Premier League Preview: Stoke City
Lessons from last season
This season promises to be an exciting one for Stoke fans as their team look to pick up where they left the previous campaign; taking the opposition apart with quick and incisive play. The season as a whole was naturally one of transition, and with a clear remit to change the style, manager Mark Hughes was perhaps a little ambitious in the first few months of his tenure, as some players struggled with a less regimented and more expansive system. To his credit, though, he changed things around and managed to find a more appropriate balance, and with the signing of Peter Odemwingie and Marko Arnautovic coming into form, Stoke finished the season with a bang. This season Hughes should be able to turn the style up a notch as the players will be far more used to getting the ball down, and with the manager bringing in players better suited to his methodologies they will hopefully hit the ground running.
Predicted starting lineup
Five new signings have arrived in the shape of Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell, Dionatan Teixeira, Mame Biram Diouf and Bojan Krkic, bringing a good mix of players to walk into the first team or otherwise challenge for a place there. Competition for places is a welcome facet of Hughes' reign, it would seem, and given that he is more than happy to rotate and reward form, he should hopefully have little problem keeping the squad suitably motivated. This season should also see a more united fan base to get behind the manager and his team; unfortunately that wasn't always the case last season, but with a record-breaking finish in the league and season ticket sales going much the same way, Hughes and his side will hopefully be able to take advantage of the optimism in the stands as he seeks to better the efforts of the previous year.
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In signing the players he has, Hughes has ensured that there is genuine strength in depth, which wasn't always available last season. This in turn should encourage meaningful competition throughout the side which can only be of benefit on the pitch. The signing of Diouf in particular brings attributes to the side that make Hughes' chosen system tick in the final third, which will hopefully ensure more chances are created and therefore finished off. In that respect, the Senegalese is a player bang on form with a return of one goal for every two games during his time in the Bundesliga. Another big strength this season, and I say this literally as well as figuratively, is the return of man-mountain Robert Huth following his knee surgery. "The Berlin Wall" has come through preseason unscathed so far, and his presence will be a huge lift to the back line and his partner in crime, Ryan Shawcross.
Hughes has done well to fill some of the weak areas of the squad, so the weaknesses I would have identified last season are now far fewer, despite the fact that the side are still in preseason. In terms of those remaining gaps, there is really only one: the right-wing position. That needs to be sufficiently resolved, and talks are ongoing with a number of targets to remedy that as soon as possible. The only other weakness I can see is perhaps the risk of a high number of players coming into the side and the potential loss of some of the longer-standing members of the squad, but with the core of the side remaining and the kind of characters coming in, I'd suggest this should not be too much of a problem.
Manager - ESPN FC profile
There is no doubt that Mark Hughes has now been accepted by the overwhelming majority of the Stoke contingent after having proved an unpopular choice to replace Tony Pulis by some fans. His flexibility and humility meant that he was able to change things around last term when he was perhaps being a bit ambitious, and his ruthlessness in the transfer market has rightly shown there is no sentimentality at play, which is something I personally welcome. He continues to exude confidence, and in making some big-name signings, the biggest being Krkic, it is clear he is a well-respected figure in the footballing world and was a selection the club needed to make. He continues to surprise and excite with the names he chases, and as things stand, the fans couldn't be happier as they look forward to another season of exciting, attacking football.
I'm tempted to say Krkic will be the key player this season but I will plump instead for Diouf. The amount of times I wrote the words "pace and power" in my reports over the years mean that his arrival is the most welcome of all in terms of plugging the biggest of gaps. That movement in the final third is crucial and his ability in front of goal will likely prove the same for a side that spurned so many opportunities last season. The option of a man playing on the shoulder of the last defender should see those chances increase, and the prospect of marking him as opposed to the static Peter Crouch will see the side 20 yards further up the field, which in turn creates more space for the likes of Marko Arnautovic, Stephen Ireland and Krkic to exploit.
Predicted finish: 10th
Fans are still pinching themselves after a ninth-place finish last season. While on paper the introductions of Diouf and Krkic as well as the return of Huth suggest more of the same, many fans are cautious to suggest that matching -- let alone bettering -- that mark is anything like a formality. Never one to shy away from raising expectations, though, Hughes remains keen to do exactly that and crack the top eight of the league, which would be an almost unthinkable feat for a club the size of Stoke on such a modest budget. Some fans won't be happy unless he does so, while others will be glad just to finish 17th in the league. However, I would be more than happy with another top-10 finish with a strong showing in at least one of the cups while continuing to play exciting, attacking football.