Stoke City: 9th
FA Cup: Round Four
Capital One Cup: Semi-finals
Since appointing Mark Hughes as their manager in the summer of 2013, Stoke cannot be faulted for their consistency, as they have finished in ninth place for three successive years with a similar number of points. The only concern about this is the lack of further progress, which has not arrived despite pulling off a number of high-profile signings and putting together a squad with excellent strength in depth.
Finishing three points worse off than in 2014-15, this season was a slight step back for a side that frustrated supporters and neutrals alike with its level of inconsistency, playing neat and attractive football without always coming up with the necessary degree of penetration. There was a killer instinct lacking at times, although the greatest deficiency was the lack of a quality striker as Mame Biram Diouf and Joselu both found the going tough, while Peter Crouch was used more sparingly.
So again it fell to the reliable Jonathan Walters to lead the line and there was no shortage of creativity, as Marko Arnautovic stepped to a new level – to the extent that he was the club’s player of the season and top scorer – and Xherdan Shaqiri arrived from Inter in what was one of the summer’s most eyecatching summer deals.
That was Stoke’s record transfer at the time, although it did not long for them to beat it as powerful midfielder Giannelli Imbula was signed from FC Porto in January, possibly as a long-term replacement for the departed Steven N’Zonzi, who had been badly missed up until then. It shows real ambition on behalf of the club, but the signs are that they may have to wait in order for such promising transfer activity to gain reward.
Among the changes from the previous campaign was Jack Butland taking over as the first-choice goalkeeper, and he turned out to be a revelation as he single-handedly won the team points on a number of occasions. Injured while on international duty in March, his absence was felt over the final weeks as replacement Jakob Haugaard looked a long way below the standards required of a Premier League stopper.
Aside from that lack of a predatory striker, the biggest problem to affect Stoke throughout the season was a horrific injury list which never seemed to grow shorter. Captain Ryan Shawcross missed nearly half of the team’s league fixtures while long-term absences were also forced on Glen Johnson, Ibrahim Afellay and Bojan Krkic, not to mention the fact the Shaqiri was often struggling to reach full fitness.
Once the team had got over their shaky start of no wins in their first six games it was a case for the Potters of battling in their usual area of the table, mainly occupying a place just inside the top half and occasionally threatening to put together a run sufficient to challenge for a European place. Three straight wins against Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Swansea City had them up and running, although the goals would remain at a premium.
Ailing defending champions Chelsea were beaten at the Britannia Stadium in early November just a week after the same opponents were overcome on penalties in the fourth round of the Capital One Cup, and they managed to reach the last four of the competition by comfortably seeing off Championship club Sheffield Wednesday.
That success came ahead of Stoke’s most jaw-dropping performance of the season, if not since being promoted to the Premier League in 2008. Fielding a starting XI which did not comprise of an out-and-out centre forward, title hopefuls Manchester City were totally destroyed as the front three of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri produced a masterclass of intricate attacking football with the Austrian netting both.
Unfortunately it was a display that they could not replicate often enough as the festive period only served to emphasise their inconsistency. Late defeats against Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion came either side of a comprehensive win over Manchester United and a dramatic success in a topsy-turvy encounter at Everton, before it was a similar story in the Capital One Cup semi-final with Liverpool.
Outplayed in the first leg and arguably fortunate to be just the one goal behind, Stoke were much better at Anfield and managed to take it to penalties, only to lose in cruel circumstances. It was a setback that took some time to recover from as three straight defeats were suffered as seven goals were conceded without reply, before they responded with a run of three consecutive victories from the end of February.
A win over Watford on March 19 lifted them up to seventh and in with a chance of Europe, but those hopes were soon scuppered by a dismal sequence of just two points from six subsequent outings, coinciding with several more injury problems. Goals flew past them in a manner that is not normally associated with Stoke, but they did at least win on the final day against West Ham United in order to leapfrog Chelsea.
Looking back there are plenty of reasons to be pleased and frustrated in equal measure about how the season panned out for Stoke, but that is a measure of how far they have come in recent times. Add a striker to their ranks and maybe another defender to partner Shawcross, and they will advance further up the Premier League standings in due course.
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