Stoke City’s decade-long stay in the Premier League was brought to an abrupt end in May as The Potters were relegated to the Championship following what had been, in all honesty, a desperately disappointing and chaotic campaign.
Relegation occurred due to a culmination of different reasons including poor managerial decisions, a string of high-profile failures in the transfer market and a general feeling of stagnation and complacency throughout the club.
On the pitch, Stoke’s issues were underpinned by a lack of creativity in the final third and a critical inability to hit the back of the net.
They mustered only 35 goals throughout the Premier League campaign, averaging at less than a goal per game, whilst Xherdan Shaqiri ended the season as the club’s top goal scorer with his eight strikes.
The Potters simply did not possess a striker capable of plundering the goals required to help them to claw their way to safety.
Peter Crouch, now 37 years of age, was largely ineffective whilst Mame Biram Diouf, despite possessing an admirable work ethic, was inconsistent in front of goal and was inefficient when it came to finishing chances.
The less said about Saido Berahino, who last scored in a competitive game over two years ago, the better whilst too much was expected too soon of academy youngster Tyrese Cambell.
However, it appears that Gary Rowett has no intention of making the same mistakes that his predecessors did when it comes to building an effective strike force.
The former Derby County manager was appointed at the start of the summer and has wasted little time in looking to resolve some of Stoke’s long-standing issues.
Last season The Rams were among the highest scorers in the Championship and it can safely be assumed that Rowett intends to replicate that feat at the Bet365 Stadium for the forthcoming campaign.
The arrival of Benik Afobe is a significant statement of intent.
Whilst the logistics of the move, undoubtedly relating to Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, may be somewhat unorthodox, the message that Afobe’s arrival sends certainly is not.
The striker is a proven goal scorer in The Championship and he is being earmarked by Rowett as the antidote to Stoke’s woes front of goal.
Afobe scored six goals in seven starts for Wolves during the second half of last season as he helped the club to secure promotion to the Premier League whilst his first spell at Molineux saw him score 22 goals in 46 games.
Prior to that, he was equally as prolific with MK Dons.
However, doubters will point towards his somewhat disappointing spell at Bournemouth where he found the net just 11 times in two years.
In truth, the striker never really cemented his place in the team whilst the arrival of Jermain Defoe last summer effectively all but ended his career on the south coast.
What cannot be doubted is the fact that Afobe is a proven goal scorer in the Championship and that, at the age of 25, he is at his peak.
Regular game time for Stoke in the second tier of English football is likely to see the forward find the goal trail once more and that can only be a good thing for The Potters.
Afobe is very much the complete all-round modern striker.
He possesses pace, power and strength combined with good technical ability and intelligent movement that makes him a constant threat for defenders.
The 25-year-old plays off the last shoulder and he has a knack for being ruthlessly prolific in and around the eighteen-yard box – even half-chances are likely to find the back of the net if they drop in his direction.
If Rowett can mould a Stoke team that is creative in the final third and generates chances on a regular basis, then Afobe is the perfect focal point to apply the finishing touches.
In short, the 25-year-old is the key to solving the team’s inefficiency in front of goal.
If Stoke are to challenge for promotion in the forthcoming season, then Afobe’s contribution in the final third will be key to the club’s success.
One winner and one loser as Tom Ince looks set for Stoke City move
The winger made 33 appearances for Huddersfield Town last term, scoring two goals.
Huddersfield Town winger Tom Ince is seemingly set to swap the Premier League for the Championship and pen terms with Stoke City, who were relegated to the second tier last season, according to The Sun.
The son of former Manchester United legend, Paul, played 33 games in the top flight for the Terriers last season but only found the net twice in a campaign where he struggled to find his prolific best.
It was current City boss Gary Rowett who was forced to offload the flying winger from Derby County last summer and Ince’s arrival at the Bet 365 Stadium sees the pair link-up once again.
The 26-year-old is clearly rated very highly by Rowett and he represents a pretty solid replacement for the recently departed Xherdan Shaqiri who has recently joined Liverpool for a fee in the region of £13 million.
With Stoke looking to challenge for automatic promotion and an instant return to the Premier League, boss Rowett is very keen to ensure that he has the very best squad at his disposal and Ince will surely be a hit in a league that he has previously been a sensation in.
