Stoke finished their preseason tour of Germany with a narrow 2-1 defeat to Champions League perennials Schalke in a game that saw recent arrival from Barcelona Bojan Krkic score his first goal in the red and white of his new club.
Preseason is a strange time, a period during which the objectives of the management and players often differ from those of the fans. Mark Hughes and his team made no secret of the fact that the friendlies in the run-up to Tuesday's game have been all about fitness and getting valuable pitch time for the squad as a whole, rather focusing on how to overcome their opponents. This is something that is recognised by most fans but sadly still doesn't compute with others; the majority will see this particular tour as a successful one, and rightly so.
Bringing in a number of new signings so early has clearly benefitted both the existing squad members and debutants alike; all five of the new signings seemed to have integrated seamlessly into the group. It is also clear that the methodologies introduced last season look a lot more honed this time around; the visible fear seen this time last year is gone as the side look like they have never played anything other than a quick pass-and-move game.
So what else have Hughes and the fans learned from the tour?
A right-sided attacker is a priority
For two of the three friendlies, Stoke had to endure Ryan Shotton as right-winger -- something that immediately nullified any impetus down that side and allowed Hughes little indication of how his forward men could interchange on the right flank. His more focused selection on Tuesday against Schalke, however, would indicate that Shotton is fortunately not going to be part of the equation.
Mame Diouf remains an option there with his pace and power, while negotiations are ongoing with Oussama Assaidi -- potentially freeing up Marko Arnautovic to switch over there. But should the Moroccan's demands continue to hold that deal up then Hughes will have to move swiftly to find an alternative.
Transfer window roundup
- Premier League: Team-by-team ins and outs
- Transfer Centre: All the done deals
- Marcotti: Mind-boggling transfers
- Delaney: What did we learn on deadline day?
- Horncastle: European transfer grades
- Smith: Transfers more important than the game?
- Macintosh: We worship goals, not balance sheets
The fringe players remain on the fringe
While the whole squad were given time on the pitch in the first couple of friendlies, the team selected against Schalke very much put the writing on the wall for a number of those players hoping to stake a claim for a starting spot. In the case of Shotton, the sight of centre-back Marc Wilson ahead of him at right-back will have been disappointing, but to see left-back Erik Pieters moved over to the opposite flank to cover the Irishman's injury early on effectively ends any first-team aspirations Shotton might have.
Bojan looks to be a key player
Most will sensibly downplay the expectation and burden on the slight shoulders of Stoke's latest Catalonian import, but it would appear that he will be central to the shape of the side this season. That might be an incorrect assumption, but the moving of Stephen Ireland to a deeper role in the previous match to try the Spaniard in the hole behind Diouf and using him as a false nine against Schalke, pushing Diouf wide, suggests that Hughes will do what he can to make best use of his talents.
Stoke finally get their pacy, powerful striker
For too long fans have been crying out for agility and movement in the opposition half. Just when their tear ducts had all but dried up, Mame Diouf entered the fray and looks every inch the player they hoped for. Adding that extra dimension to the shape of last season gives the side a huge lift and much-needed options in the final third for a team who last term were left frustrated by a lack of movement when it came to the final ball.
The results in Germany tell only a small part of the story, and it is the many positives that Hughes will take back home and be concentrating on. The side that started against Schalke more than matched their illustrious opponents despite being weeks behind them in fitness terms and missing a couple of first-team players. In addition to that, the Potters still have a number of friendlies to start getting the first XI players more time on the pitch and working together in the coming weeks.
Stoke are exactly where they should be at this stage of the preseason; an exciting campaign awaits.