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Stoke City

It’s crunch time for Stoke City under Paul Lambert

The next two months are crucial for the future of Stoke City.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

There are only eight games left of the Premier League season and with Manchester City running away with the Premier League title the attention now turns to the race for survival.

Stoke City began the season celebrating their tenth consecutive year as a top-flight club and yet the campaign could ultimately culminate in relegation to the Sky Bet Championship.

The warning signs were there in the summer when star winger Marko Arnautovic forced through a transfer to West Ham United and claimed that the Potters ‘lacked ambition’, something that the club hierarchy strenuously denied before forcing Mark Hughes to be reliant on free transfers and loan signings.

The further departure of club stalwarts such as Jonathan Walters and Glen Whelan was also a loss in the dressing room and behind the scenes, if not necessarily on the pitch.

The campaign actually got off to a promising start as Stoke secured four points from their opening two home fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester United, but the wheels quickly began to fall off.

Hughes had opted to deploy a new look 3-4-3 formation and, despite some early success, it soon became apparent that the Potters did not have the personnel or quality to make the system work.

The sight of Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, stranded as a wingback pretty much summarises the tactical naivety of Hughes and his unwillingness to revert to a back four, despite poor results, saw the club slip into the relegation zone.

Ultimately, it has been Stoke’s inability to defend that has underpinned their demise this season.

At one stage, the Potters had the unenviable record of possessing the worst defensive record of any club in the top flight of European football, whilst only West Ham United have conceded more goals or kept fewer clean sheets in the Premier League this season.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

The Manager

Mark Hughes was dismissed in late January after Stoke City had been knocked out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier Coventry City and were stranded in the Premier League relegation zone.

There is little doubt that the Potters were correct to part ways with the Welshman, although in hindsight the club hierarchy had remained too loyal for too long.

Stoke’s attempt to hire a successor was chaotic, disorganised and became something of a soap opera.

Gary Rowett was the first manager to publically turn down the job after being approached and was swiftly followed by Quique Sánchez Flores, who conducted a swift U-turn within twenty-four hours of reportedly agreeing to leave Espanyol, and Martin O’Neil.

Stoke supporters were eventually left with the uninspiring appointment of Paul Lambert who, quite clearly, was nobodies first choice for the role.

The former Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss has certainly had a positive impact since arriving in the final weeks of January and has undoubtedly made the team more organised and harder to beat.

However, Lambert has overseen just one win in seven fixtures, at a time when the club are desperate for points, despite having been handed a favourable run of fixtures that included Huddersfield Town, Watford, Brighton, Bournemouth, Southampton and Leicester City.

The 48-year-old will need to stimulate a dramatic improvement in results of The Potters are going to have any hope of avoiding the drop.

The Squad

On paper, the current Stoke City squad consists of a core contingent of proven international players that should have the quality and experience to pull away from the relegation zone.

Jack Butland, who is vying to be England’s first choice goalkeeper, Kurt Zouma, one of the most highly rated young defenders in Europe, Joe Allen, a central midfielder of undoubted quality, and Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri make up the spine of the starting eleven, whilst Moritz Bauer and Badou Ndiaye arrived in January to add further quality.

However, there is an obvious lack of creativity in the current squad and the responsibility for facilitating goal scoring opportunities rests solely on the shoulders of Shaqiri.

In addition to this, Stoke lack a proven goal scorer with Mame Biram Diouf (inconsistent), Peter Crouch (one dimensional) and Saido Berahino (who has yet to score in over two years) the only options at Paul Lambert’s disposal.

This imbalance in the squad has been reflected in recent results. Since Lambert’s arrival in late-January Stoke have lost just once in seven games, against the champions-elect Manchester City, and have kept three clean sheets in the process.

However, in the same period, they have only won once, in Lambert’s first match against Huddersfield Town, and have found the net just five times – three of which were provided by Shaqiri.

It is the lack of creativity and goals that is undermining any shoots of recovery at the Bet365 Stadium.

Remaining Fixtures

Everton (H), Arsenal (A), Tottenham (H), West Ham United (A), Burnley (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H) and Swansea City (A).

Stoke City have a semi-difficult run of fixtures but there are certainly opportunities to accumulate points over the closing weeks of the season.

Home games against Everton, Crystal Palace and Swansea City are ‘must win’ based on the fact that the Potters have the worst away record in England, having won just once on their travels this campaign, but trips to Olympic Stadium and the Liberty Stadium could provide a chance to rectify that.

Fundamentally, if Stoke can get to the final two games of the season and still be in with a chance of securing safety then they will be relatively pleased. It could all come down to the last day of the season with a mouth-watering fixture against Swansea.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Will They Survive?

Although Paul Lambert has certainly had a positive impact since being appointed in late-January, making the team more organised and harder to beat, it is difficult to see where Stoke City will secure the three or four wins required to guarantee safety.

The Potters have won just six games all season and the lack of creativity throughout the side and the absence of a proven striker leaves you wondering where the goals are going to come from.

There is certainly still hope for Stoke supporters, but Lambert will need to facilitate a dramatic improvement in performances if he is to guide the club to safety.

It will be an achievement if he can get the Potters to the final two games of the season, against Crystal Palace and Swansea City, and still be in with a chance of surviving.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Huddersfield Town

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.

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Tom Ince
Photo: Getty Images

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.

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Stoke City

Four Stoke youngsters looking to impress Gary Rowett in Germany

It looks set to be a season of opportunity at the Bet365 Stadium.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

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.

Josef Bursik

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.

Harry Souttar

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.

Lasse Sorensen

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.

Ryan Sweeney

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.

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Stoke City

How Stoke have become early favourites for promotion

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke
Photo: Getty Images

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.

(Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

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.

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