Stoke City manager Mark Hughes has confirmed that he is looking to place his faith in youth for the forthcoming season as he attempts to re-mould his first team squad after a disappointing 2016/17 campaign.
The Welshman joined The Potters in the summer of 2013 and guided the club to a trio of consecutive top-ten finishes in the Premier League in his first three years in charge.
However, last season the club finished in the bottom half of the table and suffered early exits from both domestic cup competitions, leaving supporters feeling underwhelmed by inconsistent performances and an inability to adequately compete against teams of a similar size.
That has sparked the club into action during the summer with Hughes looking to clear out a number of his aging, more experienced squad members to create opportunities for youth team products to exploit. Glenn Whelan (33), Jonathan Walters (33) and Phil Bardsley (32) have all departed the Bet365 Stadium, with a variety of young players being promoted to the first team squad during Stoke’s pre-season preparations.
It is unclear whether Hughes’ gamble on youth will turn out to be a masterstroke – there is undoubtedly an element of risk in the club selling proven, experienced Premier League players and relying on untested youngsters.
Here, The Boot Room looks at three youth team players that could break into the Stoke City first team this season…
The 18-year-old defender has been one of the most consistent performers in Stoke City’s academy system over the duration of the last two years and has been a central component of the notable success achieved by the club’s under-18 and under-23 squads.
Edwards was impressive throughout the campaign, with his all-action displays as a full back resulting in him being voted as the under-18 squad’s Player of the Season for the second consecutive year and earning a call up to the England under-19s for the first time in June.
Gareth Jennings, Stoke’s Academy Manager, was full of praise for the youngster when he spoke to the Stoke Sentinel earlier this year:
“I was aware of him as a player even before I arrived at Stoke and we have seen him improve tremendously over the course of the season. It’s almost like every time you throw down the next challenge he rises to meet it.”
Edwards is also held in high regard by Mark Hughes and the defender is expected to break into the first team picture next season. He was included in a handful of Premier League match day squads during the previous campaign, although he did not make any appearances, and has been a constant feature in the club’s pre-season preparations during the summer.
Hughes revealed that the 18-year-olds emergence played a key role in the decision to sell Phil Bardsley to Burnley and Edwards is expected to be used a back-up to first choice full-back Glen Johnson over the coming year. The Potters head coach explained:
“I’ve spoken about trying to reduce the amount of senior players and introducing younger players at the top end of the squad. It allows us to maybe invest more fully in the first team eleven. Phil [Bardsley] was obviously part of that thinking and the emergence of Tom Edwards has been really significant.
“We feel that we’re happy enough [with the progress made by Tom Edwards] to let Phil get a longer contract at another club.”
The 18-year-old is widely perceived as being one of the most exciting and technically gifted players currently progressing through Stoke City’s academy system and has attracted attention from a host of clubs across Europe.
Verlinden, who is deployed as either a winger or an attacking midfielder, joined The Potters in 2015 from Standard Liege and his signing was seen as a significant coup for the club. Discussing the youngster’s potential, Mark Hughes revealed that:
“Thibaud is undoubtedly one of the brightest young players that I worked with throughout my management career. He still has plenty of progress to make, but we have all seen at close quarters the talents he possesses.”
Verlinden produced a string of impressive displays for Stoke’s under-18 and under-23 teams last season, despite his campaign being partially disrupted by a back injury, which resulted in a call up to the first team squad where he was named as a substitute for two Premier League fixtures.
The young Belgian has been a regular feature during the club’s pre-season preparations over the summer and the departure or Marko Arnautovic has potentially opened a place in Hughes’ squad for the attacker.
Over the summer Verlinden signed a five-year-professional contract with The Potters, and Chief Executive Tony Scholes told the official club website:
“Thibaud is widely-regarded as one of the finest young talents in the Premier League, so understandably we are delighted to have tied him down to a long-term contract. He is making exceptional progress and although he still has a great deal of hard work in front of him, he knows that he is in exactly the right place to continue to develop his playing career.
Julien Ngoy became the first teenager in almost nine years to appear for Stoke City in a Premier League fixture when he made his first debut in December 2016 and the Belgian forward is the one young player that looks certain of breaking into the first team squad this season.