Here at The Boot Room we took a look at one winner and one loser in Tom Ince’s pending switch to Stoke City.
Winner – Gary Rowett
This deal offers a firm indication that the Stoke City boss didn’t really want to sell Ince last summer when he was in charge of Derby County and it shows that he is a big fan of the winger’s qualities.
After failing in the play-offs with the Rams last season, the highly-rated young boss will be desperately keen to start proving his worth as a manager and given the tools at his disposal at the Potters, promotion simply has to be the aim from 2018/19 for Rowett.
Having sold such an influential player in Shaqiri it was vital that the Stoke boss went and found a solid replacement. As far as Championship wingers go, they don’t come much better than Tom Ince.
Loser – Tom Ince
It has to be said that the player himself will be mightily disappointed to be dropping out of the Premier League following just one season at Huddersfield Town.
The 26-year-old will feel that his performances warranted a prolonged stay in West Yorkshire but boss David Wagner clearly shares a different tact and is happy to cash in on the player.
Ince must now get his head down and concentrate on playing football.
His ultimate motivation will be to show Wagner what he is missing out on and hope to return to the top flight by helping his new club to promotion from the Championship.
Four Stoke youngsters looking to impress Gary Rowett in Germany
It looks set to be a season of opportunity at the Bet365 Stadium.
The Stoke City first team squad are currently in Germany for a six-day training sabbatical as Gary Rowett steps up his preparations for the new campaign and pre-season begins to get into full flow.
The Potters are based in Herzlake, a small village in the north of the country, where the players will be undertaking a more intensive training regime as well as participating in three friendly fixtures.
Rowett has taken 26 players to the pre-season training camp including new signings Benik Afobe, Adam Federici and Peter Etebo in addition to a host of familiar faces.
However, Robert Huth, who has been training with the club over the summer as he builds up his fitness after being released by Leicester City, is not among the travelling party.
There are also some less recognisable names joining Rowett and the first team squad in Germany including four youth team prospects that supporters may not be fully aware of.
The 17-year-old started his career with AFC Wimbledon, initially joining the club at the age of eight, and he quickly rose through the youth team ranks at Kingsmeadow. By 2017 he was training with the first team on a regular basis and was named as a substitute against Swindon Town in April that year.
Bursik is an England youth international and has been a regular feature for the under-17 team over the previous twelve months. He played six matches as the side reached the European Championship final in May and was part of the squad that won the under-17 World Cup last year, making him one of the most promising young goalkeepers in the country.
He joined Stoke in the summer of 2017 as a scholar and his performances in the academy, combined with the departure of Lee Grant and the absence of Jack Butland, have convinced Rowett to include him in the party that travelled to Germany.
The physically imposing central defender rose through the ranks at Dundee United, cementing himself as a key facet of the club’s development squad, before being promoted to the first team in 2016.
He made his debut in the Scottish Premier League against Partick Thistle before netting his first senior goal just four days later against Kilmarnock.
His rapid progress attracted the interest of a host of Premier League clubs but it was Stoke who were able to secure his signature for an undisclosed fee.
Souttar has continued to impress and develop at the Bet365 Stadium and was handed his senior debut by Mark Hughes in an EFL Cup tie against Rochdale in August 2017.
The 19-year-old spent the second half of last season on loan with Scottish Championship side Ross County in order to gain more first team experience and made a total of 13 appearances.
Stoke are currently short of central defensive options following the departures of Kevin Wimmer, Marc Muniesa and Kurt Zouma, leaving Souttar with the perfect opportunity to impress Rowett whilst in Germany.
The 18-year-old rose through the ranks with Danish Superliga side Esbjerg fB where he emerged as the club’s outstanding youth team player before completing a move to Stoke in January 2016.
Sorensen has continued to impress at the Bet365 Stadium and his rapid development whilst playing for the under-23 side led to Paul Lambert promoting him to the first team squad at the back end of last season. He was handed his full senior debut in the final match of the season against Swansea City where he played 76 minutes whilst also providing an assist.
The Danish youth international signed a new long-term contract at the start of the summer as a just reward for his progress and has been described as being one of the club’s ‘brightest prospects’.
