Stoke City kick off the new Premier League season on Saturday with a trip to Goodison Park as Mark Hughes’ side look to re-establish their position as a top-ten club following a disappointing 2016/17 campaign.
The Potters are entering their tenth year as a top-flight club and are aiming to maintain a decade of success and prosperity competing among the elite of English football. However, Stoke have shown signs of regression over the previous twelve months and a bottom-half finish last season suggests that the forthcoming year may not be as straightforward as some may be expecting.
Here, The Boot Room looks at three players that will have a definitive impact on how Stoke’s season plays out …
The departure of Marko Arnautovic to Premier League rivals West Ham United in early June left Stoke City supporters with a bloodied nose. The Austrian winger was a fans-favourite and was arguably the club’s most influential offensive player having been directly involved in 25% of the team’s goals during the 2016/17 campaign. The manner of his move to The Hammers, forced through after handing in a transfer request less than a year after the 28-year-old had signed a new long-term contract, left a bad taste in the mouth.
However, Arnautovic’s departure could be good news for Stoke’s Egyptian starlet Ramadan Sobhi. The 20-year-old was signed in the summer of 2016 from domestic club side al-Ahly, located in Cairo, and arrived as a full international who was widely regarded as being the brightest and most exciting young talent that the country had produced in a generation.
But Sobhi’s debut season in English football was a slow burner. He was limited to just 19 appearances, half of which came as a substitute, and he was unable to cement a place in Stoke’s starting eleven. His route into the first team was blocked by the more prestigious and experienced figures of Arnautovic and Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri, although the Egyptian was hugely impressive throughout the playing time he was afforded.
Now, with a route to the first team open and one year of experience in English football under his belt, Sobhi is perfectly placed to take the Premier League by storm. Hs pace, power, trickery and movement make him a genuine threat for defenders and his creativity will be key if Stoke are to improve on last season’s bottom half finish.
Whilst the vast majority of supporters will agree that Mark Hughes has radically altered Stoke City’s footballing approach since his arrival in the summer of 2013, slowly replacing the direct style of play employed by his predecessor Tony Pulis for a more possession-based game, there will also be an admission that The Potters have lost their defensive resilience. The defensive unit last season often resembled a leaky sieve rather than a brick wall, conceding 14 times in their opening six games and conceding four or more goals in a game on eight separate occasions.
This frailty resulted in Stoke finishing the campaign languishing in the bottom half of the table but Hughes has moved quickly to find a solution by bringing in Kurt Zouma on a season-long loan from Chelsea. The 22-year-old joined The Blues in January 2014 but has seen his career stall at Stamford Bridge after falling out of the first team picture following an anterior cruciate ligament injury picked up early in 2016. He made just 13 appearances last season and, although he remains in Antonio Conte’s long-term plans, the Frenchman has been allowed to leave on loan in order to rediscover his form and fitness.
Stoke were able to beat 20 other clubs across Europe to secure the signing of Zouma, according to the Mirror, and the central defender remains one of the most highly rated young talents in the world. The 22-year-old is a defensive colossus and possesses the pace, power, strength and dominant presence to help strengthen The Potters’ brittle backline. If Zouma can help to eradicate Stoke’s frailties in defence then it will allow the club’s more creative players, such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Ramadan Sobhi and Bojan Krkic, to flourish whist enabling Mark Hughes to develop a team that is more evenly balanced.
Stoke City were among the lowest scorers in the Premier League last season and it was clearly apparent that The Potters were lacking a striker capable of putting the ball into the back of the net on a regular basis. Peter Crouch ended the campaign as the club’s top goal scorer, despite spending much of the year among the substitutes, with no player managing to reach, or come near to reaching, double figures in the league. This imprecision in front of goal led Mark Hughes to investing £12 million on controversial West Bromwich Albion striker Saido Berahino in January.
The 23-year-old arrived with a poor reputation after almost eighteen months of off field issues at The Hawthorns that resulted in him being frozen out of the first team and being publicly criticised for his attitude and fitness levels – it was later revealed that the striker had also served an FA suspension after failing a drugs test, as BBC Sport reported.
However, Berahino is looking to put his chequered past behind him and make a fresh start in The Potteries, although his first six months at the club have hardly been impressive. The striker failed to score in any of his 13 appearances after joining Stoke and, although there were no qualms over his work ethic or application, he looked very much like a player who was short of form, fitness and needed to shake off some ring rust.
Berahino has proven more than capable of being a prolific striker in the Premier League and with a full pre-season behind him there will be no excuses for the forthcoming campaign. It is likely that Hughes will place faith in the 23-year-old to spearhead the Stoke’s attack and the team will be relying on the young striker to score the goals to ensure that the club maintains its position in the relative safety of mid-table.