The 19-year-old, who plays predominantly as a striker, but was deployed as a wide player at times in the previous campaign, is highly rated by Mark Hughes, who handed the youngster six first team appearances from the bench in the last six months.
Ngoy was also nominated as Player of the Season in Premier League 2 after scoring nine goals in the competition and is one of the standout performers in the Stoke academy system.
The Belgian joined The Potters in 2013 as a 15-year-old but has made outstanding progress over the subsequent four years. He is a regular feature in the Belgian international youth team and has cemented a place in the Stoke first team squad, although he has yet to force his way into the starting eleven.
Earlier in the summer Ngoy was linked, by The Sun, with a shock move to AS Monaco as a potential replacement for Kylian Mbappe and his former coach, Seth Nkando, believes that both players possess similar traits. HITC Sport quote him as saying:
“Julien has everything to be one of the best. Like Mbappe, he has pace and power, and he can score goals. There are not many players that can run as fast with the ball and have the quality to be so calm in front of goal. I say again, it will be no surprise to me or my coaches if Julien is a €50m or €75m player in the future. He has fantastic ability.”
The departure of Jonathan Walters has helped to ease Ngoy further up the pecking order at the Bet365 Stadium although he will need to displace the likes of Saido Berahino, Mame Biram Diouf and Peter Crouch in order to claim a spot in the starting eleven.
It’s crunch time for Stoke City under Paul Lambert
The next two months are crucial for the future of Stoke City.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Manchester City close in on title after brushing aside feeble Stoke City
Manchester City have one hand on the Premier League title after victory on Monday night.
So that answers that question then – Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team can handle a dark, cold and wet mid-week fixture against Stoke City at the Bet365 Stadium.
Not that the result of this game was ever in doubt.
Manchester City are undoubtedly one of the best club sides in the world at this present moment in time and arrived in ‘The Potteries’ 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
It was little surprise to see them nonchalantly brush aside Stoke on Monday evening courtesy of two goals from David Silva and, in the process, increase their lead over second-placed Manchester United to 16 points.
City now require just three more wins to confirm the title and are on course to break the 100-point mark.
Guardiola’s side were dominant at the Bet365 Stadium and continued to produce the breath-taking football that has characterised their season. It is the perfect mixture of pace, precision and technique and Stoke quite simply did not possess the quality, confidence or character to muster a challenge.
This was procession more than it was a contest and Manchester City were not required to get out of first gear.
A trip to ‘The Potteries’ used to spark fear into the hearts of opposing players – facing a Stoke team that was characterised by discipline, hard-work and an up-and-at-‘em approach that was backed by a passionate home crowd – but on Monday night all of the above were lacking. The players were lethargic on the pitch and the home supporters were apathetic in the stands.
Paul Lambert and his side appeared content to lose the game as long as the scoreline was kept respectable and it was clear from the first whistle that the Potters were in damage limitation mode.
Stoke failed to muster a shot on target in the entire game and there was no purpose, urgency or direction to their play. They offered little defensively either. There was no attempt to press the visitors or ruffle their feathers, demonstrated by the fact that only Joe Allen picked up a yellow card, and the sight of Manchester City stroking the ball around unopposed at walking pace will have been a demoralising sight for the locals.
Yes, you have to acknowledge that Manchester City are good, very good in fact, but the way that the hosts simply rolled over without a fight was indicative of a campaign that will possibly result in their relegation.
Wigan Athletic, Burnley and Basel have all demonstrated since Christmas that Guardiola’s side are far from invincible, yet the Potters opted to wave the white flag from the onset.
Lambert certainly has a task on his hands at the Bet365 Stadium if he is to guide the club to safety. A predictable loss to the champions-elect will not define their future, but the upcoming home fixture against Everton on Saturday certainly will. Stoke supporters can only hope that their team shows more character, fight and direction at the weekend than they did on Monday.
For Manchester City, the Pep Guardiola football revolution continues to roll on. The focus now for City will be to wrap up the Premier League title as soon as possible so that additional emphasis can be placed on progressing to the latter stages of the Champions League.
Beyond this season, the future continues to look bright.
Guardiola’s squad consist primarily of young starlets or players that are in their mid-late twenties and are at or just entering, the peak of their powers.
