Will Hughes: A Man Reborn Under Oliver Glasner, Proof All Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

Will Hughes is a man reborn under Crystal Palace’s new boss, Oliver Glasner.

While much has been made of in-form striker Jean-Phillipe Mateta in recent weeks, and quite rightly so after netting 10 goals in 12 games since the Austrian’s arrival, Hughes has also enjoyed a resurgence at the backend of the 2023-24 Premier League season, unforeseen by many of the Palace faithful.

After concluding yet another weekend with a victory following a 3-1 win against Wolves in the Eagles’ penultimate fixture of the campaign, Glasner’s side have entered a period of red-hot form that has left the build-up to match days similarly reminiscent to those before Christmas as a child. In the last few weeks, the Red and Blue Army have witnessed the dismantling of several teams, including West Ham, Newcastle United, and Manchester United.

So, on Friday, it was not a surprise when Palace announced that Hughes had extended his contract until the summer of 2025, following his formidable partnership with £18 million January arrival Adam Wharton at the base of the Eagles midfield.

Unfortunately for the Weybridge-born midfielder, injury is an unwanted constant in the Palace narrative, and after one of his trademark tackles at Molineux in the early stages of the match, he was forced off with a knee injury, which is likely to cut his season short a week early.

Oliver Glasner arrived at Selhurst Park with a distinctive style of play. At Wolfsburg and Frankfurt, the Austrian deployed his teams in a 3-4-2-1 formation. A philosophy built on teams pressing high up the pitch in order to force the turnover of possession in dangerous positions to threaten the opposition, the midfield duo are a pivotal link in this system between the defence and the forward players, tasked with being excellent defensively and offensively.

At the beginning of his reign in South London, the 49-year-old had Wharton and Lerma performing that role, who were perfectly suited to it. However, when Glasner revealed the Columbian had injured himself in the Nottingham Forest fixture, it is fair to say fans were not overjoyed with the inevitable replacement, Hughes. After a difficult start to life playing under the Austrian, following a miserable defeat on the South Coast in rainy Bournemouth, further doubt set in about the Englishman’s ability to fulfil Glasner’s demands as the Eagles flirted with relegation.

However, the culture change at Palace, catalysed by the introduction of Glasner to the club, has led to major changes behind the scenes. The Austrian is ambitious; therefore, he applies significant demands on the players; he is big on “intrinsic motivation” and wants them to understand that he desires their improvement for their own individual reasons as well as for the benefit of the team.

To demonstrate the extent to which Hughes’ game has evolved since the mentorship of Glasner and his backroom staff, which was largely installed on the now-infamous trip to Marbella during the international break, it is important to evidence his progression as a modern central midfielder.

By comparing Hughes’ final five Premier League matches for Roy Hodgson’s Palace to Glasner’s first five games in the dugout that fbref.com* supply data for, excluding the latest fixture against Wolves as a result of his early injury, there is a stark advancement in his overall game as a midfielder.

*fbref.com was chosen not only because it is easy to use but also it provides a range of comprehensive statistical evidence that is formatted in an effective way.

Hodgson’s final five games (as according to fbref.com): Brentford, Arsenal, Sheffield United, Brighton, and Chelsea (Everton is not included as no data is available).

Glasner’s first five games (as according to fbref.com): Bournemouth, Liverpool, West Ham, Newcastle United, and Manchester United.

First of all, Glasner’s philosophy relies significantly on patient build up play in the middle and final third, probing the opposition backline and getting the ball as close to the opponent’s goal as possible to manufacture opportunities to score for Olise, Mateta, or Eze. Hughes has excelled in this regard. Under Hodgson, the Englishman completed four progressive passes (PrgPass), whereas under Glasner, he has completed six times that with 24 PrgPass. It’s also important to consider that passes away from an opponent’s goal are not counted as a PrgPass.

Furthermore, to dispel any doubt as to the effectiveness of these PrgPass stats, he has also improved the progressive distance (PrgDist) of these passes. For example, in Hodgsons low block, his passes went a PrgDist of 386 yards; however, under Glasner, they more than doubled, going 874 yards. Following that, the 29-year-old also made 15 passes into the final third of the pitch, which is an improvement from the seven he mustered under the veteran manager.

