The World Cup in Russia has undoubtedly been an unmitigated success.
The tournament has had it all – goals, drama, tension, moments of magic and upsets which have facilitated an energy and enthusiasm amongst the supporters in the stands.
It has been a joy to watch thus far and even England have got involved with the party as they steadily progress into the latter stages of the competition.
Perhaps one of the only downsides to the World Cup so far, for those of us who have had to watch the action unfold from back home via our TV screens, is the undoubtedly poor level of punditry provided by the BBC and ITV.
Both channels have wheeled out a host of ex-players and managers to cover the action in Russia and yet the level of insight provided by these so-called ‘experts’ has been non-existent.
The pundits have a tendency to state the obvious and they rarely provide any informative comments or progressive discussions.
The exception to that rule has been female stars Alex Scott and Eni Aluko, who have always appeared knowledgeable and well-researched whenever they have appeared.
This was emphasised on Tuesday afternoon prior to the contest between Sweden and Switzerland.
Moments before the players were about to walk out on the pitch Phil Neville launched into a bizarre, ill-informed and factually incorrect rant about Stoke City star Xherdan Shaqiri.
Neville told the audience that he was “not a fan of Shaqiri” and that “he was a disgrace at Stoke, his attitude was shocking”.
Why Phil Neville in wrong
Stoke City’s decade-long stay in the Premier League came to an abrupt end in May when relegation was officially confirmed after a chaotic and disappointing campaign.
It is true that the failure of the team was underpinned by issues with poor attitude among certain elements of the squad, although the wider context of managerial mistakes and poor investment in the transfer market had a much greater influence.
However, it makes little sense for Phil Neville to single out Xherdan Sahaqiri as a scapegoat for The Potters’ woes last season.
The diminutive Swiss star was actually one of the club’s star performers and was forced to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the team’s offensive threat throughout much of the campaign.
He was quite often the only source of creativity on the pitch whilst his knack of scoring goals at crucial moments ultimately prolonged the inevitability of relegation.
He was Stoke’s leading scorer, hitting eight goals from midfield, and he created more chances than any other player in the squad, including seven assists.
In short, the Swiss international was responsible for almost half of Stoke’s goals in the Premier League last season.
If Neville thinks that Shaqiri was a disgrace after making that kind of contribution, then I would love to hear his thoughts on some other members of the squad.
Could Shaqiri have done more to aid the cause over the duration of the campaign? Probably – but name me a single player within the squad that consistently produced performances of the highest level last year.
If Neville wants to talk about Stoke players that are a ‘disgrace’ then I can easily identify a number of more worthy candidates.
Like Jese Rodriguez, who made just a handful of appearances despite The Potters paying a large loan fee and a significant portion of the Paris Saint Germain star’s wages.
The 25-year-old was granted compassionate leave to be with his ill son, although it was later revealed that he had refused to return to training when requested and was spending the vast majority of his time partying in Spain.
Or what about Saido Berahino? The striker has yet to score a competitive goal for the club since arriving for £12 million in January 2017 and was publicly criticised for his lack of fitness.
Paul Lambert eventually chose to demote the 24-year-old to the under-23 squad and put his faith in 18-year-old academy graduate Tyrese Campbell instead.
Then there is Charlie Adam. Although no one will question his attitude or application the Scottish midfielder produced a number of costly blunders in the final months of the season.
He missed a last-minute penalty against Brighton in February, which would have won three vital points, and then got himself needlessly sent off in a crucial six-pointer against Everton in March with of reckless challenge.
A ill-informed rant
The point is that Xherdan Shaqiri contributed more to the Stoke City cause in the previous campaign than all of the three aforementioned players combined – and there are plenty more that could have been highlighted as well.
The Swiss international may not be perfect, but to he was easily one of the club’s best performers and without his goals and assists the side would have been relegated by the turn of the year.
He was the only creative player in the team and he certainly carried that responsibility solely on his shoulders as best as he could.
It is apparent from Phil Neville’s comments on Tuesday night that the so-called ‘expert pundit’ has a negative preconceived opinion of Shaqiri.
One can only assume that he either did not see the midfielder play last year, in which case he should do some research, and that he has not bothered to look at the statistics, in which case he should really do some research.
Ultimately, Neville’s ill-informed rant will be of minimal interest to Stoke supporters – Shaqiri has already made it clear that he is set to leave the club in the summer.
However, it does highlight the current absence of quality, knowledge and research when it comes to punditry.
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.