Furthermore, Rowett has spoken positively of Sorenson and described the midfielder as having ‘all the hallmarks of being a top young player’ and having ‘as good an attitude as any young player’ that he has worked with.
Sorensen will face a difficult challenge to break into the first team squad this season with the likes of Peter Etebo, Joe Allen, Charlie Adam and Giannelli Imbula all above him in the pecking order.
However, he is certainly a player to keep an eye on for the future.
The Republic of Ireland youth international joined AFC Wimbledon at the age of eight and he subsequently rose through the academy ranks at Kingsmeadow, signing his first professional contract in February 2015.
The central defender made his Football League debut later that year and became of regular feature of the match day squad despite his youth and inexperience. He made a dozen more first team appearances over the next year and a half with his rapid development attracting the interest of a host of Championship an Premier League clubs.
Sweeney signed for Stoke in the summer of 2016 for a fee believed to be in the region of £250,000 but has yet to make his first team debut for the club.
He has spent the last eighteen months on loan with Bristol Rovers where he has made over 40 appearances and is undoubtedly looking to capitalise on the lack of central defensive cover that Rowett currently has in his first team squad.
How Stoke have become early favourites for promotion
Loyalty is a commodity that is in short supply in modern football.
The age of players spending their entire careers at one team or managers building a club over a period of time spanning decades is long gone.
Instead, the contemporary game is characterised by players that jump from club to club in search of regular game time or more money and a ‘managerial merry-go-round’ in which over half of managers in English football’s top four tiers will either be sacked or resign by the end of the season.
For players especially, the focus is on being in the Premier League. That is where the glitz, glamour, talent and, ultimately, money is located and there tends to be limited loyalty if a club is relegated from the top tier.
Which makes the recent developments at Stoke City come as a pleasant surprise.
The Potters were relegated in May after a decade-long spell in the Premier League and the general perception was that the club would be stripped of its prized assets over the summer.
Jack Butland, Joe Allen, Xherdan Shaqiri and pretty much anyone else who possessed a significant reputation was linked with a move away from the Bet365 Stadium.
The fear for supporters was that there would be some kind of fire-sale, leaving the new manager with the unenviable task of starting from scratch and building an almost entirely new squad.
However, that simply has not been the case.
Yes, Xherdan Shaqiri was sold to Liverpool last week, although that was to be expected after it was revealed that he had a relegation-release clause that made him available for just £13 million, and his departure was proceeded by the sales of Ramadan Sobhi and Lee Grant.
But, beyond that, there has been a surprising level of loyalty shown by the majority of the squad.
Gary Rowett’s most impressive feat since being appointed as manager at the start of the summer has not been who he has bought in the transfer window, but rather who he has been able to convince to remain at the Bet365 Stadium.
Joe Allen, who was named in the team of tournament at the European Championships just two years ago, was the first to sign a new long-term deal and commit his future to the club. The Welsh midfielder certainly would not have been short of options this summer and his decision to remain is a significant statement of intent.
He was then followed by Moritz Bauer, who signed a new contract earlier this month. The 26-year-old only arrived in January but has been quick to commit to the challenge of securing promotion from the Championship despite being hugely impressive during his 15 appearances in the Premier League last season.
Furthermore, Peter Crouch has signalled his intention to stay after suggesting that he had ‘unfinished business’, whilst the likes of Ryan Shawcross, Bruno Martins Indi, Eric Pieters and Mame Biram Diouf all appear willing to stay.
Rowett revealed over the weekend that he is hoping to convince Bojan Krkic to remain at the club and return to his best after his loan spell in Spain ended and there are whispers that Jack Butland might also be willing to scrap it out for a year in the second tier.
Somewhat bizarrely, it is not inconceivable that Stoke will start the campaign with a stronger, more balanced squad of players than the one that ended the previous season in the Premier League.
It is perhaps no surprise to see Stoke among the favourites with betting companies to be promoted although there is certainly still plenty of work to be done.
However, Rowett has started to build an intimidating squad of players that is full of experience and quality. He has not achieved this through splashing vast arrays of cash in the transfer marker, but rather by convincing existing big-name players to remain at the club.