Mark Hughes’ first season in charge of Stoke City has been successful in many ways, not just breaking the points and position record or changing the style of football, but the way he’s given certain players more freedom and responsibility.
One of them is the vastly under-rated Glenn Whelan, the 30 year-old Irishman joined Stoke back in 2008 for £500K and has always been a player I have rated, however under the previous regime he wasn’t given the opportunity to perform to his ultimate ability.
Under Tony Pulis, Whelan played central midfield or “in the cage” as Pulis once put it. Often by-passed for the more direct balls aimed at the target man or into the channels.
This season was different; we have seen the best of Whelan. He has played in a defensive midfield role where he has thrived. His distribution and touch is first class, but more than that his positional sense and reading the game adds a vital contribution when defending.
Last season, Whelan seemed to be a more commanding presence in the midfield area, stronger into challenges, winning his fair share plus his passing is his greatest attribute. This backed up by his overall pass succession rate at 88%, just better than his regular CDM partner Steven N’Zonzi (87%). Having players like Whelan and N’Zonzi will have helped Hughes change the philosophy and style inside the Stoke dressing room and hopefully start to change the attitude from outside the club.
He is a player that gets his work done quietly without receiving the plaudits somewhat unfairly. The Irishman is often the scapegoat with fans crying for him to close down or play the ball in a more forwards direction. The calls are harsh because Whelan’s position can stop the opposition from creating space in a central area, in front of the back four, or he can help Stoke to dictate the passage of play.
His calmness helps, the way he can control a game and pick out teammates for fun will be vital for Stoke to continue to progress next season. Hughes obviously regards him highly as he gave Whelan the armband to captain the side against Fulham, whilst Ryan Shawcross was suspended.
For me Whelan was Stoke City’s Player of the Season, the unsung hero of such a fabulous season. I for one would be extremely disappointed not to see his name on the teamsheet when the Premier League season restarts on Saturday/Sunday 16th/17th August.