Even though the former Watford midfielder provided one more key pass for Hodgson as opposed to Glasner, five and four, respectively, 90% of the former’s came in the 77-year-old’s final match at Selhurst Park against Chelsea, which he lost 3-1. The even distribution of key passes under Glasner is evidence of the consistency he has added to his game.

Overall, there has been a noticeable improvement on the offensive side of the Englishman’s passing under the former Bundesliga coach.

Furthering the idea that the midfield pivot is a crucial link between the defence and attack in a Glasner system, Hughes received two progressive passes under Hodgson compared to eight under the Austrian. Progressive passes received exclude passes from the defending 40% of the pitch, indicating that he is comfortable receiving the ball higher up the pitch.

Not only is the midfielder receiving the ball higher up the pitch, but he is also creating chances to score. He completed 11 live-ball passes that led to a shot attempt, 11 shot-creating actions, and most importantly, three goal-creating actions since the Bournemouth fixture. Therefore, Hughes has been instrumental in the attacking phase of play for the Eagles, his contribution leading to two goals against West Ham in the 5-2 victory and one goal in the 2-0 victory three days later versus Newcastle. Interestingly enough, under Hodgson, he was responsible for zero-goal-creating actions.

In a bizarre turn of events, he is no longer the one committing the fouls; instead, he has taken on the mantle of drawing the fouls (10) that break up play.

Hughes has always thrived when it comes to his passing stats, but even the most basic ones, such as short, medium, and long, have all increased in number. He now makes 23 more short passes (67 to 97), 19 extra medium range passes (57 to 76), and four further long balls (eight to 12).

Another strength of the former England under-21 international’s game is his tackling, marked by bellows of “Huuughes!” every time he flies in to one of his trademark challenges. Data for the Brighton game on this particular stat is not available, so the Brentford game is now included to ensure a fair test. Given the contrasting styles of play and the rich vein of form Wharton is experiencing, it was not a surprise that he attempted more tackles with a higher success rate under Hodgson (8/12) than under Glasner (5/11), given the shared responsibility and domination of possession that has come in the last few games.

In saying that, Hughes’ defensive importance remains, with the central midfielder providing ten blocks under the Saltzburg born manager compared to three under Hodgson.

Following Glasner’s coaching, it is apparent that Hughes is growing in confidence; he is eager to advance the team up the pitch and occupy dangerous positions in the final third. By taking on more responsibility with the ball at his feet, there is a directness to his game emerging. When he featured for Hodgson, he performed 63 carries; on the other hand, for Glasner, he made 105 carries. The total distance of these carries is even more remarkable, increasing by a monumental 220 yards, with 214 yards in comparison to 434 yards.

Furthermore, Hughes’ touches are gradually coming in more meaningful positions across the midfield, where he is highly likely to affect the game. While he has made 100 extra touches under the former Europa League winner, 153 compared to 253, respectively, he is showing a desire to want the ball in the advanced areas of the pitch. In the attacking third, his 46 touches are a marked improvement on the 29 under Hodgson, but it’s in the middle third of the pitch where he is truly shining, making 110 further touches (49 to 158). However, he is still dropping deep to receive the ball in the defensive third, which has also improved by 24 touches (26 to 50).

It is clear that Glasner has recognised the supercity of his individual performances, with the Englishman having featured in 558 of the 630 available minutes since Lerma’s injury, 88.6% of maximum first-team game time.

For Hughes, it is unlikely that he will displace either Wharton or Lerma in the starting line up; with Doucoure returning next season and David Ozoh waiting in the wings, he will fall further down the pecking order. As was mentioned earlier, Glasner values personal development for the betterment of his players careers as well as the team, and Hughes’ resurgence in form could be enough to earn him a move in the summer, perhaps to a promoted side.

Overall, Hughes is proof that all good things come to those who wait.

(Stats provided by website Fbref)

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