Stoke City manager Mark Hughes has confirmed that he is looking to place his faith in youth for the forthcoming season as he attempts to re-mould his first team squad after a disappointing 2016/17 campaign.
The Welshman joined The Potters in the summer of 2013 and guided the club to a trio of consecutive top-ten finishes in the Premier League in his first three years in charge.
However, last season the club finished in the bottom half of the table and suffered early exits from both domestic cup competitions, leaving supporters feeling underwhelmed by inconsistent performances and an inability to adequately compete against teams of a similar size.
That has sparked the club into action during the summer with Hughes looking to clear out a number of his aging, more experienced squad members to create opportunities for youth team products to exploit. Glenn Whelan (33), Jonathan Walters (33) and Phil Bardsley (32) have all departed the Bet365 Stadium, with a variety of young players being promoted to the first team squad during Stoke’s pre-season preparations.
It is unclear whether Hughes’ gamble on youth will turn out to be a masterstroke – there is undoubtedly an element of risk in the club selling proven, experienced Premier League players and relying on untested youngsters.
Here, The Boot Room looks at three youth team players that could break into the Stoke City first team this season…
The 18-year-old defender has been one of the most consistent performers in Stoke City’s academy system over the duration of the last two years and has been a central component of the notable success achieved by the club’s under-18 and under-23 squads.
Edwards was impressive throughout the campaign, with his all-action displays as a full back resulting in him being voted as the under-18 squad’s Player of the Season for the second consecutive year and earning a call up to the England under-19s for the first time in June.
Gareth Jennings, Stoke’s Academy Manager, was full of praise for the youngster when he spoke to the Stoke Sentinel earlier this year:
“I was aware of him as a player even before I arrived at Stoke and we have seen him improve tremendously over the course of the season. It’s almost like every time you throw down the next challenge he rises to meet it.”
Edwards is also held in high regard by Mark Hughes and the defender is expected to break into the first team picture next season. He was included in a handful of Premier League match day squads during the previous campaign, although he did not make any appearances, and has been a constant feature in the club’s pre-season preparations during the summer.
Hughes revealed that the 18-year-olds emergence played a key role in the decision to sell Phil Bardsley to Burnley and Edwards is expected to be used a back-up to first choice full-back Glen Johnson over the coming year. The Potters head coach explained:
“I’ve spoken about trying to reduce the amount of senior players and introducing younger players at the top end of the squad. It allows us to maybe invest more fully in the first team eleven. Phil [Bardsley] was obviously part of that thinking and the emergence of Tom Edwards has been really significant.
“We feel that we’re happy enough [with the progress made by Tom Edwards] to let Phil get a longer contract at another club.”
The 18-year-old is widely perceived as being one of the most exciting and technically gifted players currently progressing through Stoke City’s academy system and has attracted attention from a host of clubs across Europe.
Verlinden, who is deployed as either a winger or an attacking midfielder, joined The Potters in 2015 from Standard Liege and his signing was seen as a significant coup for the club. Discussing the youngster’s potential, Mark Hughes revealed that:
“Thibaud is undoubtedly one of the brightest young players that I worked with throughout my management career. He still has plenty of progress to make, but we have all seen at close quarters the talents he possesses.”
Verlinden produced a string of impressive displays for Stoke’s under-18 and under-23 teams last season, despite his campaign being partially disrupted by a back injury, which resulted in a call up to the first team squad where he was named as a substitute for two Premier League fixtures.
The young Belgian has been a regular feature during the club’s pre-season preparations over the summer and the departure or Marko Arnautovic has potentially opened a place in Hughes’ squad for the attacker.
Over the summer Verlinden signed a five-year-professional contract with The Potters, and Chief Executive Tony Scholes told the official club website:
“Thibaud is widely-regarded as one of the finest young talents in the Premier League, so understandably we are delighted to have tied him down to a long-term contract. He is making exceptional progress and although he still has a great deal of hard work in front of him, he knows that he is in exactly the right place to continue to develop his playing career.
Julien Ngoy became the first teenager in almost nine years to appear for Stoke City in a Premier League fixture when he made his first debut in December 2016 and the Belgian forward is the one young player that looks certain of breaking into the first team squad this season.
The 19-year-old, who plays predominantly as a striker, but was deployed as a wide player at times in the previous campaign, is highly rated by Mark Hughes, who handed the youngster six first team appearances from the bench in the last six months.
Ngoy was also nominated as Player of the Season in Premier League 2 after scoring nine goals in the competition and is one of the standout performers in the Stoke academy system.
The Belgian joined The Potters in 2013 as a 15-year-old but has made outstanding progress over the subsequent four years. He is a regular feature in the Belgian international youth team and has cemented a place in the Stoke first team squad, although he has yet to force his way into the starting eleven.
Earlier in the summer Ngoy was linked, by The Sun, with a shock move to AS Monaco as a potential replacement for Kylian Mbappe and his former coach, Seth Nkando, believes that both players possess similar traits. HITC Sport quote him as saying:
“Julien has everything to be one of the best. Like Mbappe, he has pace and power, and he can score goals. There are not many players that can run as fast with the ball and have the quality to be so calm in front of goal. I say again, it will be no surprise to me or my coaches if Julien is a €50m or €75m player in the future. He has fantastic ability.”
The departure of Jonathan Walters has helped to ease Ngoy further up the pecking order at the Bet365 Stadium although he will need to displace the likes of Saido Berahino, Mame Biram Diouf and Peter Crouch in order to claim a spot in the starting eleven.