Stoke City supporters have undoubtedly had their noses bloodied somewhat since the summer transfer window opened in early June.
Marko Arnautovic, arguably the club’s most influential offensive player, has handed in a formal transfer request and has continued to reiterate his desire to leave the Bet365 Stadium during discussions with Mark Hughes over the previous two weeks.
West Ham United appears for the Austrian winger, with Sky Sports reporting a fee has been agreed between the two clubs, although it is debateable whether a move to East London would match the player’s claims that he wishes to move due to his superior ambition. Stoke have finished above The Hammers in six out of the last eight seasons and the move looks little more than a sideways step to a club of similar standing in the modern game.
The Potters have resigned themselves to losing the 28-year-old and are set to receive a fee in the region of £24 million if latest reports are to be believed. That money will be immediately invested by Hughes in his ageing playing squad, remembering that in the modern game the amount being quoted is hardly a mind-blowing figure, with a replacement firmly at the top of his wish list.
However, the importance of Arnautovic’s contribution to Stoke’s success over the previous three seasons should not be underestimated. The Austrian has been directly involved with over 25% of the club’s goals since his arrival in the summer of 2013 and his general influence around the club, with his charisma and self-assured swagger making him a favourite in the dressing room and among supporters, surely making him a hard man to replace.
A ray of light
But there is a slight ray of light for those Stoke City supporters who are mourning Marko Arnautovic’s impending departure or are fearing the worst as the start of the new season closes in.
That ray of hope goes by the name of Ramadan Sobhi.
The 20-year-old Egyptian winger was signed by The Potters in the summer of 2016 for £5 million from al-Ahly, located in Cairo, and arrived with a prestigious and exciting reputation. He was already an established international and was widely regarded as the brightest, young player that the country had produced in a generation. Sobhi had won two league titles and two domestic cup competitions in three seasons with his pace, trickery an outrageous skill capturing the imagination of football supporters throughout the region.
The fact that he was able to rise to prominence at all is a major achievement. Sobhi made his first team debut at the age of 16 but emerged following a period of social turmoil and sporting chaos in the country. Egypt was at the forefront of the so-called Arab spring protests which sparked months of violence in major cities whilst the Port Said disaster, where 70 supporters died during a riot at a match between al-Ahly and al-Masry, resulting in domestic football being suspended for almost two years.
Yet, Sobhi emerged as a genuine superstar during 2013, cementing his place in the al-Ahly team and going on to make his international debut for Egypt before he had reached the age of 18. The excitement throughout the country regarding his talent and potential is remarkable. He has over 450,000 followers on Twitter and when his transfer to Stoke was confirmed in 2016 the club website and social media servers crashed due to the increased activity from Egyptian supporters.
A ready-made replacement
So Stoke City have a genuine talent on their hands with Ramadan Sobhi, although his arrival in English football has been a slow-burner.
He made 19 appearances for The Potters last season, half of which were from the bench, and the winger was unable to cement a consistent place in Mark Hughes starting eleven. Ironically, it was Marko Arnautovic that was blocking Sobhi’s route into the first team and his impending departure could leave the door open for the Egyptian to fill the void left by the Austrian. When one door closes, another door opens.
The current Stoke squad is characterised by experienced players and aging model professionals. Almost half of the contracted first team players are over the age of 30 and last season there was a definitive lack of youthful exuberance, enthusiasm and pace in The Potters’ performances as the club finished in the bottom half of the table for the first time since Hughes arrived in 2013. Sobhi became the first teenager in nine years to start a Premier League game for Stoke – emphasising the issues that the club have experienced with developing and blooding their own young talent over the previous decade.
The good news for Stoke supporters is that Sobhi possesses all of the attributes that were so badly lacking during the previous campaign. His pace, power and trickery on the ball make him a genuine attacking threat whilst his direct running creates issues for opposing defenders. He was extremely impressive when utilised by Hughes last season and he already has considerable experience of both first team and international football despite being just 20 years of age.
With Stoke resigned to losing Marko Arnautovic in the coming days, Mark Hughes must surely now turn his attention to his Egyptian starlet and place his faith in the youthful exuberance of Ramadan Sobhi.
A new sense of positivity and optimism at Stoke City – but why?
After a football club suffers relegation there normally follows a period of frustration, dejection and gloom for the supporters as they begin to acclimatise to the idea of watching their team compete in a lower tier.
