Can Stoke City be this season’s surprise Premier League package?
Much of the flattery from last season was reserved for Southampton and Swansea City, dubbed ‘surprise packages’ for their impressive respective seventh and eight placed Premier League finishes, but what about Stoke City, who ended the term just two points and one spot behind the latter?
Coach Mark Hughes, now preparing for his third campaign in charge of the Britannia Stadium reigns, certainly thinks the Potters could be the ones collecting plaudits in the upcoming season and has his eye on bettering their previous ninth position.
Speaking from pre-season training in Singapore, Hughes said: “We’ve got some headroom for ambition. What we do have that most clubs crave is continuity in terms of the playing group.”
While the Saints and Swans defied much lower expectations to even on occasion jostle the top four, Stoke (11/1 shouts with Coral for a top six finish) rolled in with a sturdy end to the term, and solid finishes are now something expected from the Midlands men. To garner the same praise as his coaching peers, Hughes has to bring the Potters something special.
“We all sense we are on the cusp of a really successful period for Stoke. We want to drive that forward. With a good start we can push for Europe. That’s our intention and our aim for the future,” added the 51-year-old Welshman.
Could the Britannia team really challenge for Europa League football? Southampton (11/4 for a top six finish) have successfully, but do not suffer the same problems in luring talent to the south coast, and have both an excellent scouting system and lauded youth production line.
Hughes is working on refreshing the Potters’ own academy as evidenced by the capture of Spanish starlet Moha. However, while the former Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Manchester United attacker has proven to be a draw for continental players to make Stoke more fashionable, they are still missing out on the cream of the crop.
Stopper Shay Given, centre half Philipp Wollscheid, right back Bosman signing Glen Johnson, Spanish sharpshooter Joselu and loan signing Marco van Ginkel have all been excellent acquisitions, but the midtable club could reportedly miss out on potential marquee transfer Xherdan Shaqiri, and also a permanent deal for Victor Moses.
Losing number one Asmir Begovic to Chelsea was also a blow, although expected, but if the Bosnia and Herzegovina international would prefer to take his chances on the Blues’ bench, there is little Hughes can do.
— Stoke City FC (@stokecity) July 13, 2015
The Potters clearly have their ambitions, but still do have work to do in transforming their side from a project to a truly appealing destination. Yet the signs all point to that happening sooner rather than later. As shown by their intent this summer, the investment is there, and in an increasingly competitive league they have just as good a chance as any.
Hughes has his Midlands men scoring and creating for fun, while also posing big-guns like Chelsea and Liverpool problems with their characteristic on-pitch resilience. Even former Blackpool and Liverpool playmaker Charlie Adam, as well as inconsistent wingman Marko Arnautovic are excelling under guidance, while the coach has laudably managed to bring the best out of Barca buy Bojan Krkic.
Despite this, Hughes still faces questions about the Potters’ direct style of play, for which they became infamous under ex-boss Tony Pulis, a tag that has proven difficult to shake.
“We get this question quite often and it’s usually from people who haven’t seen much of us over the last couple of years. If you’d seen our football you would see we’re a competitive team who play the game in the right way,” the tactician recently reiterated.
New signing Johnson also spoke of a new style under Hughes, stating: “Everyone knows Stoke used to have a reputation for long balls, long throw-ins but since Mark came in and even before they were evolving and becoming a real footballing team. Hopefully I can help that continue.”
With a strong spine of no-nonsense defenders, reliable forwards, plus the mix of Given’s experience and Jack Butland’s promise between the posts, the Potters may only need a little more tinkering to challenge for cups and continental adventures.