Stoke City enter their tenth consecutive season in the Premier League as a team in transition.
Ever since their promotion to the top flight of English football in 2008 The Potters have been widely perceived as the plucky underdogs – a provincial team from a small working class city that was punching wildly above its weight.
The club initially flourished in a siege-like, ‘them against us’ mentality under the guidance of Tony Pulis who implemented a direct, rigid style of play that bloodied the noses of the so-called ‘big’ clubs, most notably Arsenal. Whilst the football purists would turn their noses up at Stoke’s approach the club’s supporters lauded their appearance in the top flight and created
Whilst the football purists would turn their noses up at Stoke’s approach the club’s supporters lauded their appearance in the top flight and created a herculean atmosphere at the (now named) Bet365 Stadium, creating noise and volume that many thought had become lost in the commercialised world of modern football.
But now, nine years on, Stoke’s standing in the game has changed and there is a sense in The Potteries that the club is struggling to grapple with the role reversal. The club is no longer the plucky underdog, they are an established top-ten team that is a financially imposing business built upon the extravagant riches of the Premier League. Stoke supporters no longer see survival or mid-table mediocrity as equalling success – they want to see their club push on and potentially offer a challenge for European football.
That looked like a distinct possibility following the arrival of Mark Hughes. The Welshman arrived in 2013 and shifted the club into a different gear, guiding Stoke to three top-ten finishes in his opening trio of campaigns on the back of employing a new possession-based style of play built around a new generation of technically proficient players such as Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan Krkic.
In January 2016, after narrowly missing out on a place in the League Cup final after being knocked out on penalties by Liverpool, there was a sudden belief that Stoke could potentially offer a genuine challenge for European football in the near future.
Unfortunately, that belief has slowly dissipated. For Stoke the 2016/17 season was a demonstration of twelve months of regression that resulted in a bottom-half finish – the club ended the campaign closer to the relegation zone than a Europa League spot and suffered early exits from both domestic cup competitions.
Fragile at the back, impotent in front of goal and seemingly lacking any real plan, it was little surprise to see Mark Hughes come under increasing pressure from the stands. Whilst Peter Coates has backed his manager in the press there is little doubt that Hughes needs to deliver in the forthcoming campaign.
There is a new weight of expectancy in The Potteries and Stoke need to come to terms with the fact that, almost a decade after securing promotion, supporters want to see ambition in the transfer market and a much-improved season this time around.
How has their summer gone?
Mark Hughes has openly spoken about his desire to cut down the size of Stoke City’s current first team squad, reducing the average age of the team and providing young talent with playing opportunities. It is a bold move, although it remains something of a gamble. The sale of Jonathan Walters, Glenn
The sale of Jonathan Walters, Glenn Whelan and Phil Bardsley may present an opportunity for Hughes to freshen up his squad but it also sees three of the club’s most solid, reliable professionals depart. It is a necessary risk if the club wishes to progress but leaves The Potters open to a lack of experience, especially if they start the new campaign in poor form.
The departure of Marko Arnautovic also came as a severe body-blow. The Austrian winger has been one the club’s most influential players since his arrival in 2013 and his transfer to West Ham United, forced through by the 28-year-old less than a year since signing a new long-term contract, leaves a significant gap in Stoke’s attack. Arnautovic was directly involved in almost 25% of the club’s goals last season and his creativity, in a team not renowned for being prolific in front of goal, will be sorely missed.
Stoke have slowly started to rebuild over the summer, although they have yet to make any significant investments. Former West Bromwich Albion captain Darren Fletcher (free transfer) will be a slight upgrade on Glenn Whelan whilst unpredictable Ghanaian winger Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting (free transfer) is a direct replacement for Arnautovic.
18-year-old defender Josh Tymon (tribunal) has also joined from relegated Hull City and will compete with Eric Pieters for a spot a left-back whilst Chelsea centre-half Kurt Zouma (season-long loan) will add quality to the heart of the Stoke defence.
Despite their business so far this summer there is still a sense that Stoke need to splash some cash in order to be ready for the start of the season. Bruno Martins Indi, who spent last season on loan at the Bet365 Stadium, is reportedly close to agreeing a permanent move, according to the Stoke Sentinel, whilst Manchester City midfielder Fabian Delph and Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend have also been linked.
However, it could be the return of Bojan Krkic who was shipped out on loan for the second half of last season and the emergence of exciting Egyptian youngster Ramadan Sobhi that could turn out, as the cliché goes, to be like new signings.
Manager: Mark Hughes
Mark Hughes has received public backing from Stoke chairman Peter Coates over the last six months but he remains under pressure to turn the club’s fortune around after a season of regression. The Welshman certainly has an abundance of managerial experience and he has actually built an exciting team on paper at the Bet365 Stadium since his arrival in 2013, but some of his team selections and tactical decisions in the previous campaign left supporters scratching their heads.
Hughes deployed a variety of different formations throughout the previous year including 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 and it would not be presumptuous to suggest that this constant chopping and changing of formation had a negative impact in the team’s performances. He needs to revert to basics – sticking to one system and selecting the best players at his disposal whilst making Stoke hard to beat – if not, he could find himself looking for a new job by the turn of the year.
How could the Potters line-up this season?
Premier League Verdict
Despite the issues that undermined the club’s performances last season, Stoke City still retain a strong squad that has the potential to finish in the top-ten. Whilst the departure of Marko Arnautovic is a blow and the sale of experiences stalwarts such as Jonathan Walters and Glenn Whelan is a gamble, The Potters still have the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan Krkic and Ramadan Sobhi among their number.
The signings of Darren Fletcher, Kurt Zouma and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting appear solid enough although you would imagine that Hughes still needs to splash some cash and make a couple of big-name signings before the transfer window closes in August. If so, then it could be an exciting season ahead.
With the current squad it is likely that The Potters will finish somewhere in mid-table, safe from relegation but still some way off from challenging for European football. Whether that will be seen as success to Stoke’s expectant, ambitious fan base is a different question.