That sense of gloom is normally enhanced for teams that drop out of the Premier League. The Championship has little of the glitz, glamour or prestige of the top flight of English football and it is a notoriously difficult league to escape from.
However, the current atmosphere among Stoke City supporters is cautiously optimistic and there is a new air of positivity around the Bet365 Stadium.
A decade-long stay in the Premier League came to an unceremonious end in May after The Potters trudged through a tumultuous campaign in which they never truly looked like escaping the drop.
In truth, the club had begun to stagnate amid an air of complacency as the hierarchy, management, players and supporters grew used to the glamour of the top flight. However, as Stoke ultimately found, if you begin to settle and tread water in the Premier League then you will quickly find yourself sinking.
New found optimism
The Stoke City hierarchy have moved quickly since the end of the campaign to instigate the reconstruction of the club.
The arrival of Gary Rowett was a shrewd piece of business and the former Burton Albion, Birmingham City and Derby County manager has brought fresh energy, enthusiasm and optimism to the Bet365 Stadium.
The 44-year-old is widely regarded as being one of the most promising young coaches in Britain and he is a figure that the club’s supporters have been able to quickly unite behind
Rowett came across as calm, focused and driven in his inaugural press conference and his early activity at Stoke has helped to generate a positive atmosphere and build some momentum even at this early stage of the summer.
The Potters have already begun to flex their financial muscle by signing two new players and the suggestion appears to be that these will be the first of many.
Nigerian international Oghenekaro Etebo was the first to arrive after a £6.35 million deal with Feirense was agreed in early June. The 22-year-old is a box-to-box central midfielder who is physically powerful, tenacious and will bring plenty of energy to a side that was criticised for lacking pace and dynamism last season.
Etebo is likely to form an intimidating partnership with Joe Allen who, despite initial suggestions that he would depart The Potters following relegation, has signed a new contract.
It is undoubtedly a significant coup for Rowett that he has been able to convince the Welshman to remain at the Bet365 Stadium to lead a promotion challenge and it further signifies that the club have little intention of being excluded from the top-flight for more than a season.
Benik Afobe became Stoke’s second summer signing last week after joining from Midlands rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The 25-year-old had joined Wolves in January and scored six goals as the club won The Championship title and secured promotion to the Premier League. However, just 11 days after moving to Molineux on a permanent deal the striker the signed for The Potters.
The logistics of the deal may have been somewhat unorthodox, but the transfer signifies that Stoke are determined to mount of promotion challenge this campaign. The club scored only 35 league goals last year and the arrival of Afobe, a proven goal scorer, is a significant coup.
However, it appears that Stoke are only just beginning to get started.
The club have been heavily linked with moves for Watford striker Andre Gray and Newcastle United forward Dwight Gayle as Rowett looks to build an intimidating frontline. It is not beyond reason that Stoke could start the season with a better strike force in The Championship than they possessed when relegation from the Premier League was confirmed in May.
A clear intention
It is clear that Stoke City will be a force to be reckoned with in the Sky Bet Championship and that the club are determined to return to the Premier League sooner rather than later.
The appointment of Gary Rowett has set the tone and the fact that the club were willing to prize away the manager of a direct rival signifies their intent. He is a figure that the supporters can united behind and his experience of operating in The Championship will be key if The Potters are to build a promotion challenge.
Furthermore, the arrivals of Oghenekaro Etebo and Benik Afobe coupled with the news that Joe Allen in set to remain at the club has generated fresh energy, enthusiasm and optimism around the Bet365 Stadium.
In short, there is a new-found sense of urgency and direction throughout the club. Relegation has been swiftly forgotten and Stoke supporters are now looking forward to a campaign in which their team will be expected to be among those challenging for the title.
Ramadan Sobhi still has everything to prove after joining Huddersfield Town
The youngster made the move to the John Smith’s Stadium last week.
The 21-year-old is considered to be one of the most exciting young prospects to emerge from African football over the last decade and he is the pin-up boy of Egyptian football alongside Liverpool star Mohamed Salah.
However, Huddersfield have certainly not purchased the finished article and Sobhi has ultimately failed to live up to his reputation since arriving in the Premier League two years ago.
He signed for Stoke in the summer of 2016 from leading Egyptian side Al Ahly, then managed by former Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham manager Martin Jol, for a fee that was reportedly set to rise up to £5 million.
Sobhi had made his debut as a 16-year-old and had won two domestic titles, attracting the attention of a number of prominent clubs throughout Europe, and his arrival at the Bet365 Stadium was perceived as being something of a coup.