Raheem Sterling (23), Leroy Sane (22), Bernardo Silva (23), Gabriel Jesus (20), John Stones (23) and Ederson (24) are all under the age of 24 whilst Kevin De Bruyne (26), Kyle Walker (27) and Sergio Aguero (29) have yet to hit their thirties.
The Premier League must now face up to the prospect that the current crop of Manchester City players, under the guidance of one of the best coaches of the modern era, have the potential to dominate the domestic scene for the foreseeable future.
If the runaway train is to be stopped, teams will have to demonstrate a much more positive attitude and a desire to compete than that shown in the performance by Paul Lambert and his players on Monday evening.
Errors continue to cost Stoke City despite improvement under Paul Lambert
Stoke City have proved the makers of their own downfall under Paul Lambert in recent weeks.
When Stoke City kicked off the season back in August the club were celebrating the start of a tenth consecutive campaign in the top flight of English football.
Now, six months on, the Potters have just ten games left to clamber out of the relegation zone to ensure that their supporters will be travelling to Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge next season rather than the Pirelli Stadium, Oakwell and New Meadow.
Relegation is now staring Stoke straight in the face and the threat of dropping into the Championship is now a very realistic possibility.
Saturday’s draw against Leicester City leaves the club stranded in the relegation zone, albeit only one point from safety as it currently stands, but time and ‘winnable’ games are beginning to run out at an alarming rate.
The appointment of Paul Lambert in January has stimulated a revival of sorts in the Potteries.
The Scotsman has made Stoke more organised, harder to beat and has been busy attempting to find solutions on the training ground with double sessions each week for the players.
However, the improvement in performances has not been reflected by results on the pitch as basic errors continue to undermine the club’s attempts to generate points and build momentum in the closing months of the season.
On Saturday, Stoke appeared to be grinding out an invaluable three points against Leicester at the King Power Stadium with Xherdan Shaqiri’s stunning long-range strike, his third in as many matches, giving the Potters an invaluable lead.
Defensively Lambert’s men appeared relatively comfortable, denying both Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez the time or space to have any meaningful impact on the game and the hosts were struggling to create clear-cut goal scoring opportunities.
However, Stoke have developed a dangerous habit of shooting themselves in the foot this season.
In their previous fixture, it was Charlie Adam’s late penalty miss that cost the Potters a win against Brighton whilst on Saturday it was Jack Butland’s failure to catch a low cross, instead deflecting it into his own net, that led to two more vital points being dropped.
Had Adam converted from the penalty spot and Butland caught a bread-and-butter cross then Stoke would have four additional points on the board and be well on their way to securing safety.
The reality is that the Potters now face a relegation six-pointer against Southampton at the weekend that they simply need to win. However, it may already be too late.
Since arriving at the Bet365 Stadium Lambert has won just one of his five fixtures, with all of the opposition coming against teams in the bottom half of the table.
Six points from matches against Brighton (home), Huddersfield (home), Watford (home), Bournemouth (away) and Leicester (away) may ultimately not be enough with the club facing a tough run of fixtures to close the season.
In their final ten matches, Stoke face Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – with just one win in their previous nine games it is hard to see the Potters picking up any points from those four contests.
There are then away fixtures against Southampton, West Ham and Swansea City, which will undoubtedly be made more difficult by the fact that the club have the worst away record in the top four divisions of English football.
Then, there are crucial must-win home games against Crystal Palace, Everton and Burnley.
To say that there is no longer room for error is an understatement and Stoke can certainly not afford to make the same fundamental mistakes that have cost them vital points in both of their previous two fixtures. In truth, The Potters need a miraculous turn of form, particularly on the road, if they are to have any chance of survival.
There is still hope, though.
Lambert has made a positive impact since his arrival and there has been an improvement in performances.
Stoke are harder to beat and in Xherdan Shaqiri have someone who is capable of making something out of nothing – the diminutive winger is The Potters’ main creative focal point and his form will have a direct impact on results and, ultimately, the club’s future.
So, Stoke’s tenth consecutive campaign in the top flight of English football has basically come down to a ten-match season where their Premier League status is in need of saving.
All that the supporters can do now is buckle themselves in and get ready for what will undoubtedly be a rollercoaster end to the campaign.
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