Saturday ‘s match against Aston Villa marks the start of Stoke City’s 2014/15 Premier League season. Pre-season matches have been more about fitness than flash, with results being draws or close defeats, and a solitary victory against Real Betis at the Britannia Stadium.
Squad changes have been swift and significant this pre-season, which is something of a shock to hardened Stoke fans used to being prime contenders in Sky’s transfer deadline day festivities at the end of August.
Transfers into the club include; Mame Biram Diouf, Diontan Teixeira, Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell and, of course, Bojan Krkic. All bar Bojan are free transfers, and local media reports infer that the fee paid for Bojan’s services is much less than is being suggested by the national newspapers. These incomings have been balanced by the offloading of Matthew Etherington, Juan Agudelo and Michael Kightly – none of whom made any significant impact for Stoke last season so are effectively dead wood being cleared (although in Agudelo’s case, this is forced by the FA’s stance on work permits for non-EU passport holders).
Diouf has been tracked for at least a season and a bid of £6million was turned down by Hannover last summer. But finally Mark Hughes has secured his top striking target, obviously impressed by 26 goals in 57 games for Hannover. A return of 15+ goals should be a challenging yet realistic target for Diouf to achieve.
Sidwell and Bardsley are proven Premier League stalwarts; steady, experienced and unglamorous – much like the team they have joined. As a specialist right back, Bardsley puts pressure on the USMNT star Geoff Cameron. Sidwell will be up against Le Sulk (Steven Nzonzi), Glen Whelan and Charlie Adam for a place in the center of midfield. Sidwell is a player who has seemed destined to sign for Stoke, with former gaffer Tony Pulis attempting to sign him when he was at Brentford. Therefore it’s something of a surprise that he did not end up at Crystal Palace this summer given his London roots. Sidwell explained to The Sentinel newspaper that “when I looked at the whole package and came up to see how the club was run, it was a no brainer really. I’ve also worked for Mark Hughes before . . . it was probably one of the most enjoyable times.”
Teixeira is an unknown quantity though has been stalked by Hughes since his time at Manchester City. He faces the tough task of displacing either Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth or Marc Wilson. However he could have three no better center backs to learn from and if he could assimilate their individual qualities into a single package he could prove a real prospect, and as proven by Marc Muniesa last season Hughes will play youngsters.
Bojan Krkic has probably had as many words written about him this summer as any individual Stoke player has since their return to the top flight. A signing that stunned everybody outside the ST postcode area but was rumored by The Oatcake message board in the-knows for a good portion of the off season. Krkic needs to look at Marko Arnoutovic as a mercurial talent who is slowly harnessing their talent and abilities and stringing together regular consistent performances.
A major strength this season will be that the management team at the club has a full season behind them after having successfully exorcized the ghost of Tony Pulis, whilst respectfully evolving his legacy.
At this point in time Stoke retain the services of their stalwarts Begovic and Shawcross. And if both are still at the club post-August, efforts must be made to secure signatures on new contracts, particularly in the case of Asmir Begovic. He is a world-class player who is not recognized as such by the vast majority, though is greatly appreciated by Stoke fans who have already accepted the fact that it is inevitable that he will grace a much higher stage.
Defensively, there is real strength in depth and versatility. However a weakness is when Begovic, Shawcross or both are missing. This occurred last season and despite experienced players taking their place, all sense of leadership was lost and Stoke looked likely to ship goals incredibly easily. Mark Hughes needs to tackle this by identifying at least a couple of more vocal understudies to prepare for this situation.
Centrally, the situation is settled with Sidwell challenging the regular triumvirate of Whelan, Nzonzi and Adam or Ireland. Hughes liked to rotate Assaidi, Arnoutovic, Odemwingie and Walters on the wings last season, but a mystery foreign winger is mooted on the message boards, Yarmalenko maybe). It’s likely that Krkic may spend some time in a similar position, being allowed to roam inside and support a front man. Assaidi has long been rumored to sign but his alleged extortionate wage demands have caused this to drag on.
Up front, Crouch and Diouf will fight it out for a starting spot, Crouch’s qualities are still valued by manager and fans alike.
Stoke has everything to hit the ground running this season however Mark Hughes admits that his sides are set up to develop and improve over the season, reaching their peak from Christmas onwards. If this happens again it could unsettle the fans who are generally buoyant but feel uncomfortable when used to pessimism and perpetual status as an underdog.
Predicted finish: 9th, with at least one lengthy cup run.
It’s a brave new world at The Britannia Stadium with Hughes continuing to boldly go where no Stoke manager has gone before. Last season was a giant leap for all Stoke kind, and hopefully the new wave will live long and we’ll continue to prosper.
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