He was characterised as being a pacey winger who was intelligent, tricky and technically immaculate and it was assumed that his arrival would bring creativity and pace to Mark Hughes’ Stoke team.
But, despite making 41 Premier League appearances in his two years with The Potters, Sobhi never truly fulfilled his potential or lived up to his reputation.
There were glimpses of his talent and potential, but these moments of brilliance or innovation were often few and far between. He was frustrating to watch and his decision making, particularly in the final third of teh pitch, would leave supporters scratching their heads in confusion.
Sobhi would often beat a defender or create half a yard of space but then be unwilling to release the ball either via a pass, cross or shot. He would attempt to beat the same defender multiple times before delivering the ball into the box and there was a distinct lack of any end product or consistency.
Few would criticise the 21-year-old’s work ethic or attitude, but he is certainly a long way from being the finished article.
It could be argued that this is not entirely the fault of the player. In truth Sobhi was never truly given a run of starts in the first team with the vast majority of his appearances coming from the bench.
Furthermore, two years of playing in a poor Stoke team has visibly eroded his confidence and self-belief whilst Mark Hughes and his coaching staff undoubtedly failed to maximise his potential.
The young Egyptian joined a Stoke team that was in terminal decline – it may simply be the case that he was the right player at the wrong time.
What Sobhi needs now is a manager who will put an arm around his shoulder and who will invest the time to nurture and mould him into fulfilling his potential. The potential is there, it just needs to be allowed to flourish.
David Wagner may well be that man.
The German is widely respected as being one of the most talented young coaches in Europe and is renowned for his approach to man-management and being able to maximise the performances of his players. If Sobhi is to emerge as a genuine star in English football then Wagner will be the man capable of facilitating it.
Ultimately, Sobhi had a limited impact at Stoke and never really demonstrated his talent beyond a handful of infrequent flashes. It is probably the fault of all parties involved that his time at the Bet365 Stadium was not more productive and it would appear that his departure is mutually beneficial.
It is also important to recognise that the winger is still only 21 years of age.
His career is only just beginning and yet he has already made 26 international appearances for Egypt and proven himself in domestic football. There is still plenty of time for him to develop and improve whilst you would imagine that the best is yet to come from the youngster.
However, despite the continued hype, ultimately Sobhi still has everything to prove in English football and Hudderfield supporters will be hoping that their club is the right place for the Egyptian’s talent to flourish.
Gary Neville warns against Liverpool landing Xherdan Shaqiri this summer
The ex-Manchester United man wasn’t impressed with the Swiss international.
Premier League pundit and Manchester United legend Gary Neville appears to have warned Liverpool – and other potential suitors – off signing Stoke City maestro Xherdan Shaqiri this summer, after his “lazy” performance against Brazil last night.
Jurgen Klopp is reportedly keen on the £12 million man, after seeing a move for Lyon star Nabil Fekir fall through in advanced stages, and is likely to step up his interest once the World Cup concludes, according to reports from the Mirror.
The Reds have been courting the Swiss international since 2014, before Jurgen Klopp was manager, back when former club Bayern Munich were said to have blocked a move, and he later joined Inter Milan.
Now, having been relegated with Stoke City, it looks increasingly likely that the 26-year-old will leave the bet365 Stadium. But, Neville – who joined the ITV panel as a pundit yersterday – has suggested that the Champions League runners-up would be best advised to look elsewhere (the Express).
Speaking before the game, Neville revealed: “I’m not a fan of Shaqiri to be honest with you. I think that was made worse by the fact that he distanced himself from his teammates as Stoke. [Stoke] were unprofessional last season, there’s no doubt, and he epitomises it.
“He could score the goal of the tournament and could have the most amazing game. But he could also be there for three matches, do nothing and just amble and waddle around.”
Shaqiri, despite his limited work-rate, did provide a pivotal moment in the game, as his perfectly floated corner landed on the head of Steven Zuber in the second-half, with the defender equalling the score, and the Swiss taking their equal share of points on the night.
Prior to this, Neville slammed his work-rate during the half-time interval claiming: “Shaqiri is just lazy. There’s no other word for him. He will not run back.” And this was evident as captain Steven Lichtsteiner was forced to shackle Neymar, Marcelo and Philippe Coutinho on his own for large periods.
Given the high-pressing, high-energy philosophy that Klopp’s outfit employs, Neville could be making a crucial point. But time will tell to see if the Potter’s performance has influenced Liverpool’s decision in the near future.
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