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Three players to look out for this season at Stoke City

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke City

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 …

Ramadan Sobhi

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.

Kurt Zouma

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. 

Saido Berahino

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.

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.

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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Gary Rowett opens the door for Robert Huth’s return to Stoke

Martyn Cooke

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Robert Huth
Photo: Getty Images

Stoke City boss Gary Rowett has opened the door for Robert Huth to return to the club on a permanent basis as the central defender continues to train with the first team squad as he attempts to regain his fitness.

The German was released by Leicester City at the end of last season following a hugely successful three-year stint at the King Power Stadium which included their historic Premier League title triumph in 2016.

Subsequently, he approached Stoke at the start of the summer and has been allowed to train with Rowett’s squad whilst he looks for a new club.

Huth remains a popular figure at the Bet365 Stadium having made over 150 appearances for The Potters over the period of half-a-decade following a £5 million transfer from Middlesbrough in 2009.

The 33-year-old formed a dominant central defensive partnership with Ryan Shawcross that provided the solid foundation on which the club’s modern success was built.

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

The notion of Huth re-signing for Stoke is a romantic concept, one that many Stoke supporters will be keen to see, and Rowett told the Stoke Sentinel that the door is still open for the German defender.

“He’s coming to train. We’ll see how it is for both parties and we’ll assess it as we go along … We’ll try to help him and that’s where we are at the moment. I don’t think there’s any real rush to make a decision.”

“There’s no strings attached for either party but come in and train, we’ll get you involved – we’re a little bit short in terms of numbers in that area anyway.”

Stoke are currently short of central defensive options following the departures of Kevin Wimmer (on loan to Hannover 96), Marc Muniesa (who has signed for Girona) and Kurt Zouma (who returned to Chelsea following the conclusion of his loan spell) as the club adapts to life outside the Premier League.

With that in mind, Huth’s availability as a free agent and his pre-existing standing within the club makes him an attractive option as Rowett continues to re-mould his squad in preparation for the new season. He has already featured heavily in Stoke’s early pre-season activities and fixtures whilst he is also likely to be joining the club on their tour of Germany.

However, Rowett is right to be cautious about signing the German defender.

Huth did not make a single appearance for Leicester last season as he struggled with a string of injuries and fell considerably down the pecking order at the King Power Stadium whilst, at 33 years of age, he is stepping into the twilight of his career.

Could he realistically adapt to the physical demands of the Championship where there is a requirement to play two matches most weeks as part of a demanding fixture schedule?

Furthermore, Stoke should be looking to the future rather than attempting to recreate previous glories.

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Whilst Huth remains a legend in the eyes of supporters he would only provide a short-term solution and will undoubtedly return as a very different player than the one that last played at the Bet365 Stadium in 2015.

Rowett is quite rightly looking to bring in a new generation of young, fresh and hungry talent which will be led by new signing Oghenekaro Etebo, Nigeria’s 21-year-old World Cup star. Does Huth fit within those parameters? Probably not.

Whilst Huth’s return may be a somewhat romantic notion that would certain provide a short-term solution to the club’s lack of defensive cover, on a practical level which looks at the long-term in would leave much to be desired.

Ultimately, much may depend, as it so often does in football, on money.

Stoke have already made significant moves in the transfer market following the arrivals of Etebo and Benik Afobe whilst they have been linked with a string of other big-money signings.

Without the safety net of Premier League TV revenue the signing of Huth on a free transfer could allow Rowett to focus his investment on strengthening other areas of the team.

So the door is certainly open for Huth to return on a permanent basis, although Rowett will need to decide whether his focus is on the short-term or long-term future of the club.

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Do Stoke City have the Championship’s best full-back in Moritz Bauer?

The Austrian signed a new deal at the Bet365 Stadium earlier this month.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

The Bet365 Stadium has been a hive of activity over the summer so far as Stoke City prepare for life outside the top-flight for the first time in a decade.

The Potters were relegated from the Premier League in May but the club have been quick to begin to address some of the issues, mistakes and frailties that underpinned their failures last season and, arguably, can be traced back throughout the previous twenty-four months.

Gary Rowett was appointed as manager at the start of the summer and his arrival was seen as something of a coup after Stoke were able to persuade the 44-year-old to leave Championship rivals Derby County.

He moved quickly to secure the impressive signings of Benik Afobe and Nigeria’s World Cup star Oghenekaro Etebo whilst Joe Allen was also convinced to sign a new contract that saw him pledge his long-term future to the club.

All of these events have been widely discussed but something that many media outlets failed to highlight was that Stoke have also been able to sign the best fullback in the Championship.

It was announced at the start of July that Moritz Bauer had signed a new long-term deal that will see him remain at the Bet365 Stadium until 2023.

The Austrian defender may not be the most instantly recognisable name in English football yet Stoke supporters will be quick to highlight the considerable impact that he has made at the club since arriving in January.

(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The 26-year-old was signed from Ruben Kazan for an undisclosed fee six months ago and he produced a string of hugely impressive performances as he cemented his place in the starting eleven.

In what was a disappointing season that ultimately ended in relegation, Bauer was one of the few bright sparks that supporters could take some heart from.

He made 15 appearances in total with his energy, enthusiasm and pace enabling him to easily make the transition into a prominent performer in the Premier League.

Bauer is naturally a full-back and he proved to be equally adept at undertaking his defensive responsibilities as he was driving forward with the ball or making overlapping runs into the opposition half.

He ended the campaign being used as a winger as Paul Lambert struggled to find a solution to the team’s woes on the pitch but he undoubtedly applied himself to the best of his ability.

Immediately following relegation the Austrian publicly announced that he would be happy to remain at the Bet365 Stadium and it is refreshing to see a player showing a degree of loyalty to a club that he had only recently joined.

The fact that he signed a new contract at the start of the month confirmed that he was a man of his word and leaves Stoke having signed what will be the best attacking fullback that you are likely to see in the Championship this year.

(Photo  by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Bauer’s natural athleticism combined with his technical ability will make him a force to be reckoned with in the second tier and, if used as a fullback, his overlapping runs will add another string to Stoke’s attacking repertoire.

If supporters thought that he had adapted well to life in the Premier League then they will be licking their lips at the prospect of him being unleashed in the Championship.

The 26-year-old’s new contract has continued to add to the feel-good factor surrounding the Bet365 Stadium during the summer and there is a real sense of positivity around the club.

Rowett’s side are among the favourites for promotion and his activities so far as manager, both in terms of new arrivals and persuading key squad members to stay, clearly demonstrates his intentions.

Bauer possesses all of the attributes to be a star for Stoke in the Championship and he will be a key feature in the team are to immediately bounce back into the Premier League.

The best attacking fullback in the Championship? We will have to wait and see.

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