After three consecutive 9th-place finishes in each of his three full seasons in charge, Mark Hughes’ fourth year at Stoke City saw finish below the table’s halfway point for the first time. The Premier League’s most consistently average team came 13th, but its fourth longest-serving manager remains in place.
Sections of Stoke’s support began to sound disgruntled last season, mainly becuase of the standard fare served up since Hughes’ appointment in 2013. The Welshman’s style of play lacks real definition, which is something that could never be accused of his predecessor Tony Pulis, and while many fans are grateful that the club has moved on from the ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ days, there is a longing to see something different.
Hughes’ plan is to integrate more youngsters into the first team. Expect Belgian teenagers Julien Ngoy and Thibaud Verlinden to feature alongside homegrown talents from the club’s academy, though both are some way off replacing the mercurial Marko Arnautovic, sold to West Ham United for a hefty £20m. The Austrian’s departure leaves Xherdan Shaqiri as the squad’s one player proven to set pulses racing.
As a case in point, the strike force must be one of the weakest to start a Premier League season at a non-promoted club for some time. Joselu and Bojan spent last year unwanted and out on unspectacular loan spells, Mame Biram Diouf scored once in 27 Premier League appearances, Saido Berahino is utterly bereft of confidence and Peter Crouch, Stoke’s top scorer last term, spent his summer being a part-time radio presenter.
Ultimately though, Stoke should be defensively sound enough to stay out of trouble, particularly if Porto’s Bruno Martins-Indi, who impressed while on loan last term, returns on a permanent basis as expected. The fans would like more than that though and unless there is clear improvement over the next nine months’, their patience with Hughes’ project will be nearing its end.
Kurt Zouma’s arrival on loan from Chelsea is something of a coup, considering how highly-rated the young defender was before his cruciate knee ligament injury two seasons ago.
The signing of Darren Fletcher, meanwhile, will bring experience to a squad that has lost some more mature heads over the summer. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will attempt to replace some of Arnautovic’s output and Josh Tymon from Hull City arrives to provide competition at left-back.
Arnautovic is the biggest loss but the absence of dressing room stalwarts Jonathan Walters and Glenn Whelan, who have switched to Burnley and Aston Villa respectively, will also be felt.
How will they line up?
Jack Butland’s return to fitness is a boost, despite how well Lee Grant deputised for the England international last season.
If Hughes settles on a back four rather than a back three, captain Ryan Shawcross will line up in the centre of defence along with Zouma. Youngster Tom Edwards could rival Glen Johnson for the right-back berth but Erik Peters is secure on the left flank.
Fletcher will partner Joe Allen in central midfield and Shaqiri will take up one of the four remaining slots, but the other three are up for grabs. Ramadan Sobhi is likely to take one for the opening weekend, the strikers will contest the other two.
What’s the one big question that must be answered?
Is the club happy to settle for mid-table security? While the Coates family will be mindful of flying too close to the sun, a lack of ambition and one bad season could see the Potters' Premier League stay cut short after almost a decade.
What’s the best that could happen?
The formation of an exciting team, sprinkled with young talent, that reinvigorates the support base and can challenge Everton to be ‘the best of the rest’. And, of course, a finish above 9th.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Hughes’ plan to integrate youth backfires, Stoke are swamped by the lower-mid-table clubs around them and in a surprise to everyone but their most pessimistic supporters, a bottom-three finish.
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