnautovic, in previous seasons, was also on Inter’s books.

Joselu, too, has experienced football at the highest level. After scoring twice in the 2009 European Under-19 Championships, he was acquired by Real Madrid. He then returned to his previous employer, Celta Vigo, on loan for a single season, before going on to make an impact for Madrid’s B team. He netted 40 times in 72 matches for Real Madrid Castilla, over two campaigns, and in the 2010-11 season, he and Alvaro Morata scored 14 goals apiece, forming a dynamic partnership in the process.

Those impressive showings may have been enough to earn Joselu two outings with the senior side, but despite scoring in both of those appearances while continuing to impress for the reserves, he could do little to climb above the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Even so, Joselu enjoyed his time under Madrid’s then-manager José Mourinho, claiming that the Portuguese was “very friendly” on the training ground, and although he learnt a lot in the Spanish capital, he knew he needed to move on in order to further his development as a footballer.

Joselu’s next stop was Hoffenheim, a German Bundesliga side, but the shift didn’t exactly work out as he would’ve hoped. After hitting five goals throughout 2012/13, his first league season, Joselu, along with a number of Hoffenheim’s other high-profile players, was demoted to manager Markus Gisdol’s now-infamous “Trainingsgruppe II.” That, in effect, left him to ply his trade away from the main group, and for the Stuttgart-born youth prodigy, it must have been tough to go from flying high in Madrid, albeit with the B team, to cast aside at Hoffenheim.

It wasn’t a position any professional footballer would want to find himself in, and so, from that point on, Joselu had to fight his way back in the Bundesliga. That started with a loan spell at Eintracht Frankfurt, where he not only improved his output in front of goal, scoring nine times in the league, but also added another layer to his game.

Indeed, standing at 6-foot-3, Joselu needed to add more physicality to his play, and after winning a lowly 2.5 aerial duels per game at Hoffenheim, he immediately set about bumping that up at Frankfurt. By season’s end, he averaged six successful aerial duels per game, while in a defensive sense, he also improved his tackle numbers, from 11 the season before to 16 under Frankfurt manager Armin Veh.

It’s hard to say whether these improvements came by way of adaptation to Germany or through a simple shift in work-rate, but irrespective of that, Joselu was developing a hardness to his approach. Rumour had it that even Carlo Ancelotti, who succeeded Mourinho at Real Madrid, thought about bringing the striker back to Los Blancos, so impressed was he by the enhancements to Joselu’s game.

Ultimately, though, that move never eventuated, and Hoffenheim instead sold the Spaniard to Hannover, another Bundesliga outfit. In terms of the scoresheet, Joselu didn’t progress a great deal, adding eight goals in the league and a further three assists, but he did continue to build upon his on-pitch presence. He made 24 tackles, another lift from the previous season, and enhanced his numbers for interceptions, too.

But despite those rises, his steepest incline, in terms of performance, again came in the skies. Far from the slick yet wiry youngster who once signed for Hoffenheim, Joselu became one of the Bundesliga’s dominant aerialists, over the 2014/15 campaign, by winning 6.9 aerial duels per game. Only Stefan Kiessling, the towering Bayer Leverkusen forward, produced a superior figure, and after initially entering the German game as a player who failed to take advantage of his sizeable frame, Joselu had now established himself as a physical force.

Maybe because of that, Stoke soon came calling. “He was one of our key targets this summer and we have been working on him for over a year,” Tony Scholes, Stoke’s chief executive, said upon his acquisition. “The scouts thought he was the kind of player Mark wanted because he had the right attributes and was something a bit different to what we’ve got at the moment.”

That he is, and in many ways, one of the nice things about Joselu is his unique blend of abilities. Combine his slick link-up play and the technical more technical side of his game with the appetite for the contest he developed in Germany, and what you’ve got is a mix of the old Stoke and the new one. Indeed, he can leap for long balls and bring his teammates into the game when Stoke are struggling for traction in attack, or he can exchange passes neatly with players like Bojan and Shaqiri.

In that same match against Swansea, where Joselu supplied that acrobatic overhead kick, he also battled for the ball. He won five aerial duels, three more than any of his teammates on the day, and his physicality even forced Ashley Williams, one of Swansea’s centre-backs, to lead with an elbow as he leapt for a long ball. Williams was subsequently booked for that attempt, and his rashness went some way towards portraying Joselu’s strength in the air.

In defence, as well, the Spaniard tracked back to an impressive degree. Along with Bojan, Stoke’s No 10, he dropped back into a very deep position, with the object of cutting the supply to Swansea’s central midfielders. He completed three of his five attempted tackles as he carried out these duties, on one occasion even sparking an impressive counter-attack in the process. In that sense, he wasn’t lacking in the defensive phase of proceedings, and speaking post-match, his attitude was indicative of this on-pitch approach. “It was a difficult game for us,” he said, “but the important thing was to get the three points, and everyone worked hard to win the game – that’s it.”

Joselu went on to say that it was important to take advantage of the opportunity to start, as in previous matches, he had often been left on the bench. Now, of course, the impending return of Mame Diouf, together with the re-inclusion of Jonathan Walters, will only serve to increase the level of competition for places. Joselu will have to work hard if he is to eventually overtake those players in the starting line-up, but in recent days, one of Arsenal’s defenders has given him some added motivation.

Indeed, Per Mertesacker was rather harsh on Joselu when speaking of the need for English Premier League teams to spend big. “I believe the Bundesliga are benefitting from this rather than being damaged,” he told Kicker. “For example, when a mediocre club like Stoke spends almost €10 million on an average player from Hannover, then that’s lucrative for the German club.”

Assuming Mertesacker’s words haven’t been mistranslated, Joselu would surely take exception to being branded an “average player.” After all, he added a real toughness to his game over the course of three seasons in the Bundesliga, and that, along with his impressive technique, means that he has the capability to shine for his new side.

Granted, his sizeable transfer fee does add a bit of pressure, but on paper, at least, there’s no reason why Joselu can’t perform in England. As he showed against Swansea, he has all of the qualities to complement his teammates. Now it’s up to him to prove it, and starting with Stoke’s clash with Watford on Saturday, he will be aiming to do just that.